Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pandamania: Hard-Wired

Meaghan Wolff wrote an article for The Washington Post on the biological reasons behind our reaction to cuteness. She cites Psychology professor Stephan Hamann's various studies on the brain's reaction to pleasant stimuli.

"[Hamann] has conducted a number of studies on brain responses to pleasant stimuli, including pictures of cute baby seals and puppies. He uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which is sensitive enough to measure tiny changes in brain activity.

Hamann's studies found that "cute" pictures cause increased activity in the middle area of the orbital frontal cortex, located behind the bridge of the nose, and in the amygdala, the emotion-control center of the brain responsible for fear and arousal.

According to Hamann, increased activity in the middle orbital cortex is usually associated with pleasure and positive emotion. Some evidence suggests the brain activity there is greater when the stimulus is "neotenous," which is to say it has juvenile characteristics -- a button nose, big eyes, a large wobbly head, chubby extremities or pudgy cheeks."

"Men and women showed nearly identical responses to cute stimuli, even if for social reasons they rate it differently."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Cute Show

An episode of "The Cute Show," this one featuring hedgehogs. Favorite part: the hedgehog slo-mo, hands down. It's like hedgehog karate. Hilarious!


Everything's Bigger in Texas

Today marks a proud day in history, as Carnival Cruise Lines broke the world record for "World's Largest Beach Ball" today in downtown Dallas, Texas. The ball neasures 3 stories tall. Awesome? Yes. Cute? Definitely!

Just look at this video taken at the dropping of the beach ball:

I laughed out loud when all the people put their hands up in anticipation to hit the ball. It reminds me of that part in Toy Story where all the aliens are in the claw machine and they look up at the claw and go, "Ooooooo."

This event calls out to our inner children, I believe. Adults have forsaken work time for play time, if only for a few minutes, and I think part of the cute connection relies on the playfulness that this depicts.

Cute Cues:
  • Roundness
  • Unsteadiness (Slowness)
  • Smallness in comparison to other objects (People are dwarfed)

Monday, October 27, 2008

When Cute Design Goes Ugly

Courtesy of Fail Blog.

Hello Kitty

Cute Cues:
  • Small nose
  • Eyes and nose set on lower half of head
  • Large ears
  • Large, rounded head
  • Simple geometry

Other points of interest:
  • Innocence portrayed by bow tie
  • Lack of mouth/voice

Opinions to be developed further. Quotes to be gathered.

Kawaii: The Culture of Cute

Excerpts from Natalie Avella's Graphic Japan: From Woodblock and Zen to Manga and Kawaii.

A Brief History of Kawaii

"Kawaii, meaning 'cute,' must be one of the most loved and most widely used words in Japan. Kawaii essentially means 'childlike,' and, according to academic Sharon Kinsella, who has studied the phenomenon, it celebrates all that is: 'sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced in social behavior and physical appearance.' ...The word kawaii is derived from kawajushi, a word that first appeared in dictionaries prior to 1945. It had principal meanings of 'shy' or 'embarrassed,' but possessed secondary meanings such as 'pathetic,' 'vulnerable,' 'darling,' 'loveable,' and 'small.'" (211-213)

"Kawaii first appeared in the 1970s, at the same time as the emergence of a new craze among teenagers, especially girls, for cute, babyish handwriting, ...[which was a rebellion] against traditional Japanese culture and identifying with European culture. ...As the handwriting craze developed, so did a fashion among young adults for childish behavior, baby-talk, and wearing childish clothes. ...Dressing up continues to be practiced by Japanese youth." (213)

"A love of cute characters appears to transcend both age and gender." (211)

"Cute is not just eye candy on the surfaces of consumer products; kawaii characters also function as a polite way of conferring guidance and information to the public. ...In a country where people are brought up on a diet of manga and anime, cartoons are a common language." (212)

"Creating quasi-relationships with cute, inanimate objects is a relief from, or compensation for, the alienation that many people feel." (214)

