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What your hands make you remember - A study on the influence of touch and textures

29 Jul 2020 — Visual Communications, News, Creative Power
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You may not realise it, but your brain has spent your entire life cataloguing the feel, weight and shape of everything you've touched. This is called haptic memory, and that's why your muscles know the exact force they need to use to grab a bottle of water as soon as you see it. What's also fascinating about haptic memory is that all this knowledge is stored in your brain, intertwined with other sensory or emotional memories, whether you are aware of it or not.

You may not realise it, but your brain has spent your entire life cataloguing the feel, weight and shape of everything you've touched. This is called haptic memory, and that's why your muscles know the exact force they need to use to grab a bottle of water as soon as you see it. What's also fascinating about haptic memory is that all this knowledge is stored in your brain, intertwined with other sensory or emotional memories, whether you are aware of it or not.

In his article on the experience of manipulating and reading books, Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, mentions "the superiority of multisensory over single-sensory encoding of memory". Simply put, we retain information better when several of our senses are involved in an experience. He goes on to share research showing that we tend to retain the message of a book we have read better than the message of a digital publication because all of our senses are engaged in the process. 

If we remember a message better when it is printed on paper, and if our sensory memories interact, it makes sense to believe that a pleasant texture will leave a pleasant impression on the memory of what we read. It seems fundamental to think about the texture and feel of the paper we have chosen for printing. As linguist Naomi Baron explains, “Smell and sight are relevant senses when it comes to reading but touch may well be the most important”.

To each texture a given reaction

Research has been conducted on the effect on people of some of the main characteristics of the sensory experience of touching paper: its weight, its softness (or lack thereof), its texture... Here is a brief summary of the results so far:

 

  • When studying the perception of quality, research has shown that “Weight in the hand, as when we hold something heavy, is typically taken to denote quality and expense” (Charles Spence). For example, studies have shown that when presented a “heavy” menu, clients tended to consider the food as higher standard than with a “light” menu1.

 

  • Several studies have shown that textures considered subjectively softer were preferred to those considered rougher 2.

 

  • Similarly, textures that have a high level of friction (think about cling film) are more likely to be disliked 3.

 

  • Ads printed on premium paper positively impacts perception of uniqueness and exclusiveness of an ad 4.

 

  • Textures that can provide a "natural" feel by copying textures found in nature provide additional positive feedback 5.

 

When what we touch changes how we think

This idea of "naturalness" is in fact linked to the concept of “Sensation transference”, as explained by Pr. Spence: “‘Sensation transference’ refers to the observable effect of having the consumers’ (conscious or otherwise) expectations or feelings about the (…) receptacle being transferred to their ratings of the (product) itself.”

In the case of printed communication, the idea is that the texture of the paper will influence our idea of the message it delivers. It can also define the perception of a brand or product. Returning to the case of the natural, a matte and irregular paper can give the idea of a natural product, which in turn will give the idea of a natural brand (think of wine, food or cosmetics labels). On the other hand, a smooth, glossy surface can evoke the feel of man-made products and be more suited to advanced technology.

But the time has come to consider another interesting factor. This is the idea of congruence vs. incongruence. The idea is that you don't necessarily have to stick to your brand language. According to one study, if you are a brand perceived as innovative, you may even benefit from sending contradictory signals (although this does not apply to companies perceived as traditional). The Fat Duck, one of the most innovative restaurants in the UK in the 2000s, was one of the first to use paper with a skin feel to make its envelopes. When you see a normal-looking paper, your haptic memory can already guess the feel of that envelope, imagine its surprise when it isn't, and instead of a paper feel, you get the feel of skin.

While a choice of congruent texture can be a way to reinforce your message, incongruity can be the key to making your message memorable.

Research on the effect of textures has just begun, in relation to the effects of colour, or sense of smell, etc. But with these few elements, we can already start experimenting. Think of the Aviary's Cocktail Book, which used different types of paper to mark a difference between its chapters. An idea that Prof. Spence developed with us: "In a book, you can find different types of paper to mark the different sections that make it up. It can be different papers that you see, or different papers that you feel," adding layers of sensoriality to your message and making it truly memorable.

As neuroscience and behavioural science are progressing on the field of multisensoriality, innovative companies and startups rediscover the power of touch and textures with a new insight. Now is the time to experiment in new creative ways, for tomorrow will certainly be a sensorial world.

 

1 Shitsukan — the Multisensory Perception of Quality, Charles Spence

2 Textures that we like to touch: An experimental study of aesthetic preferences for tactile stimuli, Etsi, Gallace, Spence

3 Textures that we like to touch: An experimental study of aesthetic preferences for tactile stimuli, Etsi, Gallace, Spence

4 Haptic Sensation and Consumer Behaviour: The Influence of Tactile, Racat, Capelli

5 Shitsukan — the Multisensory Perception of Quality, Charles Spence