The Visual Language of Man-Made Products

Josiah Kahane
Holon Institute of Technology


Josiah Kahane
Professor Emeritus
Holon Institute of Technology

Though physical form was always a mainstay of product design, it was often played down or even neglected, being labeled as only skin deep, as “styling”. Form not only embodies the cultural constituent of design but also the way the human mind apprehends what is sees. Replicating human visual cognition is high on the agenda of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Form recognition research is currently being carried out extensively in the cognitive sciences, mind studies and computer sciences. Unfortunately design research is barely involved. 

Our visual language cooperates with spoken language in explaining what we see, using prior knowledge accumulated in our memory.  Heuristics demonstrates that visual language 'cooperates' with spoken language in cross-tagging objects names and images. Form cues are also cultural in context, based on shared experience, tradition and language.

This paper charts the evolution of a particular product line – the camera family. Stills cameras and movie cameras share a process but use different media. The author uses diagrams and images to plot the form evolution of camera branches, demonstrating that the language of form relays on visual cues and our cognitive faculties interpret what we see (‘the mind's eye’). Stills cameras 'insisted' on a lens positioned on the largest face of the camera box while movie cameras 'opted' for the smallest. Spoken languages continually evolve and change; so does the language of form. Archetypes (iconic forms) of products evolve in a surprisingly rational, nonrandom pattern. New cameras continue previous form archetypes, adding visual cues to differentiate from predecessors. Paradigm changes in technology 'surprise' us with innovative lens location but often fail public acceptance.

This case study is just one example out of 14 detailed case studies in an upcoming book - “The Form of Design” - to be published in early 2015 by BIS Publishers. The book also summarizes contemporary research on form recognition in the cognitive sciences, in cultural studies, in linguistics and in design research.