Meaningful White Lines

Could Montgomery Ward's 131 different designs of pocket knife be said to be the result of the discovery of new ways of cutting? --Forty (quoted in Petroski 1992:25)

Children would not sit still until they got their hands on Silly Putty. Then they sat only long enough to press it against their favorite comics and peel away the impressions. --John Lacy (1995)

Sign. 1. A usually brief communication crafted into the design of a plant, animal, or consumer product. 2. A meaningful mark, line, shape, pattern, brand, label, seal, banner, badge, decoration, symbol, gloss, color, aroma, spice, cadence, tone, edging, spangle, or applique added to a product to transmit information (rather than, e.g., to provide functionality, durability, or strength).

Usage: Through messaging features--e.g., the hem, lapels, and shoulder pads of a business suit--consumer products "speak" to us as gestures. Messaging features evolve through a process of product selection, which gives voice to seemingly innate human preferences for products that not only function well but also "express themselves."

Silly Putty
. An intriguing case in point is a chemical concoction of boric acid and silicone oil called Silly Putty. Invented in 1943 by a General Electric employee trying to develop a synthetic rubber, the substance had no practical use and seemed doomed to extinction. But the compound survived--marketed in shiny, plastic Easter-egg shells--as its messaging features (e.g., the innocent pink hue, lively bounce, doughy feel, and colorful case) gave the product something meaningful to "say" to children. That is, it had the right nonverbal stuff as a toy, and after mention in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" (see MEDIA), a Silly Putty craze ensued, and endured for half a century as a child's plaything and later as a symbol of 1950s innocence and youthful optimism. (N.B.: In 1968, Silly Putty was carried into space by the Apollo 8 astronauts to alleviate boredom and to anchor down tools [Lacy 1995].)

Biology. Millions of years before the advent of products, however, messaging features were already prominent in biology. Peculiar features of the orangutan's face, e.g., are its cheek flanges--very visual, fleshy flaps on the right and left sides of a mature male's face. Though without practical function, cheek flanges visually "enlarge" an orangutan's face to signal dominance, rank, and seniority (much as the graying "silverback" saddle cue bespeaks dominance in male gorillas). (N.B.: In Borneo, a male orang's cheek flanges appear at ca. eight, and reach full size by ca. 15 years of age [information complied by Susan E. Wong, CNS].)

Botany. In plants, messaging features are called secondary products. In the tobacco plant, e.g., nicotine is a secondary product.

Automobile tail fins. Exotic tail fins decorated American automobiles in the 1950s. The conspicuous fins added nothing to automotive safety, durability, efficiency, or speed, but were popular nonetheless, suggesting, in tandem with tail lights, that 1950s-era cars were jet propelled. The most outlandish tail fins were worn by the 1959 Cadillac.

Refrigerator magnets. Our preference for products that express themselves is clearly revealed in the burgeoning magnetic artifacts that adorn our refrigerators: ". . . beginning in the mid-'60s, magnets in thousands of shapes (from faux Oreos to mini-Mickey Mice) mysteriously appeared like alien beings, and the refrigerator was transformed. It became a kind of family album, a rotating exhibition of the crayonist's art, a recipe repository, and anything else we might want. What it can never be again is an inexpressive cooler of Tuesday's meatloaf" (Edwards and Nelson 1993:B5).

E-Commentary: "Dave, over the years I have observed that bumper stickers and car decals often are very emblematic of the belief system, and often of the plasticity, of the mind of their owners. Aside from the usual tourist stickers or flags, those bumper stickers that espouse one view over another, or some irrational fear of government intervention, speak volumes of their owners' personalities. Many of these people are argumentative, unwilling to reconcile, and hostile in their beliefs that their ideas or beliefs trump all others. In essence, they would be defined by some as extremists. When I tried to logically converse with them, I met little success in communicating, because often there is just one view: theirs. It can serve as a warning to the cognoscenti in dealing with them, and it can help to avoid a confrontation as well. In fact, I encourage attorneys to ask potential jurors during voir dire what kinds of bumper stickers they have on their cars; sometimes it is amusing, other times it is illuminating." --Joe Navarro, M.A., Special Agent, FBI (8/17/01 6:23:44 AM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes. Like many successful products, Silly Putty has something to "say." Its brightly colored egg case addresses the ventral temporal lobe; when bounced it speaks to the middle temporal gyrus. At a deeper level, via emotional modules linked to vision centers of the amphibian midbrain, lively movements give Silly Putty its "personality." The smoothness of its ovoid container--which audibly clicks when snapped shut--pleases free nerve endings and vibratory receptors of children's hands, as well.


Copyright 1998 - 2013 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
"On the Road from Spokane to Seattle" [simple nonverbal lines can be far more meaningful than words] (August 2009; Interstate 90, Washington State, USA) by David B. Givens (copyright 2009)