Tangibility in a Digital Era


Vincent Pagé

Since the phenomena of being locked inside, I’ve found myself missing the sensation of touch. Lockdown has become a sort of sensory deprivation chamber in some ways, disallowing the holding of a friend’s hand, touching the sand at a new beach in a new country, or experiencing the weight of the utensils at a restaurant your first time there. I used to be so involved with my hands through things like whittling, sketching, writing with a pencil, and sculpting clay coffee-mugs that were never truly worthy of making it into the cupboard. But lately my activities have narrowed, largely composed of replying to emails and doomscrolling Twitter and Instagram.

But before the digital era, one of the main ways we would interact with the world was through touch. Of course there was and is sound, sight, smell, taste etc, but I’d suggest that none has been reduced by tech and lockdown more than touch.

We’re buying our oranges and lemons online through our glass phones, our coffee-mugs online through glass phones, our glasses online through glass phones; it’s rare we’re feeling the genuine physicality of much of these products or objects before buying them. And worst of all is when that sensation is off, when you thought you knew the feel but your product shows up at your doorstep being very much a C-list version of your A-list expectations.

And now more than ever due to this missing sensation, I find myself utterly drawn towards websites that have a sense of tangibility. Though they exist in the ethereal digital plane in a series of 1’s and 0’s, I leave these websites with a sense that I was there with them, that on top of sight, touch was triggered (I’ll let you know when we figure out how to make a website smell like the ocean).

Ultimately what I’m talking about is interaction design, but it’s a little deeper than that when it’s leveraged effectively. Someone who knows how to design a website that truly “feels” is rare but so, so valuable. If I move my mouse over something that illuminates, there is sensation beyond sight. A real interaction, a cause and effect, just like picking up and squeezing a lemon for its ripeness. There’s a human sense of interacting that has been so missing from our leap to digital that it needs to be the next focal point of web and digital design.

A few examples of what I’m talking about:

Julie Bonnemoy

While this site as a whole is a little “much” for me, I think that the use of water ripples over her work lends such a gentle sense of touch, that it actually feels like you’re running your fingertips through water. The reason this is effective is because if you look at her work, it is gentle and understated, and I end up not just seeing her portfolio pieces with my eyeballs, but feeling them too, with my finger hovering over my trackpad.

Playground Paris

Perhaps the simplest, but most perfect example of what I’m talking about comes from the graphic design agency Playground. The text is black, present, but once you hover over it the words turn into an array of bright pastel colours that then fade back to black after a few seconds. The hero of this site literally allows you to “play” with the text, and the fact that it fades back into black indicates that you can stay as long as you want, and that playtime is done when you’re ready to scroll on and learn more. I’ve been on this website once and have not forgotten the experience.


The final example I’ll use comes from Cuberto Design & Development for a new banking app. Again, this interaction is simple, but totally lends itself to a tactile experience. When hovering over “Banking Reimagined”, there’s a colourful light that shines through the text. With such a bold statement, you’d better convince me quickly that anything about “Banking” has been “Reimagined” but this manages to achieve it. The sensation I take away from this is almost like I’m waving a flashlight around on a dark screen, and it allows me to illuminate these words. It makes me feel like I am there, interacting and experiencing them, accumulating into a sensation that is so much more than just reading text, but almost as if I am imagining it in the first place.

This is all to say that I miss interacting with the outdoor world, and that engaging with a screen 15 hours a day is slowly sucking the life force out of me, as I’m sure it is with most everyone. But it doesn’t have to. Tonight just make sure to consciously scratch your cat, hold the ingredients you’re going to make dinner with, and appreciate when some team of designers and developers thoughtfully worked to make the subtlest shift in a website so that it felt for that moment, just a little more human.

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