Archive for September, 2009

Share and share alike…

25 September 2009

You may have noticed that this week I added sharing links for some of the most popular social networking and bookmarking services. I love the convenience of these on other sites, and I finally figured out how to add them here while still trying to keep the look as clean and uncluttered as possible.

I based my choice of links on the services on the ones I’ve used before and that others have told me they use. If there are others you’d like me to add, let me know and I’ll add the most popular choices.

Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing.

xx Ingrid

Crayon stones

24 September 2009

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I thought I’d posted these before, but it seems not. I love this simple, irresistible rethinking of the crayon. Available at Romp.

Plaaaaaaaay

24 September 2009

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My dad says that when I was a kid and I wanted him to play with me I used to say “Plaaaaaaaaaaaaay!” in this little voice, all drawn out long and laden with a kind of affable insistence. It was code for, “Doesn’t this look like a lot more fun than that big stack of dictation over there?”

When I see these Charley Harper memory cards, that inner child pipes up again with her invitation, except this time it’s aimed at me. It’s really hard to focus on work when someone makes games this beautiful.

Available here, and very reasonably. A nice gift for the children (and inner children) in your world.

Magic blocks

24 September 2009

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I’ll be back tomorrow with more thoughts on the aesthetics of play. In the meantime, today I’m posting a few of the toys my inner child is currently coveting.

Hidden magnets make these blocks a magical remix of the old wooden ones, allowing creations that wouldn’t have even been fathomable before.

Huesito blocks from Tegu. Get them here.

Wednesday joyful art: Kimberly Hennessey

23 September 2009

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It’s Wednesday, so that must mean it’s time for some joyful art to get us over the hump, and make us forget all about the apocalypse down under.

Kimberly Hennessey makes sweet, crazy installations out of things like party hats and insulation foam. She also does gorgeous drawings that look like the sketch-filled notebook cover of the coolest, artsiest kid in school.

See more of her work here.

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Evian + Paul Smith

23 September 2009

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A new collaboration between Evian and Paul Smith has produced this energetic bottle design. @PSFK says “Another designer water bottle. Yawn.”

I tend to agree that the world has enough fancy h2o packaging, but I happen to love Paul Smith and his vibrant aesthetic. It seems to stem from a genuine curiosity about the world and a playful (there’s the word of the week!) spirit. From what I’ve read by him and about his design process, I’ve found him to be a very inspiring, yet humble guy.

What do you think… is it joy? or yawn?

Eerie aesthetics of a red sky

22 September 2009

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A brief departure from the aesthetics of joy to consider a very different kind of aesthetic…. I’ve never seen anything like these Sydney dust storms and I must say they freak me out. A world gone red is an eerie aesthetic, like something out of a sci-fi film. Out of curiosity I’d love to be there to witness it, but at the same time I think I’d find it really unsettling.

I write a lot here about the pleasure of oddity, when something defies our expectations of what it should be like. In this case, the sky is defying our color expectations, being red instead of blue, but it’s frightening, not joyous. A rainbow changes the color of the sky too, but our reaction is the opposite. I think magnitude must be an issue here. A red sky surrounds us ominously, its origins vague, its duration uncertain. A rainbow is distant, comparatively small, and fleeting. Color is one of the most powerful and immediate aesthetic signals, but its meaning is inscribed in scale and context.

Photos: Flickrblog

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Aesthetics of play: roundness

22 September 2009

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In human cultures, we value aesthetics for their own sake — for the pleasure to be derived from creating new aesthetic combinations and from experiencing those of others. But from the perspective of an organism, aesthetics are just a signal, a means to an end. Color, texture, form — these things are not important in themselves, but in that they indicate a happening that might be relevant for our survival. A flash of yellow on a rainy day is an aesthetic signal of an approaching taxi that may provide shelter and transportation. A yeasty aroma on a side street is a signal of freshly baked bread that might provide relief from hunger. A shiny reflection on a matte concrete bench is a signal of wetness — it could be a spilled drink, or worse, but in any case it’s an indication of a spot that might not be so nice to sit on. Yellow, yeast, and wetness have no intrinsic value to us, except for what they tell us to approach and to avoid.

I mention this because too often we think about aesthetics as static attributes, when actually they are evidence of a world constantly in motion. And play at its very root is about motion: the physicality of interaction, the gestures of discovery, the spin/slide/run/jump/pull/push of a body testing the limits of its freedom. This is why I wrote in yesterday’s post on free play that the aesthetics of play can’t be simplified down to a color palette and some out-of-scale, toy-like properties. The aesthetics of play are signals of something much deeper. They are sensory manifestations of the very essence of what it means to play.

So what are the aesthetics of play and how do they relate to this essence? I’m going to unpack this idea over several posts, starting with today and the idea of roundness.

Many of the most essential playful objects are circular or spherical: balls, hula hoops, spinning tops, marbles, balloons. This is no accident. Play starts with childhood and the child’s need to explore the world around her and understand the capabilities of her own body. Play at its root is about testing basic principles like gravity, momentum, and cause and effect. To do this, a child needs to interact with objects, and interaction requires contact. Contact has the potential for playful reward, but it also has the potential for danger, and so we gravitate towards non-threatening objects, ones without the sharp corners or rough edges that might hurt us.

