Physicality Is A Human Language

By Tim Milne

Issue 33 | December 2014

Tim Milne is the founder of ARTOMATIC, which helps organisations and agencies tell their stories through physical language.

ARTOMATIC started in 1982 as a collaborative screen-printer that pioneered the now-commonplace use of unusual materials and processes in packaging and literature. In 1999, in anticipation of the digital future, Tim opened a new space in London's Clerkenwell with a print library, gallery and conceptual retail store to champion the new emerging graphic culture. After a brief spell in the US, he returned to London in 2007 to recreate ARTOMATIC as a production / innovation service to apply the idea of objects-as-communications to advertising (Matter, 2008), publishing (CONTAINER, 2013) and music (Idiom, 2015).

Today, ARTOMATIC continues to explore and promote the value of physicality in communications through talks, consultancy, innovation and the nitty-gritty of making stuff.

Within the last generation, we have embraced technologies that sever ties to the physical world communications that don't exist other than in the eyes and screens of those receiving them. Without this physical restriction, anyone and everyone pushes a barrage of information at consumers sewing the seeds for an inevitable problem: they won't read them. The roots for this imminent crisis may lie beyond a simple supply-and-demand equation — in our distant evolutionary past, which might also offer a solution. We have a natural affinity to physical objects, since our intelligence evolved in a physical environment. Physicality is a human language. Though we like to think of ourselves as modern and logical, primitive instincts dominate our modern-day behaviour. Our intellect is a slow, deliberate energy-hungry resource we use sparingly; our intuition (I know this is a difficult word, but for now, let's define it is everything we don't think about) is fast, automatic, energy-efficient and always on. Intuition is the default — as Daniel Kahneman put it, "Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats".

Primitive processes preserve our intellect and allow us to respond to fast-moving complex situations, where thinking would be too slow and possibly fatal. Thousands of years ago it was a bear in a cave, but today it's driving a car. Novice drivers don't have their first lesson around Hyde Park Corner in London for good reason — it takes time to acquire the skills where operating the controls becomes instinctive enough to respond to fast-moving traffic.

Automatic fast-thinking is ideal for interacting with technology — teenagers on smart phones flicking between apps aren't thinking about their interaction — but, its primitive roots are visible. Amongst other functions, intuition is an alert that's constantly vigilant and curious about what else might be going on — threats were just as likely to come from other humans, so it wants to keep an eye on your cousin's Instagram feed as it would a hostile tribe. That's why we're transfixed by our phones.

Paradoxically, logic-driven technology maybe making consumers more intuitive, which could be a big problem for advertisers wishing to talk to them, because intuitive consumers aren't reading and aren't thinking. They're on a different wavelength. Talking to them might need another language, one with more primitive origins that we're more attuned to.

Gutenberg's invention of moveable type in 1439 heralded the original communications revolution. Arguably more seismic than its digital equivalent, it switched the dominant language from objects to text and imagery. Prior to print, objects articulated power, wealth, ideas, influence, civilisation and culture, but were soon forgotten with the invention of printing. Medieval print gave birth to modern communications, which have always been focused around the language of words and pictures.

Johanes Gutenberg was an entrepreneur unconcerned with the physical object. His focus was reducing the costof, and broadening the access to, information, which even in medieval times, was stuck in the dark ages. In a different age, he’d have invented the Internet, but in the early part of the fifteenth century, he was stuck with a physical solution. The paper that carried the text was only ever a vehicle and was never part of the communication.

As an invention, print proved to be remarkably durable — you’d more readily recognise a medieval printing press than a 1980’s computer. It took 550 years to invent a technology that resolved print’s shortcomings, which all emanated from its physicality. Information is now what information should be — flexible, personal, instant and free. 

With its primary functionality removed, a printed object is still an object. Its physicality is now distinct. Cezanne and his contemporaries realised that photography offered a quicker, easier way to capture an image accurately, and so liberated painting to be more physical and emotionally expressive. Digital technology releases physical (printed) objects from the burden of carrying information; like painting, they're free to be expressive. Physicality is now optional and the choice makes its qualities distinct and valuable.

One of the early 'casualties' of digitisation — music has emerged intact and offers pointers for the future. Though it wasn't painless, it now boasts "The music industry has adapted to the internet world. It's learned how to meet the needs of consumers and monetised the digital marketplace." (IFPI Digital Music Report 2013). Alongside digital downloads and streaming services, extravagant physical formats — heavyweight vinyl and luxurious box sets — are thriving. Technology has provided an efficient, portable platform that's so much more convenient and appropriate to the function of listening to music, but has also fostered a healthy stream of physical formats that glory in their tangibility. You now have a choice: music to listen to and music to own. 

Every object talks to us through its physical characteristics: its size, shape, materials, texture, substance, weight, format and construction. The complexity of all these variables and our adapted unconscious affinity for them means objects tell us sophisticated stories we understand without thinking. Much of the meaning we so easily deduce comes from what we instinctively understand about physicality and objects — concepts that are highlighted by the new digital non-existent (i.e. virtual) alternative.

Scarcity — unlike digital content or anything in continuous production, man-made objects exist in finite quantities and cannot be easily replicated once manufactured. Their maximum number is how many were originally made,from which they only become scarcer. We have instinctive behaviours around scarcity — hoarding, needless acquisition — hence why Limited Edition is such a powerful hook.

