Touch and Tactility: Feeding Our Forgotten Sense


Have you gazed at a screen today? Yep, me too. In fact, you are looking at a screen right now as you read this, and we are all probably surrounded by flat interfaces and shiny high-tech devices. To fit them in, we may have edged out some real-world interactions — it’s what so many of us do. And it’s how we’re losing touch with touch. We’re desperately short on the textures, warmth, and imperfections that come from engaging with things in the tangible world — handcrafts, textiles, building materials, and each other.

This absence of touch is shaping our final Visual Trend of 2018 — a move toward tactility. We’re seeing it everywhere, from architecture to fashion, pop culture, and stock. And now, as we enter the holiday season, we’re likely to see even more emphasis on touch and connections in the real, messy, physical world.

Image source: Guille Faingold/Stocksy / Adobe Stock.

Tactility as an experience

People are creating all kinds of experiences to feed our need for touch. For example, Thread Caravan organizes trips for travelers who want to learn the process behind traditional crafts. They work with local artisans, forging a human connection through touch, texture, and shared love of handcraft.

Image source: Gavin Gough / Adobe Stock.

When Heatherwick Studio was asked to design an ideal learning environment for Singapore’s Nanyang Learning Hub, the team focused on touch and imperfection instead of sleek, flawless design. They commissioned handmade drawings and used them to create raised textures on the building’s concrete walls, giving the interior the look and feel of handworked clay.

Always at the forefront of trends, the fashion world is of course working to fulfill our desire for tactility. The spring/summer 2019 trends are awash in texture, from feathers and opulent layers, to frills and ocean-inspired scales and netting. (For more on how fashion fits into current design trends, check out our report on spring colors, too.)

The rise of the crafty

While the experiences, places, and clothes we wrap ourselves in are taking a turn toward texture, we’re also embracing all things homemade, crafty, and hands-on, as well as our connections with their makers. Consider how we use Etsy to browse a mind-boggling array of handmade goods, and reach out to the artists to learn about their processes and make our personal requests. The site is up to nearly 2 million active sellers and sales are growing.

We even want to watch each other make crafts. When NBC premiered its new crafting competition, “Making It,” this summer, 6.3 million people tuned into the premiere. The show’s participants deploy materials like paper, felt, wood, and clay to create projects that are deeply sentimental and tactile. The show seems to have struck a chord — it’s already renewed for a second season.

Image source: Joshua Resnick / Adobe Stock.

The handcrafted, all-about-touch trend may have even come into your own kitchen, in the form of slime. This homemade, squeezable, stretchable frenzy hit so hard that craft stores ran out of the key ingredient — glue. (Elmer’s recommended ordering online.) Fans of slime-making don’t just go for the gooey texture, they add glitter, beads, and trinkets for tactile variety. The trend has racked up countless YouTube tutorials and millions of #slime Instagram posts. And it can give you a physical sensation, even if you never touch it — ASMR-style videos of quiet slime squishing send tingles up some people’s spines.

Tech learns to touch

While it may be our attachment to screens and gadgets that has us longing for a tactile world, that doesn’t mean tech can’t adapt. We’re starting to see high-tech textures and interfaces that feel warmer, more human, less perfect, and more worthy of our touch.

Image source: grandfailure / Adobe Stock.

For example, there are already at least two tech-enabled denim jackets. Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen created a cocoon-like garment that responds to touch, giving the wearer a gentle back rub. Levi’s and Google developed a jacket with a touch-sensitive fabric that lets you control your smartphone hands-free when you’re on the go.

Tech designers are also integrating handcrafted appeal and constructed imperfections to increase the appeal of home tech products to consumers, creating comforting rounded forms and muted colors that break with the sleekness and sterility of tech. Following this trend, Google Pixel Buds are pebble-shaped earbuds with textile cables. And Ikea’s ENEBY Bluetooth speakers are covered in a textured fabric of soft, mixed grays.

On the other edge of this trend, the Zero UI movement aims for more natural high-tech interactions, which means we’ll touch our tools less, but interact with them in warmer, more natural ways. You’ve experienced this already if you’ve talked to a personal digital assistant like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, or Siri. In small steps, these UIs are getting even more human — Amazon taught Alexa to laugh and tell jokes, and there’s a patent for technology that allows Siri to whisper back when you speak to her quietly.

Stock you can feel

When it comes to the visual arts, we’re seeing the touch and tactility trend in two big ways. The first is images that foreground bold, familiar textures (think cold water, dry grass, wet hair), especially with hands or whole bodies reaching out to touch them. Second, we’re seeing images of gentle human touch — embraces, kisses, intertwined fingers. They all address our missing elements: tactility and the warmth and complexity of face-to-face relationships with each other.

Image source: JP Danko/Stocksy / Adobe Stock.

The takeaway for designers and brands

Our brains and our bodies are exquisitely wired for a tactile world, but most of us haven’t been giving ourselves nearly enough of it. As consumers crave more texture and connection, brands and designers have an opportunity. It’s the perfect moment to embrace beautifully touchable, imperfect surfaces, textures, and crafts along with genuine moments of human connection. Not only do these images delight and tickle our most neglected sense, they may remind us to get back into touch.

Check out our curated touch and tactility gallery here, and stay with us in November and December as we talk to artists whose work elevates texture to a visual artform.