"For corporate business, kawaii helps to give a friendly face to an otherwise impersonal corporate identity, giving people a way to build a personal relationship with a particular brand." (212)

"Japanese tend to enjoy funny topics for daily conversation, such as 'what kind of dumb things they've done,' or descriptions of their own mistakes. This is an attempt to disarm the listener, and to develop more intimate relationships. Similarly, funny mascots tell you that the owner is friendly and unpretentious." (212)

"In Japan, group harmony is valued above individual expression." (214)

Other Sources for Studies on Kawaii

"Modern consumers might not be able to meet and develop relationships enough with people, but the implication of cute goods design was that they could always attempt to develop them with cute objects." Source: Kinsella, Sharon. "Cuties in Japan." Women, Media and Consumption in Japan. University of Hawaii Press.

"Kawaii gives people a way to hang onto childhood and thereby postpone the pressures of adulthood. ...Adulthood was not viewed as a source of freedom and independence, it was viewed as quite the opposite, as a period of restrictions and hard work. ...Cute fashions idolize childhood because it is seen as a place of individual freedom unattainable in society." (Kinsella)

"Wearing a cute mascot in public is a way to communicate with others like yourself. There is a consensus that a person who likes cute things is good. If you show a funny mascot, people assume that you are an easy-going and open-minded person. Your mascot makes people around you believe you are more approachable. The mascot also" Source: Kato, Miki. "Cute Culture." Eye. Issue 44 Summer 2002.

"If you invite a Japanese acquaintance to dinner, and ask them what kind of restaurant they would like to go to, they will probably answer, 'anywhere you like.' Not having an individual voice is considered a traditional virtue in Japan and this is based on the idea of amae," which means to "act like a child." (Kato)

A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse

Snippets from a short article written by Stephen Jay Gould (in his larger collection of articles called The Panda's Thumb), centered on Mickey Mouse's evolution during 50 years.

"The original Mickey was a rambunctious, even slightly sadistic fellow. ...As Mickey's personality softened, his appearance changed. Many Disney fans are aware of this transformation through time, but few (I suspect) have recognized the coordinating theme behind all the alterations. ...In short, the blander and inoffensive Mickey became progressively more juvenile in appearance." (95-97)

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

"To give him the shorter and pudgier legs of youth, [Disney artists] lowered his pants line and covered his spindly legs with a baggy outfit. (His arms and legs also thickened substantially–and acquired joints for a floppier appearance.) His head grew relatively larger and its features more youthful. The length of Mickey's snout has not altered, but decreasing protrusion is more subtly suggested by a pronounced thickening. Mickey's eye has grown in two modes: first, by a major, discontinuous evolutionary shift as the entire eye of the ancestral Mickey became the pupil of his descendants, and second, by gradual increase thereafter. ...Mickey's ears moved back, increasing the distance between nose and ears, and giving him a rounded, rather than sloping, forehead." (98-99)

These features match almost perfectly with Lorenz' features of youth: "a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elasticity, and clumsy movements."

"[We must] ask why Disney chose to change his most famous character so gradually and persistently in the same direction? ...The abstract features of human childhood elicit powerful emotional responses in us, even when they occur in other animals. I submit that Mickey Mouse's evolutionary road down the course of his own growth in reverse reflects the unconscious discovery of this biological principal by Disney and his artists. ...To this extent, the magic kingdom trades on biological illusion–our ability to abstract and our propensity to transfer inappropriately to other animals the fitting responses we make to changing form in the growth of our own bodies." (100-104)

Basically, Mickey changed in order to keep with one of Walt Disney's many rules of thumb: "Keep it cute!"

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Egg Pants

Saw these a while back and made a mental note to post them here. They are adorable!

Egg Pants have three stubby "legs" which will keep your breakfast eggs standing tall. They're white on the outside and yellow on the inside, just like the eggs they hold.

While the material looks like ceramic, it is actually quite soft and flexible. The flexibility allows these little cups to stretch and give a perfect fit to all different sizes of eggs.

Dip-molded PVC.

They're available at Design Glut.

