Touch vs. Sight: Sensorial Influences in the Perception of Materiality

Presented by: Lisa Phillips

Interior designers often encounter clients who not only note the number of rooms they require but also speak of a range of emotional descriptors as well. Adjectives such as calming, welcoming, or masculine are used to describe how a new design should ‘feel’. While it is true that many factors are responsible for affecting human behavior and perception, finish materials are undeniably a key consideration as well. Without altering the physical configuration of a room, materials can aid in transforming a cold room into a warm room or a static space into one that is energizing. It is essential, more than ever, that interior designers are equipped with knowledge concerning how their decisions affect the users of their designs. Unfortunately, there is marginal research available concerning the psychology of materiality, which is surprising, as material psychology is a well-documented subject in other related professions. In the field of product design, for example, there have been multiple studies concerning the association of material selections and their influence on the purchase and use of products.1 Research regarding color, and its association with behaviors and adjectives, also abounds. While the psychology of color has earned respect, however, the psychology of interior finishes remains vastly unexplored. Although there are more variables inherent in material selections, one wonders if there are areas of consistency that can be isolated and used as a reference for designers as well. Recent work, specific to the built environment, provides some initial evidence to confirm this theory. In her book Place Advantage, Sally Augustine explains that “… when viewed, a shiny surface is invigorating while a matte finish is relaxing”. 2 There have been connections made as well between physical contact with materials and how they can influence a user’s mood and wellbeing. It has been noted that people walking barefoot on large smooth stones, like cobblestones, feel tranquil and energized at the same time.3 Building on this initial evidence, I sought to determine if additional associations were present as well. In 2014 two online surveys polled over one hundred individuals to examine images of six materials: wood, stone, metal, glass, plastic and concrete. The results revealed that many materials were consistently linked with specific emotions. Wood for example, was seen to be peaceful, natural, strong, warm and raw while plastic was shown to be clean, hip, happy, artificial, lively, modern and hi-tech. Interest in these preliminary findings was evident as I was welcomed to present at the 12th Annual Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities and the Interior Design Educator’s Council East Regional Conference, both in 2014. A paper based on this study was also published in 2016 in the International Journal of Interior Architecture + Spatial Design. The purpose of this proposed presentation would be to discuss my latest research, which focuses on determining if texture or pattern play a stronger role in the associations users make between materials and emotions. Both senses were isolated in this on-site experiment which required participants to either touch or view materials, but never both. For each material a short survey, utilizing bipolar adjective pairs on a six-point Likert rating scale, was provided asking the participants to rate their emotional state as it applied to each material. Several valuable insights were noted. As an example, it was determined that by sight alone, metal was characteristically masculine, however the smooth surface, upon touch, was predominately feminine. By understanding these and other differences, we can continue to increase our competency in selecting appropriate materials for design projects. The results of this research can add an additional and valuable resource to guide future material selection decisions.


  • Elvin Karana, "How Do Materials Obtain Their Meanings?" Middle East Technical University Journal of the Faculty of Architecture 2, no. 27 (2010): p. 273.
  • Sally Augustin, Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, (2009). p. 65
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