Our prehistoric instincts make us crave the smaller form of gadgetry

From the Mini Cooper and miniskirt to skinny mobile phones and televisions you could mistake for a picture frame; humans have developed an obsession with the petit.

Product designers seek out the streamlined, and don’t want to be associated with the big, broad, or chunky. But is this learned behaviour, or an innate obsession?

There was a time where we claimed size mattered, but now all men can breathe a sigh of relief. Small is now our friend, and big our foe. But, strangely, the reason dates back to our dusty, grimy ancestry.

Thin is in our nature

Psychologist Dr. Colin Gill believes that humans, particularly man, have an innate tendency to streamline their lives. The association with using smaller and more functional tools dates back to when man first evolved from apes.

“We are dealing with, potentially, a fundamental psychological aspect of our evolution,” Gill explains.

“If we look at man’s evolution, in most cultures men never carry bags. Men prefer to put things in their pockets, and not have any excess baggage. Some believe that this goes back to when we were hunter gatherers and men didn’t want to carry bulky equipment about.

“We wanted things to be small and functional, something easy that could be hung from a belt, so we could concentrate on hunting antelopes. Therefore men are pre-conditioned to want things smaller, and easily portable. So it is men in particular who drive this design emphasis for things to be smaller.”

And if you don’t picture yourself as the hunter-gatherer type? Gill believes men with more lofty concerns are equally likely to favour a minimalist device.

“It is also probable that this idea developed alongside religious institutions,” he says. “The idea of not having material wealth is not just practical, but spiritually, believed to be a very good thing.”

And as technology advances, the human race will become more and more fixated on the tiny. Gill believes we’re heading towards a point when humans and machines will merge. Before too long, we will be the product.

“All our electronic devices in the future will come in one piece of machinery. That will be your telephone, your television, your camera, your computer, and it will all come in one small device.

“Looking ahead further, these devices will become implanted in us. This may sound quite shocking, but being micro-chipped at birth in two or three generations is the future. Your health can be checked, and we will become intertwined with technology.”

We might be getting ahead of ourselves with microchipped babies, but the cult of small already has a firm grip on our society.

Technological advances in the last decade have accelerated Britain’s minimalist transformation. What began with a trimming of the hemline in the 60s, soon led to CDs that replaced vinyl, before themselves being threatened by MiniDisc, and ousted by MP3.

The Mini’s spiritual successor is the Smart car, and while technophiles once rejoiced over the advances of the SCART cable, we now use Wi-Fi and DLNA to beam pictures from a laptop to the TV.

A wireless hotspot on every street corner threatens to cure us of our cable addiction for good, while a camera in every pocket means our shoeboxes full of memories now reside on a single memory card, or better still, on Facebook.

And, in an age where jumbotron TVs are City boys’ flavour of the month, it’s their skinny profiles, rather than sprawling displays, which really impress. We want to make things smaller, slimmer, or simpler. In some cases, breaking world records in the process.

World-first minimalism

Whether it’s driven by a particular designer’s ego, or public demand is hard to say. But the title of “thinnest” and “smallest” are prized amongst the industrial design community.

Japanese electronics giant Sharp has spent decades duking it out with rivals for such titles, and its latest battle ground is your living room.

The company’s latest soundbars offer a rare window into the design principles that stem from an obsession with minimalist design.

By their very nature, soundbars adopt a subtle approach to home audio. They replace a traditional home cinema system with a single, svelte unit. Where you’d usually find piles of speakers and enough wiring to start your own telecoms company, a soundbar presents a more tasteful option: a sleek and slimline speaker with separate sub-woofer.

The effect, to most ears, is identical. However, the aesthetic is pure, simple, and almost entirely unobtrusive.

Embracing minimalist principles has seen Sharp smash manufacturing records, creating the thinnest soundbar in the world, the HT-SL7OH, measuring a diminutive 26mm in height while still packing in ear-wobbling sound.

Crucially its design maintains two 50 Watt speakers, and a 100 watt subwoofer on the side. You’d never guess from its appearance alone, but this tiny TV addition is a fully-powered home cinema kit.

Benjamin Bennet, Product Manager for Sharp’s AV division is excited by the quality of craftsmanship and engineering squeezed inside.

“The initial concept was to have a slim soundbar, and an active subwoofer. Putting those together gives a 200 watt output. You would have a slim TV that looks as good off, and is it does on. We had to answer the question of how to create sound that matches the TV quality, but also looks good at the same time?

“Design has become a very central factor. People don’t want big boxes. When slim TVs came onto the market you couldn’t get the sound quality without big speakers, and that is where soundbars really came into the picture.

“The key to the design, while it’s slim, is having the subwoofer as well as the speaker. It means you don’t lose any sound quality. The initial response has been excellent. It is a good product set, that is very attractive to look at, not bulky, but crucially at a very competitive price.”

Minimalism as therapy

But beyond oneupmanship and bravado, our age-old obsession with tiny possessions could have a therapeutic effect.

Designer Rosie Enock from furniture and interior design house Francis Sultana believes humans are drawn to small conceptual designs, and look to adopt a streamlined approach to offset the stresses of everyday modern life.

”The small is something we associate with detailed engineering, and therefore we seem to be drawn towards it. It seems to stem from a quest to eliminate the unnecessary elements in our life, striving to get back to core functionality.

“When it comes to product design we want to focus on what matters, and forget any excess… pack as much as possible into a small space, with the aim of getting the most function from your form.

“From a design perspective it is about maximising space. Designers want to create more physical space by eliminating unnecessary elements.”

And, according to our experts, it’s a trick that works. We’re psychologically wired to enjoy minimalist living. Even crave it. At least now, while struggling to justify the purchase of a new mobile phone, tablet computer or a piece of household gadgetry, you can blame your upbringing rather than your wallet.

The End
  • M A

    A strange mix of anthropological & historical guesswork – the writer suggests that the hunter gatherers natural disposition was compounded by a religious phenomena – a flight of fancy that is fundamentally flawed considering religious institutions are part and parcel of the move to farming & urban living. Besides the factual inaccuracy of simply melding together two psychologies literally millennia apart – the fact is we know very little about we call hunter gatherers except that the bulk of those populations were coastal forest dwellers subsisting mostly on berries,fruits and shellfish – the archetypal beast hunters would be seasonal and occasional – simply on the basis of effort to gain ratio. The entire community would spend most time sheltered or foraging, carrying bags who knows – not expending valuable resource running after rabbits. So I very much doubt the reason we crave tiny objects is a piece of prehistoric hardwiring – more that we simply like things that fit in our hands for quite obvious reasons whether its a toy or a tool. A tool that fits easily and comfortably into the palm of your hand is simply better than one that does not fit comfortably or is cumbersome.

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