Time and history — an object captures the precise time and specific circumstances in which it was made. From that point onwards, its meaning changes and value grows over time. Even prosaic objects like spoons and nails from ancient civilisations acquire significant value and provide valuable insights into lost cultures. Objects deteriorate and, depending on what they're made of, can become scarce (see above) very quickly. Ephemeral printed items such as packaging and newspapers can become collectable in as little as twenty years.

Origin, provenance and authenticity — every object has an origin story: where it comes from, who made it and when. The story is added to throughout the object's life, often resulting in deterioration and patina (see Wabi- sabi below). Like the cratered surface of the moon, we subconsciously understand rates of decay and build vivid pictures of an object's life. This ability can be accentuated with familiarity, e.g. fake bank notes are instantly spotted; we pick up on minute technical variations that only precise equipment could measure, but we know when it just feels wrong. In collaboration with artist Daniel Eatock, ARTOMATIC mailed a meteorite using the postal delivery system as the final stage in a journey of many billions of miles. An innocuous lump of rock becomes something very different when you realise it's the most travelled object on Earth. Origin stories cannot be un-learned.

Ownership — acquisition is the beginning of an intimate relationship that grows through ownership. Experiments conducted by Kahneman, Knetsch & Thaler showed participants' willingness to accept compensation for an object they owned was approximately twice as high as what they'd pay to acquire it. This is the endowment effect — part of our primitive loss aversion bias.

Transaction, acquisition and loss — objects are finite, both in the spatial and the numerical sense. Any change of ownership involves a transaction consisting of acquisition and loss. We're acutely aware of loss even when we're receiving. The value of a gift is knowing someone has lost time and money in thinking of, and buying, the gift. Hence why we say, "oh you shouldn't have".

Intimacy — the endowment effect fuels the growing value of our possessions, to the point where emotional attachments become so strong, they transcend monetary value — somewhat disparagingly termed, “sentimental value”

Physical signals stimulate emotional responses and vice versa. Physicality and emotion are closely connected — an evolutionary adaptation to circumvent intellectual processing; high-anxiety events demand fast action, not slow thinking. Though we accept two meanings for the word, FEEL, its medieval understanding saw both texture and emotion as an external experience. This turns out to be closer to the truth, where neurology is revealing the physiological connections between what we feel and how we feel: Antonio R. Damasio, University of Iowa describes “Feelings are what arise as the brain interprets emotions, which are themselves purely physical signals of the body reacting to external stimuli”.

At around three months, the human infant begins to explore his physical world by putting objects in his sensitive mouth. As well as beginning a life-long process of textural curiosity, he learns his first and most vital abstract concept: the world is made of self-contained entities and that he's one too. Though human intellect takes years to develop, emotional processing is fully formed at birth, to which physicality makes a direct connection. This early relationship with objects is vital to child development and foundational for future social interaction. As adults, we continue to have an affinity with objects and use the idea of self-containment to border our thinking around abstract ideas, concepts, events and circumstances — a process revealed by our prolific use of the word "things".Our affinity with objects makes them proxies for our human selves — reflections of who we are and how we exist in the world. Sartre described his conflict with them, "Objects should not touch because they are not alive. But they touch me, it is unbearable. I am afraid of being in contact with them as though they were living beasts." Japanese culture embodies this idea through the cultural concept of Wabi-Sabi, a non-verbal reverence for the decay of physical objects that reflects the dignity of human mortality — objects die, just like us. Not dissimilarly, in English, we call our possessions our belongings.

Physicality isn't a foreign language. Everyone on the planet is fluent in it. Communicating with it doesn't require an instruction manual or a dictionary to translate it. Physicality bypasses the intellectual decoding we have to employ when we read words and images and talks to us when we haven't got time to read or think. Physicality talks directly to our radar-like intuitive perception; our sensibility to physical stimulus is always on.

In the midst of a revolution, its impact can be hard to predict. Printing didn't feel like the dawn of the modern era in the late fifteenth century. Filmmaker Adam Curtis believes the excitement around digital technology is temporary, "the Internet won't go away – but its magic will disappear", that it will revert to an everyday utility, like a "functional local library". The rapid pace of innovation is certainly causing excitement and anxiety amongst marketers, but I wonder whether the dominance of computer-logic and everything-measured is creating a schism between logical marketing and intuitive consumers. As an evolutionary bull- shit detector, intuition focuses on behaviours not messages. To intuitive consumers, programmatic targeting doesn't feel smart; it just feels creepy.

Fifty years on, Marshall McLuhan's idea of The Medium is the Message has never felt so apt — more words have less effect. From a media-wide perspective, this seems to be a systemic problem but individual advertisers only have to do the old thing a bit better than their competitors. So, perhaps the 1970s adage, "I know one half of my advertising works, I just don't which half" will been replaced with, "I know a small fraction of my advertising works, but it's so cheap, I don't care". Adland talks about engagement, emotion and experience but digital media will always be vicarious rather than visceral.

Physicality is a language understood by every human on the planet. It's innate to every physical object and it's telling a story, like it or not. We read Physicality first because we read it fast. The term 'junk mail' refers to the physicality of cheap paper objects, not unattractive design or poorly targeted offers; people don't need to read it to know that it's junk. Though it's never been a specific language within modern communications, maybe it should be. If advertisers are serious about engaging consumers in emotional experiences, here's an emotive language for humans who are too busy to think.

—Tim Milne, Founder, ARTOMATIC

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