What do you think of when you hear the word “kiki”? How about “bouba”? If you’re like most people, you picture kiki as something angular, crisp or starlike, while bouba gives you a sense of something rounded, smooth, or slow. A recent New York Times article explored this with an interactive quiz, and it made us reflect on how these patterns are broader than a linguistic party trick.
Patterns like these can also help us explore some of the ineffable connections we make with things around us, and the narratives our brains construct around these objects and places. The structures we inhabit, the design choices that comprise these experiences, and the communities who interact with them add up to a kind of spatial narrative unique to each place.
Every space has a character, and as designers, it’s our job to bring this character to its full potential.
During the pandemic, physical spaces (and our psychology around them) were drastically altered as we brought exhibits, installations, and galleries online. We encouraged visitors to stay at home, and created 3D walkthroughs, video tours, and online exhibits to keep audiences engaged at a safe distance. But with the return of in-person events, the need to fully bring the space of an exhibit alive is more crucial than ever.
Experiences become meaningful and memorable when they are grounded in a specific moment and a specific site rather than something that feels like it might have happened anywhere.
We collaborated with Sing Sing Prison Museum to create their first online exhibit, Opening Windows, which provides insight into the history of Sing Sing through deep dives on different People, Places, and Objects. To do this, we wanted to establish and make vivid the stark contrast between the historic prison and the surrounding lush Hudson Valley.
We wanted visitors to feel the harsh confines of the original Cellblock, the largest site of mass incarceration at the time of its construction. And in contrast, the lush expanse of Hudson Valley just outside those small windows, an idyllic landscape that provided life, transportation, and resources ripe for industrialization.
These contrasts of confinement and flow are as intuitive to us as the kiki and bouba shapes, and serve as familiar patterns for navigating the complex stories of the prison over time.
We use similar spatial narrative techniques in our forthcoming work Kofi’s Fire: An Interactive Graphic History, which tells the story of Kofi, an enslaved man in lower Manhattan during the New York Conspiracy of 1741. In our work with Historic Hudson Valley, we wanted to juxtapose the familiar contemporary landscapes of New York City and State with those of the past, so students and teachers can understand what has changed — and what hasn’t — over the last 280 years. By establishing the landmarks of the physical landscape, we anchor the social and political landscapes and give resonance to the human stories that took place in the taverns, slave ships, and courtrooms featured in the story.
What makes a space feel like home? Voices and faces of community.
For the Sloan Museum of Discovery in Flint, MI, we needed to help the museum tell the complex and challenging history of their unique community. From the Anishinaabe, the first people of the region who are still very much part of the living history, to the ongoing challenges of the Water Crisis, we wanted to center the people of Flint as the bedrock of the community — and the exhibit itself.
The metaphors of time and history as rivers are familiar ones, and we wanted to find a fresh approach for this river city, to contrast this bouba flow with some kiki story moments that might feel difficult or uncomfortable, but needed to be said. We interviewed dozens of people of all ages and backgrounds to create a database of story moments that are projected throughout the gallery as people walk along the river and step on the StoryStones that line the path.
About Blue Telescope
Need more kiki and bouba in your experiences? We work with clients to engage the landscape, architecture, community, culture, and history of various spaces and embed their character directly into our projects with creative thinking, deep research, and an openness to unexpected answers. For more, check out bluetelescope.com or get in touch at email@example.com.