Cute cues:
  • Anthropomorphism (Clothing for an inanimate object)
  • Roundness
  • Short, stubby appendages

Emotional Design

The following are a few choice quotes from Donald A. Norman's Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things:

"[We have a] tendency to read emotional responses into anything, animate or not. We are social creatures, biologically prepared to interact with others, and the nature of that interaction depends very much on our ability to understand another's mood. Facial expressions and body language are automatic, indirect results of our affective state, in part because affect is closely tied to behavior. ...We have evolved to interpret even the most subtle of indicators. ...Interpretations of inanimate objects might seem bizarre, but the impulse comes from the same source–our automatic interpretive mechanisms. We interpret everything we experience, much of it in human terms. This is called anthropomorphism, the attribution of human motivations, beliefs, and feelings to animals and inanimate things. The more behavior something exhibits, the more we are apt to do this." (135-136)

This relates well to Lorenz' Innate Releasing Mechanism, an involuntary biological response to an experience.

Stefano Pirovano's Te o Tea Strainer, made by Alessi.

"At first sight, the arms and legs of the figure are simply cute, but when it becomes apparent that the cuteness is also functional, then 'cute' becomes transformed into 'pleasure' and 'fun,' and this, moreover, is long-lasting. ...I spent much of the next hour trying to understand what transforms an impression of shallow cuteness into one of deep, long-lasting pleasure." (106)

"The essence of the surprise was the separation between the two viewings: first the tea strainer alone, then on the teacup. ...What transforms the strainer from 'cute' into 'fun'? Is it surprise? Is it cleverness? Certainly both of those traits play a big role." (106)

Here, Norman relates cuteness with pleasure, which brings me to designer and human factors expert Patrick Jordan's Four Kinds of Pleasure:
  • Physio-pleasure: Sights, sounds, smells, taste, and touch.
  • Socio-pleasure: Derived from interaction/communication with others. Usage.
  • Psycho-pleasure: Deals with one's reactions and psychological state during use or interaction. Resides at behavioral level.
  • Ideo-pleasure: Reflection of the experience/interaction. Appreciation of object. For example, if one displays the object prominently, it gives them ideo-pleasure to show their value judgments to others.

Norman also states that 'fun' and 'pleasurable' are still very elusive concepts.

"What is delightful depends a lot upon the context. The actions of a kitten or human baby may be judged fun and cute, but the very same actions performed by a cat or human adult can be judged irritating or disgusting." (106)

He suggests that more than one type of pleasure is in play at any one time. Visual cues may be what initially attracts you to a kitten, but the socio-pleasure you get from interaction with the kitten or the mental high you get from playing with the kitten (the psycho-pleasure) are what forge the bond between you and the animal.

The MINI Cooper

Stock Photo.



"Whatever one may think of the Mini Cooper's dynamic attributes, which range from very good to marginal, it is fair to say that almost no new vehicle in recent memory has provoked more smiles." Source: Swan, Tony. "Behind the Wheel/Mini Cooper; Animated Short, Dubbed in German." The New York Times.2 June, 2002.

"Evoke(s) strong, positive emotions such as love, attachment, and happiness... The car is so much fun to look at and drive that... you overlook its faults." (7) Source: Norman, Donald A. Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. Perseus Books Group; Cambridge: 2004.

This quote, by Norman, makes a similar assumption as Konrad Lorenz when he discussed humans' proclivity toward experiential attachment. If a possession is attractive to you, you will become attached to it and be happy when you interact with it. When this happens, you are more likely to overlook the object's negative aspects.

"But none of that is the real reason we're buying the Mini. The car is cute. It has a magnetic personality. We loved its oversized speedometer and the wacky location of its tachometer atop the steering column. We loved the reaction it drew from onlookers everywhere. ...Some of our friends and family members also called the Mini Cooper 'cute' but said they would never buy a car 'that small.' We don't care. We drove it. We love it." Source: Brown, Warren. "Cute Little Detour? We'll Take It!" The Washington Post. 2 June, 2002.

