To some, calling a design "cute" might seem like a sly, backhanded compliment. Yes, it's nice to look at, but cuteness isn't typically taken seriously. Hello Kitty is cute. Lisa Frank is cute. They're successful brands, but are they capital-D design? Hyerim Shin, a designer who recently graduated from the Royal College of Art, reckons so.
Shin argues that cuteness—a concept known as "Kawaii" in Japan—hasn't been explored to its full potential so she created a line of small appliances, called "Be My Mother," that demonstrate how it can contribute to the longevity of a product.
"As cuteness is a subclass of other aesthetic categories, there is less public interest and understanding for it in comparison to other visual attributes," she says. "In my work, I discover the value of cuteness and try to awaken an interest in and understanding of cuteness in others. I want to impress designers with the power of cuteness."
To Shin, cuteness is defined by the characteristics of tiny creatures, both behaviorally and in how they look. Her interactive products exhibit some of these traits. First off, the appliances have curved silhouettes—think the chubby cheeks of a baby, not the hard-angled jaws of adulthood—and are painted with glossy pastel hues. A toaster starts to make a sneezing sound when it's time to clean out crumbs and makes the sound again when users pull a lever to expel crumbs. A waste bin inspired by kids' games like hide-and-seek and peek-a-boo moves to the side and turns around when it's full, letting users know when it's time to take out the trash. A robot vacuum cleaner—essentially a Roomba—wiggles its silicone dust canister and "poops" it out when the canister is full.
"The products I designed for Be My Mother need continuous maintenance," Shin says. "Research shows that cuteness appeals to our ‘gut instinct of caring.’ Enabling consumers to project care onto the product thus compels them to care for them long-term. These products encourage maintenance without feeling like a chore."
While the attributes of babies inspired Shin's designs, other research has shown that while cute babies make us more caring, cute products make us more self indulgent—it's a treat yourself mentality validated through objects. Cute things are more fun to have than boring, functionality-driven items with no panache. That said, Shin believes that the more you take care of something, the more affection you gain for the object which in turn will make it harder to throw away. "That is emotionally durable design for the products," she says.
In the Marie Kondo era of only keeping products that bring us joy, Shin's argument is compelling. Kids bring parents joy. But how many diaper changes does it take before a pooping baby loses his charm? Being forever young has its appeal, but so does growing up and being able to take care of yourself. A vacuum that empties its dust and takes it directly to the trash is a product I would get behind.
[All Photos: via Hyerim Shin]