Roundness is a primary signal that an object is safe, and therefore a key element of the aesthetics of play. Within this broader idea, there are shades of gray. The perfectly neutral curves of spheres and circles are safest. They’re also the most predictable in the way they behave, allowing us to anticipate and react to their movements. (Contrast the bouncing of a perfectly round ball with a misshapen one, and you’ll see what I mean.) Other gentle curves have a similarly playful feel, one that gets lost when the curves get too slick and fast. Many toys exhibit this principle. Toy cars designed for very young children are often bubbly and round, while older children crave more realistic, sleeker versions.

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Roundness also applies to the motion of play. In other words, we don’t just play with round things, but we make ourselves round when we play. In a 2008  NYT article called “Taking Play Seriously,” the head of the National Institute for Play, Stuart Brown, said, “Play movement is curvilinear. If that boy was reaching for something in a nonplay situation, his body would be all straight lines. But using the body language of play, he curves and embraces.” The curvilinear movement is an instinctual behavior that serves to let others know that our behavior is non-threatening. But rounded movements and gestures also feel pleasurable and safe to ourselves. Perhaps this is why so many large-scale playthings move in rounded ways: the merry-go-round, the ferris wheel, and the swingset, for example.

Roundness itself does not constitute playfulness. But roundness is an aesthetic of play when it represents an invitation to interaction. I’ll talk more about the quality of that interaction in my next post, and its implications for other aesthetics of play.

Images: Toys: balloons by anniebee, marbles by van Ort, paper balls available at Romp, hula hoop by morgen. Cars, top by Strawberry Kids, bottom by Automoblox.

Joy is free play.

21 September 2009

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I had a great weekend. My family was in town on Friday and Saturday and I had a blissfully work-free couple of days with them. On Saturday, my 10 year-old brother Rob and I took a walk and found this high school track, complete with long-jump run and sand pit. Rob has lately been getting into track and field, and knows all about Usain Bolt and other speedy individuals and the records they’re making and breaking. He’s also super-speedy himself, and a very athletic kid in general. I suggested he take a few jumps and I photograph them, trying to see if I could time the shutter just right so I could get him in midair.

But after 2 or 3 jumps I couldn’t help myself, and I had to play too. In 5 seconds my shoes were off and I sprinted barefoot down the rubber runway, launching full-tilt into the air in some sort of modified jeté. It was a feeling of complete freedom, like the way it feels to fly in a dream. The moment my feet touched the ground, I wanted to do it again. We took turns jumping and photographing each other, and honestly I could have played there all day.

As a kid, this sort of spontaneous physical play was natural, and I find myself missing it as an adult. How often I would like to kick off the high heels and play an impromptu game of tag or race a friend to the nearest streetlight, or walk a railing like a balance beam. Free physical play, play that has no purpose and no immediate end, is powerful in its ability to destress and enable creativity, and provide a conduit to the kind of joy this blog celebrates.

There’s a lot to be learned from formal definitions of play. Stuart Brown, the head of the National Institute for Play, describes play as follows. It’s apparently purposeless activity, meaning it’s one of the few things we do for its own sake, not as a means to some end. It’s voluntary, and we have an inherent attraction to it (as do many animals). It provides a freedom from time and a diminished consciousness of self, which means that play creates a perspective shift where we forget about how we look and our to-do lists and become totally present in the moment. Play also provides improvisational potential, meaning its not overly prescribed, an extremely important but often overlooked criterion. And play creates a continuation desire; in other words, we’d like play to go on as long as possible, and once it’s over, we’d like to repeat it soon after.

To the letter, this was my experience at the track this weekend. Though there are 19 years between us, Rob and I had the same inherent attraction to the play experience. We both felt lost in the moment, and had no consciousness of time passing. While in air I didn’t care whether my hair was out of place or how good a jumper I was. (In fact, Rob is a much better jumper than I am, but I’ve redacted the photos until he’s at least old enough to have a Facebook page!) The activity was incredibly simple, yet was open-ended enough to provide endless potential for improvisation: jumping in different ways, launching at different points in the track, spinning or performing other silly stunts in midair. And the continuation desire was evident in the fact that Rob and I both had to do “just one more” jump a few times before we could tear ourselves away.

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“Play” has been a popular buzzword lately, and yet it often seems to be used without a real understanding of the ideas described above. Designs are described as playful if they exhibit childlike qualities, but just being brightly colored and out-of-scale doesn’t necessarily make something playful. Play is about attitude, behavior, and affordances, something that manifests in aesthetics, but stems from something inherently deeper than that.

I’ll be exploring play’s role in aesthetics of joy on the blog this week, and showing some examples of how the spirit of play manifests itself in the design of objects and experiences. Do you have stories or thoughts on play and joy in your own life? If so, write them in the comments — I’d love to hear them.

Aesthetic of joy: quiet + serene

18 September 2009

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Stephanie and Mav of 3191 have this serenely joyful aesthetic that always leaves me inspired. I think it’s because their  lenses reveal the intense pleasure in simple things, with a focus on contrasts and textures. Their photos become like abstract compositions, with ordinary elements balanced like a squares in a Mondrian painting or steel plates in Calder mobile.

It’s a great example of a different kind of aesthetic of joy. Not the high-energy, celebratory kind I often embrace here on the blog, but a quieter version. There is a sense of domestic peace in their images, but the emotion I get is not sedate contentment, it’s a slow rising tide of delight, a buoyant energy simmering just below the surface, like a pot of water just before the crescendo to boil.

I loved this back to school post by Mav. I had exactly the same sentiments when I was going back to school. School supplies were the balm that soothed the nerves and stoked the anticipation. They’re just so beautiful too.

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