"Hands down, the MINI Cooper is one of the cutest, most adorable cars on the road. The slightly prominent headlamps and oval grille convey the look of a surprised toddler on Christmas morning. The car's profile looks like a baby bootie, ready to be bronzed and displayed on a mantel." Bugg, Sean. "The Cute Factor." Metro Weekly. 3 March, 2005.

Results from Cute Survey:

"It's so small and has a rounded silhouette--seems to have a 'face,' too."
"Small. Round features such as the lights and rear-view mirrors."
"The name alone is cute. ...It’s little and can navigate down small streets like in all those slightly comical chase scenes, the headlights are like big eyes."

The MINI set a precedent when it was redesigned in 2001. Today's automakers realize the power of cuteness in car design, and designers have continued to create evermore cute automobiles.

The Smart Car.

The Nissan Pivo Concept Car.

Book Layout

This is an updated book layout. As I continue to complete my literature review, it will become more detailed, but this is the basic format.

  • Title Page
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • PART I: What is Cute? The History of Cute.
    • Brief history of how we evolved into cuteness. Survival of the Cutest.
    • Konrad Lorenz; Evolution and Biology of Cute
    • Stephen Hamann; Psychology of cute
    • Stephen Jay Gould; Evolution of Mickey mouse
  • (Transition: How Cuteness has evolved from theory into a modern cultural phenomenon.)
  • PART II: Cuteness Today. Cute Takes on Culture.
    • American Culture of Cute
    • Japanese Culture of Cute: Kawaii
    • Cuteness merges with other characteristics
  • (Transition: Taking mass trends and observing individual opinions.)
  • PART III: Observing Cute. Trends in Cute Design.
    • Survey Results
    • Reaction Observations
    • List of Cute Cues
    • Case Studies
  • (Transition: Taking these studies and applying them to design.)
  • PART IV: The Future of Cute
    • Marketing and Cuteness (Cuteness and the Economic Crisis)
    • Developing a Case for Cuteness (Defending against the anti-cute)
    • Using What I’ve Learned (Future Cute Projects)
  • Conclusion

Friday, October 24, 2008

In Honor of the Upcoming Holiday

Halloween is fast approaching, and you know what that means:

Anthromorphizing poor little innocent animals!

Courtesy of Cute Overload.

Cuteness and the Economic Crisis

I read an interesting article over at Change Order, a blog about the integration of design and business.

David Sherwin, who wrote the article, made an interesting speculation: With the recent "financial tsunami" that has hit the world, companies are making a mad dash to merge in order stave off bankruptcy. For example, WaMu's merger with Chase. With that, new questions emerge: What will happen to their branding? And with the unavoidable recession looming in consumers' minds, can cute branding survive?

"WaMu had invested countless billions of dollars to paint a perky, friendly face on money. The WaMu marketing machine had been laser-focused on less-sophisticated, higher-risk consumers, putting forth a friendly facade that was dubbed by their former CEO, Kerry Killinger, as the 'Wal-Mart of Banking.'"

Just check out this ad for WaMu that uses the irresistability of puppies and the adorable tagline "Whoo-Hoo!" to sell its services:

He suggests that this fresh, young image will now serve to repel the very same people it used to attract. And his logic, simply put, is thus:

Cuteness relies on optimism, and optimism relies on prosperity. Without that prosperity, people are no longer looking for the cute, friendly face in advertising. They are looking for a real, grown up, fact-based brand. While I believe this to be true, I also think that cuteness in advertising still has its place.

