The Collective Instinct

Exploring the human inclination to curate: what we keep, why we keep it, and what it means for design.

Photographs by Camilla Engman

As rational beings in a mostly unpredictable world, we have evolved to categorize our observations and identify patterns between them, finding comfort in this extension of perceptual order. We note similarities, form taxonomies, and compartmentalize in an effort to exert control over the myriad tangible and intangible structures we encounter on a daily basis. The sciences all rely on systems of categorization; from the delineation of geological strata to the classes of quantum particles, it seems we are programmed to uncover systems of logic within nature. But we are equally capable of creating meaning from the abstract. Numerical systems allow us to superimpose a linear structure on the world of objects and ideas, and language itself is governed by constructions of grammar and punctuation, making meaning of sound and thought.

But there are other, more personal ways of ordering ideas and information, informing our world not only with objective meaning, but with meaningful stories as well. When we envision emotional or historical relationships between seemingly disparate objects or experiences, we create narrative. We name our world, not only to understand it factually, but to make sense of it on an individual level.

The recognition of these two distinct systems of classification is particularly critical for those of us in design, because we are responsible for understanding users’ extant relationships to information and ideas, as well as for guiding those relationships, whether that’s through the structure of information on a website or the appearance of packaging around a product. When we quantify data, assess demographics, or define markets, we attempt to understand both the categories of users at play in a given project and the categories by which those users make sense of their experience. And when a website or product draws a line between users’ narrative and objective systems of reasoning, it provides greater comfort and usability, increasing customer satisfaction and encouraging use.

A critical factor of categorization is that it presupposes a collection – of objects, of experiences, of laws, of knowledge – it doesn’t matter what, it just matters that by mental powers of perception or physical power of accumulation, one has gathered a set of things that feel related. This impulse to collect is the deeper underlying behavior of interest here; categorization is simply the sense-making layer we construct atop our physical and psychological hoarding. Understand how, what, and why a person collects, and you gain an empathetic view into his cultural, societal, and emotional narratives.

Collecting often begins with a personal affinity for one object or idea. We happen to come across a beautiful antique tin that stirs our aesthetic and nostalgic sensibilities or see a painting that unleashes a curiosity for modern art. Maybe we stumble upon a practical object like an egg beater or a road sign that embodies some concept worthy of consideration, despite the mundane, or because of it. It is that feeling of affinity with an object and what it represents that makes us desire more of the same.

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