What Are “Design Sensitivities”?

I’ve written a few entries in this column with references to “design sensitivities”. What are they?

Design sensitivities are most often reflected in our personal choices. For example, in looking at the interior of your friend’s home, you can pick up their preferences for furniture choices, colors of paint, patterns on accessories, and textures. Anything you see in that home is a preference. Anything you don’t see might be be an example of an aversion to that owner’s design sensitivities.

Some people aren’t aware they have design sensitivities until they see someone else’s preferences. Everyone is different. They know they have likes and dislikes when it comes to shopping for themselves. But what they may not know is the cause of those preferences.

Most all preferences are the result of associative experiences—especially those with people you’ve known. If an acquaintance of yours, whom you dislike, wears shirts with wide horizontal stripes, that can work into your subconscious and you later find you have an aversion to that pattern in clothing. Also, if you yourself prefer to wear plaid shirts and you overhear a comment from someone that plaid shirts make you look like a second-class person, the comment may very well affect your future purchase of plaid shirts.

It’s the same with colors, shapes, and textures. This can apply to a home’s decor, a car’s interior, a painting, or even a design on placemats. A color you see can recall an item from your past, or a shape can bring to mind something you saw years ago that might’ve looked wrong for any number of reasons.

The thing is, the longer we live and the more associative experiences we have, the more we develop our design sensitivities, our preferences. For a designer, one who puts designs together from scratch, those sensitivities come to the surface immediately.

Because all those associative experiences are always just under the surface for a designer, he/she makes choices on the fly based on those visual cues, something to avoid or something to definitely use. Like an actor who can produce a certain emotion by thinking about a personal event, a designer can evoke allusions to any visual experience.

This came to mind recently while I was watching a movie one night—La La Land. Damien Chazelle, the director (and perhaps also David Wasco, the production designer, and even Austin Gorg, the art director), had a vision for the movie that keyed into a visual presentation using a color palette of primary hues. Against gradients of blue to sunset pink skies, we see clothing and lighting colors like yellows, blues, reds and greens, making for a kaleidoscope of moving poster-esque imagery that became a true visual delight to witness. This was art as much as it was a musical, maybe more so. The above images were just two of the countless colorful scenes that, to me, were like ice cream.

What I did notice in examining that visual treat was something about that color palette: the greens in the clothing were all of the lime green variety, close to maybe a Pantone 382 (if you don’t know what that is, Google it). This told me that a more obvious raw green (say a Pantone 354) was definitely a color not only outside the palette of tones chosen by the director, but that it was not in line with his design sensitivities.

If you recall, I once noted in this column that design—movies and TV included—is intentional. Anything that is not in line with one’s design sensitivities ends up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

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My next column will appear on January 5. I’m taking the holiday week off, so Happy Holidays! until then…

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One thought on “What Are “Design Sensitivities”?

  1. Dan, this is an interesting column.

    Made me go back and think about my likes/dislikes. E.g., never liked turtleneck sweaters. Even when they were cool back in the 60s/70s. Or black shirts.

    Don’t know why. Maybe my therapist knows (kidding).

    Guessing design sensitivities are explored in psychographics and help drive marketing campaigns on everything from cars to candy bars.

    Your comment about the palette in “La La Land” was insightful. Reminded me of a client who belonged to the “Color Commission.” Not the real name, but a real organization of design professionals who gather annually and decide what THE color for the coming year will be. Anything from a bold primary to a subdued earth tone. An extraordinary, if underappreciated, position of influence in our economy.

    Good column. Look forward to the next.

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