Advertising relies on one basic thing: happiness. Cuteness can bring that happiness–it can reassure, and in these troubling times, reassurance is key.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic

I've taken some quotes from Daniel Harris's Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. This book is far from a study in consumerism–I'd say it is more an anti-consumerist opinion piece. And while Harris makes some interesting connections, his ready-made hatred of anything popular or unrealistic turns any semblance of fact into a wordy rant. He goes so far as to compare teddy bears to adult sex dolls and the act of hugging a stuffed animal to necrophilia. He operates from as distorted a world view as those he demeans:

"The cute world view is one of massive human chauvinism, which rewrites the universe according to an iconographic agenda dominated by the pathetic fallacy... The cute vision of the natural world is a world without nature, one that annihilates "otherness," ruthlessly suppresses the non-human, and allows nothing, including our children, to be separate and distinct from us." (12)

While he completely skips over scientific explanations and evolutionary theories, he does make an important case for the social implications of cuteness, so it's included in my research. Read on for some more quotes:

"Cuteness suggests guilelessness, simplicity, and a refreshing lack of affectation." (2-3)

"Cuteness is not an aesthetic in an ordinary sense of the word and must by no means be mistaken for the physically appealing, the attractive. In fact, it is closely linked to the grotesque, the malformed." (3)

"The grotesque is cute because the grotesque is pitiable, and pity is the primary emotion of the seductive and manipulative aesthetic that arouses our sympathies... The aesthetic of cuteness creates a class of outcasts and mutations." (4)

"Something becomes cute not necessarily because of a quality it has but because of a quality it lacks, a certain neediness and inability to stand alone, as if it were an indigent starveling, lonely and rejected because of hideousness we find more touching than unsightly." (4)

"Cuteness has become essential to the marketplace, in that advertisers have learned that consumers will 'adopt' products that create, often in their packaging alone, an aura of motherlessness, ostracism, and melancholy." (5)

"Cuteness, in short, is not something we find in our children but something we do to them... it almost always involves an act of sadism on the part of its creator, who makes an unconscious attempt to maim, hobble, and embarrass the thing he seeks to idolize." (5)

"Adorable things are often most adorable when in the middle of a pratfall or a blunder." (6)

"Although the gaze we turn on the cute thing seems maternal and solicitous, it is in actuality transformative and will stop at nothing to appease its hunger for expressing pity and big-heartedness, even at the cost of mutilating the object of its affections." (6)

"If cuteness is the aesthetic of deformity and dejection, it is also the aesthetic of sleep." (7)

"The imitative nature of cuteness can also be seen in the relation of the aesthetic to precocity." Precocity is the development of certain capabilities at an earlier age than usual.

Overall, it's a good read, but rather depressing. Time for a kitten picture.

There. I'm better.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Science of Cuteness

This is the transcript from a report done by Jeanne Moos of CNN. You can also view the video here. I dare you to get through it without smiling, laughing, or squealing in delight.

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Sure hope Shiloh isn't shy, because her face is plastered all over the place

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The lips, the nose, the eyes, the everything.


MOOS: But all this rhapsodizing about the Brangelina baby got us wondering.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How can you define cute?

MOOS: It's that thing that makes you go...


MOOS: But there is a science to cute, and a poster child is the panda bear. For instance, the cub at Washington's National Zoo.

(on camera): Which one is cuter to you?




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, that panda bear is so cute.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a cute baby.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I love children, but I think the panda is just so cute. Look at the eyes.

MOOS (voice over): Researchers say humans react to forward- facing eyes set low on a big, round face, with prominent ears, floppy limbs, and a waddling gate. No wonder folks seem attracted to penguins, both real and animated.

They say cuteness stimulates the same pleasure centers in the brain that are aroused by sex, food and drugs. We say "ah" over the pandas. Photographers even said "ah" over a wax version of the Brangelina baby introduced at Madame Tussauds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That baby is very cute.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Probably the panda because the baby is going to turn into a disgusting teenager.

MOOS: Researchers say humans react to the vulnerability of the young.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think he kind of shows a vulnerable side.

MOOS: Which is good for evolution, since it brings out protective instincts.


MOOS: There are Web sites devoted to cute, like Cute Overload, which features nothing but cute pictures and videos that people submit. Sleepiness seems to add to the vulnerability we find so appealing.

There's even a section for cute products. And who doesn't see the round face factor in cute cars like the VW Bug and the Mini?

The opposite of cute overload is ugly overload, featuring cow tongues and bats, not to mention El Pacas (ph). But sometimes homeliness can be cute.

