Event Design and the Psychology of Texture

It’s time for our third “elements of a theme’s construction” post. We did color, we did pattern, and now it’s time to do texture. You know by now that you want your keynote speaker’s audience to be receptive, orderly, and feeling the flow, so you’ve picked out a gentle but geometric pattern of silver, black, and blue. But you also need to think about how your event feels — or, more often, looks like it would feel. This is the realm of texture.

Opening Note: It is difficult to discuss texture separately from material, which could easily be a very large book when it comes to psychology. Every different material has its own psychological connotations, down to the difference between mahogany and redwood. As such, we’re setting side commonly-discussed “textures” such as ‘woody,’ ‘woolen,’ or other textures that are the result of material, and discussing the most basic aspects of texture in the abstract.

A World of Associations
Much like color and pattern, the psychology of texture is the psychology of association. Because everyone has a unique history, everyone will have a unique individual set of associations — but for the most part, certain textures are associated with certain attributes.

“True” smoothness — as opposed to the smooth of a smooth-haired dachshund, which is still actually fairly rough — is rarely found in nature except in very specific textural circumstances (such as the proverbial baby’s butt). Because smoothness is almost always man-made, the most powerful association smooth has is with artifice. Other attributes of the texture will determine whether your smooth comes off as modern, classy, cheap, care-worn, or master-crafted.

Interestingly, roughness doesn’t carry the connotations of nature in opposition to smoothness. Instead, rough implies the opposite of modern: it can be natural, but it can also be rustic or primitive but manmade. Burlap, rough-hewn timber, and wrought iron are all just as rough as rock, bark, and seashells. Depending on its other qualities, rough textures can call up associations such as quaint, simple, hand-crafted, raw, makeshift, or just about anything to do with the natural world, like grass, fur, or bone.

Things that are hard are first and foremost thought of as solid (even if it’s not really all that accurate of an association, as with glass). Slip and fall on marble, and you’re going to hurt a lot more than if you slipped and fell on grass or even wood. Hardness implies that something will last, that it’s not going to break, and that you can depend on it. It can, depending on other attributes, also bring up associations of protection, danger, fragility, quality, or age.

Being soft is psychologically associated with being safe. Soft things don’t hurt; on the contrary, they’re inviting. This doesn’t carry the implication of being short-lived or insubstantial (not the opposite of hard in this respect), but it does mean soft textures tend to make people relax. Depending on its other qualities, softness can evoke youth, nurturing, comfort, malleability, or ease.

Almost all other words used to describe texture are either synonyms of the above (i.e. supple=smooth) or are patterns (i.e. crinkly), or are materials (i.e. rubbery), and information on them can be found somewhere in these three posts if you read closely (or it’s a material). And now, you have the basic background information you need to develop your theme using the colors, patterns, and textures that will most powerfully reinforce the mood you’re looking to create. Have fun!