Friday, May 30, 2008
Facial features that are considered "baby-like" are constant throughout cultures and even species. Baby-like faces are associated with "naiveté, helplessness, honesty and innocence", whereas mature features are considered authoritative and intelligent (1). These features are not just limited to character design. They can also be applied abstractly to make an object seem friendly and simple. For example, a computer or a television with a large screen (mimicking large, bright eyes) appears to be more "open" than one with a small screen. The front of the Volkswagen Beetle, with its large round headlights and smoothly arched front windshield, closely resembles an infant's face.
For more on the cute characteristics of the Volkswagen Beetle, check out this chart.
1. Jill Butler, Kritina Holden and William Lidwell. Universal Principles of Design. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Rockport Publishers, 2003.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
I’m a big yard sale and flea market junkie. My apartment is filled with vintage knick-knacks I find odd or charming or -yes- cute. But looking at these objects again while conducting my research into cute design, I wonder if they can truly be classified as “cute”.
I think cute is often mixed up with “quaint” -those gold-painted plastic picture frames in your grandmother’s house, an olive green refrigerator, a retro can holder shaped like a Tootsie Roll- with “quaint” signifying charmingly old-fashioned or out-of-date.
Both cute and quaint exist within the context of weakness. Cute is helpless little puppies and babies who need to be cared for lest their perish in this cruel world. Quaint shows the weakness a design holds when it is no longer able to stand in the decades after its creation. An olive green refrigerator is quaint and charming precisely because it looks out-dated, and it’s amusing to think that such an item was once the cream of the crop (particularly in today’s world of spaceship-like stainless steel iceboxes).
But true cuteness relies on being fresh and new: just-born kittens and infants, whose cuteness will only fade as they grow older and mature. Cuteness seems to rely on naiveté a lack of life experience, while still being biological ingrained for survival. Kittens are cared for because they are cute, and then grow up into mature, independent cats. Olive green refrigerators are unable to stand up to decades of changing design sensibilities and become “quaint”, out-dated but still strangely lovable.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Today I checked out the new Apple store that opened in downtown Boston. It’s a huge, glass-fronted facility, open and airy and covered with more stainless steel than a trendy restaurant kitchen. A clear glass staircase spirals up two stories through the center of the store, seeming to float in the air. It’s possibly to match the look and feel of Apple newest product, the Macbook Air.
I walked around the store for a little while, before noticing: Where is Apple’s cuteness?
Looking at Apple’s recently released products -the Macbook Air, the iPhone, the Apple TV- they are stripped of the bright colors and groovy shapes that made the iMac so popular and revolutionary. Indeed, the only bit of color really in the whole store was the row of cracker-sized iPod Nanos, amidst a sea of steel, white plastic and unfinished plywood.
What’s going on with this? What is changing in Apple’s market position to cause them to all but drop the bright colors and happy Rolling Stones music? I can see a few reasons for this:
1. Computers are a lot more common place now than they were even ten years ago. It’s not longer a question of owning a computer, but having the latest model, and consumers are becoming more knowledgeable of different brands and specs. Computers are no longer big technological monoliths, so it’s not necessary to make them look like pieces of candy so they won’t scare off hapless consumers.
2. I think it’s also an effort to make their products seem “serious”. Some criticism of the iMac G3 was that is was “baby-ish” and too “simple”- which could appeal to designers, but not so much to professionals and computer people. With Apple products constantly pushing the bar of what is technologically possible, it’s important to have their designs be open to consumers. And sometimes that means going to route of somewhat boring -but still clean and slick- white plastic and steel.
3. The monotone designs help the products look less disposable. With people changing computers every two years now, the cleaner designs of Apple make the products appear sturdier- physically and hardware-wise. It also places the computers in the realm of “tools”, rather than novelties (which was one of the selling points of the G3). Apple now seems to use color only on its iPod series, which makes sense: the iPod is small and portable, mostly used for entertainment.
This isn’t only an issue of color, of course. Apple still retains rounded shapes for a lot of its products, but it is constrained. This seems to be mostly for portability issues. A flat iPod or Macbook will be much easier to carry in a pocket or bag if it is relatively thin and flat, not rounded. And the rounded corners help prevent pokes and bruises caused by sharp edges.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
...to discuss kitten anime! Yes, two of my favorite things in the world -kittens and anime- finally come together in one of this season's newest anime series, Chi's Sweet Home. Based on the wonderful manga by Konami Kanata, it chronicles the cute, day-to-day adventures of a kitten exploring his new home and the surrounding world.
I heartily recommend it for anyone who likes cats or anime, or both. It's not licensed for release in the US, but you can check out the anime on Youtube, or Bittorrent [here].
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Green is in. Global warming grabs news headlines; auto makers are seeking to design efficient hybrid cars; organic food markets are enjoying a boost in popularity. Everyone is looking to “green up” their image.
And green is cute: bright colors and friendly, nature-inspired shapes, conveying a message of happiness and hope in sustainability. The biotech giant Monsanto changed its logo from a stern block “M”, to a spry little vine, growing upwards.
One corporation that has made a dramatic environmentally-concious change to its public image is BP (originally called British Petroleum). Up until 2000, their logo was a shield, reminiscent of old, hard industrial gas and oil companies. With the greening trend, BP sought to re-brand itself as a contemporary, progressive energy company.
What resulted is the “helios” logo, a radiating geometric flower done in hopeful greens and yellows. The new logo is expressive and memorable, symbolizing hope and dynamism, the message BP wishes to convey in this new environmentally-conscious age. Their tagline reads “Beyond Petroleum”, playing off of the initials in the corporation’s name.
BP’s new series of [television commercials] also convey this. A commercial of theirs from the 1980s used a lot of industrial imagery, such as big, heavy cars, airplanes and spaceships. The new commercials feature a colorful, fun animated world, pop music playing in the background telling us “to make the day a little better”. Several babies in a car, singing along to the music. They pass several dangerous-looking, run-down traditional gas stations, before pulling into a clean, white BP station, a shining beacon on the horizon. Anthropomorphized gas pumps fill up their car while whistling to the music. The style of the commercial is cute and cartoon-y, making the energy corporation appear friendly and approachable.
This cute approach to environmentally-conscious design is used with other consumer goods. This is perhaps done to get people to “warm up” to the idea of purchasing an environmentally sound product, to make it appear non-threatening and easy to understand.
Hybrid vehicles use cuteness in this way. While most auto makers try to have their hybrid cars look similar to their standard cars, there are some subtle differences that work to make the hybrid car appear “cuter”, but not “weak” or “wimpy”.
In 2004, Ford released its first hybrid sports utility vehicle, the Escape. While it looks remarkably similar to Ford’s other line of SUVs, it is differentiated in some ways to make it appear friendlier. The Escape was the first American-produced hybrid vehicle, so its design was most likely made to be less alienating to Ford’s existing customer base. The front bumper of the Escape was rounded and smoothed, giving up the “indestructible barrier” look that their other SUVs have. The body of the car also shortened slightly, making the wheels look bigger, giving it a “stout” appearance.
The Toyota Prius, however, flaunts it eco-consciousness. Released in 2003, it is the best-selling hybrid car today. Sleek and pod-shaped, it stands out from anything else on the road. It’s unique design is one of its main selling points. But to some, it’s smug and showy. The next incarnation of the Pruis looks to go further with the distinct, futuristic design of the 2003 Prius5. That car is shortened and the back rounded out. Windows stretch over the roof of the car, giving it the appearance of a futuristic spaceship.
Also, thank you to [Heroine Sheik] for featuring me on their blog!