One of the most popular stories I have ever done was on Sam, the three-time winner of the ugliest dog contest, now deceased. And as for the smackdown between the panda and the Brangelina baby...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This bear is much cuter than that baby. I know that baby cries. And that bear, well, he just looks too damn cute.

MOOS: ... the panda won, 16-12, a vote not worth losing sleep over.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

Hello Kitty: One Nation Under Cute

This is a short article on the history and social implications of kawaii, the Japanese culture of cute.

"Psychologists believe that cuteness is a function of resemblance to human infants, to whom we're programmed to respond sympathetically because of their helplessness. And Japan may have a surplus of unused parenting instincts, given that the country has one of the world's lowest birth rates (and one of the highest ages of marriage)."

They claim that adults not only substitute cute objects for children, they also wish to be a child. This is an entirely new view on how cute can permeate a culture. It introduces the idea that social rigidity can have a far reaching effect on its members. When you are allowed to be independent at a young age and then forced into a highly structured adult life, you can want so much for your youth that you begin to live it. It is less a statement about cuteness and more about independence. The widespread popularity of cuteness is more a result of intense marketing and a consumer-driven society.

You can read the whole article at Psychology Today.

Research Methods

Completed and turned in October 16th, 2008.

My research methods rely first and foremost on the process I have laid out for my project, which can be compared, simply, to the scientific method. (While this method seems obvious, it is important to complete each step fully before proceeding in order to achieve a full scope on my topic.)

  1. Ask a Question: This was completed early on, during my preliminary proposal. Basically, I am asking “How does cuteness affect people?”
  2. Do Background Research: This comprises much of my project and involves searching written sources
  3. Construct a Hypothesis: From my research, I have been developing theories to test.
  4. Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment: I begin testing my theories using surveys, observations, and case studies.
  5. Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion: I then pool my data and draw conclusions. This is the final step for me this semester, resulting in a finished book and presentation.
  6. Communicate Your Results: Loosely interpreted, this would mean creating furniture prototypes based on my conclusions.

By relating my process to the scientific method, I have been able to list five research methods for my project:
  • Literature Search:
    • As stated above, this step constitutes much of my research. Many studies have been done on how cuteness affects people, and in order to develop my later research methods in a way that will be useful, I have to devote a lot of time not only gathering and reading as much information as I can, but also connecting information across sources and topics.
    • My sources range from internet and magazine articles to books and scientific studies. Topics are equally diverse: psychology, sociology, evolution and Darwinism, popular culture, product design, biology, aesthetics, art and graphics, consumerism, and cultural studies.
    • As I am not using the interview process for my project, it is absolutely necessary that I fully explore all written sources to gain opinions of experts in each field.
    • From my research, I can develop a list of cute cues

  • Survey:
    • This is a type of quantitative method. Through interviewing a large number of people, I can extract information about the typical consumer. From my results, I can create graphs, charts, and statistics that will communicate my findings.
    • My list of cute cues is refined in this stage, omitting and adding new ones according to mass opinion.

  • Observation:
    • This is a type of qualitative method, focusing on cultural studies. Specifically, I will be gathering information on people’s reactions to a staged object. The results of this study will give me an idea of the type of reactions I hope to invoke in the prototyping stage.

  • Case Studies:
    • This is where I will utilize all my theories gleaned from my literature search and surveys.
    • Essentially, I will study each subject, attaching to it appropriate cute cues. If I am studying a consumer product, statistics in sales and popularity will help to support my findings.

  • Prototyping/Mock-Up
    • When all my research has been gathered, I can begin to interpret my findings and translate them into furniture products.

Monday, October 13, 2008

10 Minute Meeting

What methods are you proposing to use to gather research and analyze the data gathered? How are you progressing on the methods you intend to use–this includes status of your contacting people, timing happenings, any results you may have collected to date, and plans for future work needed.

My two methods of research include a written survey, to be administered on campus the week of October 20th through 24th as well as throughout the semester via e-mail, and a reaction observation study, to be completed Saturday, October 18th.

