Dutch designer Merel Bekking says she likes to "crawl inside the skin of a different specialist" for every project she does. Take InvesteRing, conceived during the economic crisis, which required Bekking to become a bit of a commodities expert. She created rings with two euros worth of a commodity, such as corn, that could be dispensed from a vending machine that cost two euros. The ring that comes out is a miniature investment, its value changing ever so slightly with the price of corn.
It's the sort of empirical approach more often identified with scientists than artists, and Bekking proudly refers to herself as a "research-based" designer. "Every project I needed to gather as much information as I could about the subject," she tells Co.Design. "Talk to people, try things out, read a lot. If I want to design something in a discipline I don't know anything about, I need do to a lot of research to make a convincing design."
Bekking's latest project takes her scientific style to a whole new level. With the help of neuroscientist Steven Scholte from the Neurensics firm, Bekking recruited 20 people to a laboratory and slipped them inside an MRI scanner. She had cooked up a rudimentary neuroimaging study: to measure how their brains responded to various basic design elements.
To do that required two steps. First, participants looked at a series of paintings with various themes. Some of the works (like a Goya or a Caravaggio) portrayed violence. Others depicted simple social activities or food. Still others were erotic in nature. The goal was for the research team to capture a baseline portrait of each brain's response to certain emotions, shapes, colors, and materials.
For the next step, Bekking and company fed participants a new set of roughly 250 images showing an assortment of design elements. There were five different textures, 10 colors, and eight shapes—each flashed without any additional context. By comparing the two scans, Scholte determined each brain's true feelings toward the design elements. Outside the scanner, Bekking also asked participants to indicate which elements they thought they enjoyed most.
The results—depicted in an infographic (below) that's been making the Internet rounds—took Bekking by surprise. The design elements that participants said they liked outside the scanner were not the same ones their brains seemed to like inside it. On paper, they preferred wooden material, the color blue, and round shapes. In the scanner, however, they betrayed a preference for red, organically shaped plastics.
"People are prone to give socially desired answers," Bekking says, "or don't really quite know what they like."
Now, as pure behavioral science, the simple study would never pass peer review. No reference is made to other imaging research showing that people's brains do, in fact, love curvy design. And deciphering the meaning behind brain activity is far from cut and dry; an active area could indicate an aversion to a certain design element just as easily as it could indicate an affection (as one U.S. neuroscientist pointed out to Motherboard).
But by the artistic metric of inspiration the research worked, with the results giving Bekking the idea for her next project. She plans to create a series of household objects with elements favored by the brains she scanned—perhaps a red chair, a plastic table, an organic vase, and so on—and present them in April during the famous Milan furniture fair Salon del Mobile. She's eager to see how people will respond to designs their brains suggest they like but which their voices suggest they don't.
Of course, the designer in Bekking understands that context should matter when it comes to style elements; that something red, plastic, and organic might look nice in one situation but not in another. So if it happens that people don't like the brain-based items Bekking creates, that won't bother her. "You do research on a subject and you have to make conclusions based on the data you have," she says. A true scientist couldn't have put it better.