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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So if something beautiful can actually change you, what's going on, I mean, inside of us? Well, that's what Richard Seymour is really curious about.

RICHARD SEYMOUR: My name's Richard Seymour. I'm a product designer.

RAZ: And his company designs consumer products, bikes and tea kettles and cans of deodorant. The kinds of things that have to catch your eye to make you say, I need this. Can you, I mean, would you be able to like, articulate what beauty is to you?

SEYMOUR: I can tell you what beauty is to me. It is a particular series of sensations and I can feel it in myself because, as a designer, I need to do that. Now that may be different from other people, but I'm sort of tuned in a particular way, to pick things up as feelings, and then try and reinterpret them and express them through my work.

RAZ: What does it feel like?

SEYMOUR: It can feel poignant. It can feel liberating and exciting. It can feel elevating. There's lots of different ways of it.

RAZ: Here's one way Richard feels it, or felt it once, when he was little.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD SEYMOUR TED TALK)

SEYMOUR: My father told me a story about an 18th century watchmaker, and what this guy had done, I mean, he used to produce these fabulously beautiful watches. And one day one of his customers came into his workshop and asked him to clean the watch that he'd bought. And the guy took it apart, and one of the things he pulled out was one of the balance wheels. And as he did so, his customer noticed that on the backside of the balance wheel was engraving, were words. And he said to the guy, why have you put stuff on the back that no one will ever see? And the watchmaker turned around and said, God can see it. Now I am not in the least bit religious and neither was my father, but at that point I noticed something happening here. I felt something in this plexus of blood vessels and nerves, and there must be some muscles in there, as well, somewhere I guess. But I felt something and it was a physiological response. And from that point on, from my - I was eight at the time, I began to think of things in a different way. I began to ask myself the simple question is, do we actually think beauty or do we feel it? I think it's about feeling beauty.

A lot of the brain is set aside not for thinking, and a lot of the brain is set aside for processing sensory input. And so it's not hardly surprising that we feel it before we think it because the wiring between our sensory apparatus into our brain is actually shorter than the more convoluted wiring that goes through our cognitive senses. So that means that the information arrives earlier and there are parts of our brain that deal with that and determine whether they're pleasurable or not.

RAZ: How do we know how to identify it?

SEYMOUR: Well, that's an interesting question. One thing we can go to quite sophisticated levels with brain scanning, and what have you, to see the electrical activity. But the most important thing is that we know it when we feel it. You know, you don't go, that is beautiful, in your mind, you go, mmmmm, and then, mmm, that is beautiful. So we should trust our senses, we should trust our feelings. I even remember the first time I got a reasonably expensive cassette deck, and the door, instead of springing open in a nasty plasticky way when you pressed the button, it opened with a cybernetic sigh.

RAZ: Oh, I remember that.

SEYMOUR: Now how did that make you feel? It made you feel good, it's what it makes you feel.

RAZ: The same thing, by the way, goes for, say, a car.

SEYMOUR: If you think about an automobile, what are you touching? The steering wheel, the pedals, and maybe the gear shift especially if you're in Europe. Well, that's an opportunity to produce a beautiful handshake to the object every time you use it. This is where a lot of people in industry don't seem to get it. They say, oh, that's an area we can cut costs on. You say, look, are you crazy? This is the handshake of the object. This is where you touch it. This is way it should be at its most profoundly delicious ...

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD SEYMOUR TED TALK)