The survey consists of 5 questions. After completing the surveys, I will organize appropriate data into spreadsheets, pie charts, and bar charts. The information provided will help me understand the general public's idea of what "CUTE" is and how these responses match up with demography. I can then begin to connect my results with previous scientific studies, comparing and contrasting findings.

The reaction observation study involves installing over-sized eyeballs in the trees of Kansas State's campus. After installation, I will observe and record reactions from passersby.

Ultimately, results from both studies will help me create a design brief for my furniture project.

Where are you in gathering information and writing your Literature Review/Design Brief? How are you proposing to meet the deadline for the Final Literature Review/Design Brief due on November 4th?

I have been proceeding through my book sources, extracting important facts and quotations, as well as trying to connect information across studies. I am beginning to compile a rough list of "cute cues," specific features of a human, animal, or object considered to be "CUTE."

I have also been compiling a list of case studies and started to list cute cues for each precedent. When I have completed with this, I will start to go more in depth, connecting my own interpretations with scientific studies.

Cute Survey

1. In your own words, what is your definition of "CUTE"? (Please answer this question completely before continuing on. You will be asked this same question again at the end of the survey.)

2. For each of the three pictures, please answer the following questions:

(a) Would you define the subject in this picture as “CUTE”?
(b) If you answered yes, what specific features make this subject “CUTE”?

3. Please indicate your age group:
___ 18-24   ___25-29   ___30-39   ___40-65

4. Please indicate your sex:
___ Female   ___Male

5. In your own words, what is your definition of "CUTE"? (Put any additional definitions or changes to your previous response here.)

Please send all responses to: Thanks!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Munchkin Kitten

Is there such a thing as being too cute? If there is, I believe this fits in that category.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Preliminary Literature Review

Completed and turned in October 9th, 2008. A preview of what the final literature review will look like.


This paper is written with translation to book and presentation in mind. Intended audience is also an important factor and results in a unique voice for the narrative. As the audience consists of mostly designers with no scientific background, subtopics are brief and interconnected, flowing easily and providing step-by-step comprehension. Each scientific topic is mirrored by a real world example, creating memorable connections. This excerpt comprises two sections of the larger book, one a scientific history on the study of cuteness and the other an opinion piece on the utilization of cute design by student designers.

Overall Organization (* = Discussed in the following paragraphs)
  • What is cute? (Cute through history. Cites scientific studies and writings on cute.)
    • * Brief history of how we evolved into cuteness
    • * Konrad Lorenz; evolution and biology of cute
    • Stephen Hamann; psychology of cute
    • Stephen Jay Gould; evolution of Mickey mouse

  • Cute takes on culture. (How we have infused cuteness into our lives.)
    • Examples of cuteness in modern culture (American and Japanese)
    • List of cute characteristics
    • In-depth case studies
    • Survey results
    • Reaction Obbservation results
    • Variations on cute; combining cuteness with other features

  • The future of cute. (Utilizing cute design. Timelessness)
    • Cute as a marketing strategy.
    • What does this mean for designers today?
    • * Developing a case for cuteness. The future of cute.
    • Cute furniture design. A series of sketches.

What is Cute?

The history of cuteness begins several million years ago. As humans were developing, brain size began to increase dramatically. This, however, created a problem as childbirth became very painful for women, who have narrow birth canals. The solution was to give birth to babies with smaller, highly undeveloped brains (Miles), leaving a child helpless and completely dependant upon adult care during its early months. But what makes parents devote so much time and energy into the care of their children? Cuteness appears to play an important role.

Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian Nobel Prize winner, was the first to publish his theories on the cuteness in the 1940s. In his essay on the components of human society, he observed that infantile features triggered a nurturing response in adults, a process that he called the Innate Releasing Mechanism (IRM). IRM refers to any instinctive behavioral pattern shared amongst a species. In this case, he argued that the ‘cuddly’ and ‘loveable’ features of infants were an evolutionary adaptation ensuring that adults would care for and protect their offspring. He went on to list specific physical traits common to most species that would trigger the nurturing effect in their adult counterparts: “a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements” (Lorenz, 154).

(pg. 155) Infant head proportions vs. Adult head proportions.

He coined the term kindchenschema for this phenomenon, loosely meaning baby pattern. The German syllable ”chen,” which doesn’t have a literal translation in English, is a diminutive suffix found in the names of many animals popularly considered cute, such as rotkehlchen (robin), Eichhörnchen (squirrel), and Kaninchen (rabbit). “In all of these cases, the final syllable does not express the smallness but definitely the ‘loveable’ nature of the animals concerned” (154).

Lorenz noted that even inanimate objects displaying cute features triggered the innate releasing mechanism in adults. He further attempted to explain why we respond to these cute cues:

“The so-called process of ‘physiognomic experience’, even where inanimate environmental objects are concerned, is… based upon a sharply-defined process of biologically erroneous response[s] to releasing mechanisms, whose actual species-preserving function is the understanding of specific human motor display patterns. …In this way, the most amazing objects can acquire remarkable, highly specific emotional values by ‘experiential attachment’ of human properties” (156).

Basically, our eyes observe the many physical features of a person, animal, or object. Our brain then automatically interprets these visual signals in a way that promotes a response. This process is known as physiognomy, the interpretation of facial features and overall appearance in order to determine one’s character or temper (156). This ability to predict what another is feeling or thinking is an evolutionary trait that was adapted for our survival.

Lorenz suggests that when we see typically cute features in an infant, we subconsciously associate them with ‘helplessness,’ therefore triggering our instinct to nurture and protect. But why, then, do we see baby animals and inanimate objects as cute? After all, wanting to care for an inanimate object does note promote human survival. The reason he gives for this is ”experiential attachment,” the tendency to link current experiences with previous experiences, even in abstract and imaginative ways. The easiest way to look at it is to use an example of the transitive property:

If A=B and B=C, then A=C.

If a bunny has the same features as a baby, and babies are cute, then a bunny is cute.

Lorenz believed that our proclivity towards experiential attachment is incredibly high; so high that we often make mistakes. Stephen Spielberg capitalized on this tendency with his 1984 movie, entitled “Gremlins.” Everything about Gizmo (pictured below) tells us that he is cute: his large, low-sitting eyes, disproportionately large head and ears, round body, and stubby appendages. But what you soon find out is that Gizmo is anything but cute. He and his friends disarm all with an adorable smile, only to unleash terror on a small town.

This is a non-factual but telling example of how our innate biological responses can get the better of us. When an object is cute, we are more likely to overlook its faults. And while this is an extreme and tragic case of misplaced affection, it is important to note that this predisposition helped ensure our survival millions of years ago.

Developing a Case for Cuteness

As much as some of us would like to believe that we are “looks blind,” it appears that there is a mountain of evidence that would prove otherwise. Scientists have thoroughly studied the role of aesthetics in our everyday lives, and beautiful or cute objects have dominated the marketplace. But beauty and cuteness differ in very fundamental ways:

“[Cuteness] emphasizes rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap. Beauty is rare and brutal, despoiled by a single pimple. Cuteness is commonplace and generous, content on occasion to cosegregate with homeliness (Angier).

The design profession has capitalized on each of these essential elements. We are bombarded on several fronts, from magazines to television to film, with beautiful models and cute cartoons, selling everything from clothing to perfume and comic books to toys.

If student designers are to thrive in their profession today, they must appeal to these sensitivities. Beauty in design has received much attention, and the elements of beauty adorn every designer’s rulebook. But cuteness has been overlooked in our schooling. The use of cute cues provides a strong psychological and aesthetic impact, and students utilizing them will quickly realize their power.

Works Cited

Angier, Natalie. “The Cute Factor.” New York Times. 3 January 2006.
Lorenz, Konrad. Studies in Human and Animal Behavior. “Part and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies” Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA; 1971.
Miles, Naomi. “Science of Cuteness.” First Science. 27 April 2007.