SEYMOUR: Do you remember when lights used to just go on and off, click, click, when you close the door on a car? And then somebody, I think it was BMW, introduced a light that went out slowly. Remember that? I remember it clearly. Do you remember the first time you rode in a car and it did that? I remember sitting there thinking, this is fantastic. In fact, I've never found anybody that doesn't like the light that goes out slowly. I thought, what the hell is that about? So I started to ask myself questions about it, and the first was, I'd ask other people, do you like it, yes, why. And they'd say, oh, it feels so natural, or you know, it's nice. I thought, well, that's not good enough. Can we cut down a little bit further because, as a designer, I need the vocabulary, I need the keyboard of how this actually works. And so, I did some experiments, and I suddenly realized that there was something that did exactly that, light to dark in six seconds. Exactly that. Do you know what it is? Anyone? That thing, the cinema or the theater. It's actually just happened here. Light to dark in six seconds. And when that happens, you're sitting there going, no, the movie's about to start. Or you're going, that's fantastic, I'm looking forward to it. I get a sense of anticipation. Now, I'm not a neuroscientist. I don't know even if there is something called a conditioned reflex, but it might be, because the people I speak to in the Northern Hemisphere that used to going to the cinema get this, and some of the people that I speak to that have never seen a movie or been to a theater don't get it in the same way. Everybody likes it, but some like it more than others.

RAZ: During his TED Talk, Richard Seymour flashed a picture, a photograph, on the screen that looks, well, it's hard to tell.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD SEYMOUR TED TALK)

SEYMOUR: This is one of the most beautiful things I know. It's a plastic bag, and when I looked at it at first, I thought, no, there's no beauty in that. Then I found out that this plastic bag, if I put it into a filthy puddle or a stream filled with coliforms and all sorts of disgusting stuff, that that filthy water will migrate through the walls of the bag by osmosis and end up inside it as pure, potable drinking water. And all of a sudden, this plastic bag was extremely beautiful to me.

SEYMOUR: This plastic bag, as we call it, dropped in a dirty puddle in Africa, within an hour or so it can deliver the, you know, pure drinking water. Now that is a beautiful thought to me. It generates similar sensations in my body that other forms of beauty would because it's so right and it's so good.

RAZ: You said in your talk, in your TED Talk, that we don't always understand what's beautiful until we know the story behind it, the narrative, right?

SEYMOUR: That's correct.

RAZ: And you show this photograph ...

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD SEYMOUR TED TALK)

SEYMOUR: Look at that. What are you feeling about it?

The picture I'm talking about is clearly a naive picture, but that it's drawn with a crayon and it is of a butterfly taking off from a flower ...

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD SEYMOUR TED TALK)

SEYMOUR: Is it beautiful? Is it exciting? I'm watching your faces very carefully. There's some rather bored looking gentlemen and some slightly engaged looking ladies. Now I'm going to tell you what it is. Are you ready? This is the last act on this Earth of a little girl, called Heidi, five years old, before she died of cancer this month. That's the last thing she did. The last physical act. Look at that picture. Look at the innocence. Look at the beauty in it. Is it beautiful now? Stop. Stop. How do you feel? Where are you feeling this? And I'm watching your faces because your faces are telling me something. There's a lady over there that's actually crying, by the way. But what are you doing?

I like to look at people's faces when they're reacting to things. When someone's reacting to something that they often think is exquisitely beautiful, their face isn't doing what you think it would do. You'd think, wow, they'd be sort of loving this, or there'd be a big smile on their face. It's not like that. You've usually got steepled brows and more something that looks like pain than it looks like beauty. I think it's the bitter-sweetness, the tension between the sweetness and the bitterness that often creates this heightened sense of beauty in something.

RAZ: Do you think we need it, like in a way we need love or food?

SEYMOUR: I believe that we need beauty to at the most astounding level. I think if we deprive ourselves of the appreciation and the contract with beauty that it diminishes our existence, quite considerably. And that's what makes me suspicious about it. Is it just an emotional piece of icing on a cake or does it have a fundamental reason for existing within Homo Sapiens? Is it really there to just make us feel good or is it there to actually help us navigate and understand our lives?

RAZ: Richard Seymour. He's a partner in Seymour Powell, it's a design company, based in London. He spoke at TED in London in 2011. Richard, thanks so much.

SEYMOUR: Wonderful. Thank you. It's been a pleasure. In fact, it's been beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ALL THIS BEAUTY")

THE WEEPIES: (Singing) All this beauty. Might have to close your eyes. Slowly, open wide.

RAZ: Thanks for listening to the show this week. If you missed any of it, or if you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit TED.NPR.org. You can also find many more TED Talks at TED.com, and you can download the program through iTunes or the NPR smartphone app.

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