Observed: Even Darth Vader Makes Faces

Related posts:

The Super Bowl. That one Sunday a year where the majority of Americans crowd around their televisions to watch the championship football game — or, more commonly, the commercials. Volkswagen’s 2011 contribution, entitled The Force, was not only one of the more memorable ads, but also an intriguing study of emotion.

In The Force, a young child, dressed as Darth Vader wanders the house trying to control items with the Force. Failing, he hears his father come home and is excited when, through remote key start, the engine revs up.

While this is a cute commercial, what makes it fascinating the the child’s expressions.

The child in question is wearing a Darth Vader mask that offers no emotion and is designed as such. Still, at every event of attempted force control we clearly read his disappointment. Up to the point where he runs past his father to the car and the surprise on his face when it starts. I am not alone in this observation. Everyone I watched it with and spoke to afterwards felt they saw the same thing.

But this is impossible. By design Darth Vader has no face and no emotion. But the creators of the Volkswagen commercial were able to make us look past this and to the face behind it. Universally the audience knew the looks on the young boy’s face as defeat after defeat until he finally mastered the Force. Maybe this is because deep down we all remember being children wanting to be a Jedi (or a Sith). Whatever the reason, it is impressive the writers created so much empathy from a masked character. Authors employ this a lot – in novels, films, and now commercials. How can systems evoke emotion without a face? A lot of designers humanize their products with humanizing features but how can technology be humanized in a more subtle and evoking manner?

Otto, Dental Floss Dispenser


Otto image from Alessi

David Farkas

David is an interaction(s) designer working in the online and mobile realm. He focuses on the relation between the digital and the physical. Usability, goal oriented design, and consistency are key.

4 comments on this article

  1. Vicky Teinaki on

    This makes me think of Walt Disney’s famous flour sack illustrations http://techandpro.blogspot.com/2009/04/corn-sack.html in terms of showing emotion physically. Scott McCloud also talks about how we see faces in everything (especially cars) in Understanding Comics.

  2. Kamiel on

    David, you claim the impossible happened. Because Darth Vader doesn’t have a face he can’t express his emotions. However the absence of facial expressions doesn’t mean the human body is incapable of expressing emotions. This video proves we don’t need to look at an individuals face to detect emotions.

    For instance look at how the kid let’s his arms and head drop (at 0:20). Looks exactly like disappointment to me.
    And at 0:52 I don’t need to look at his face to see he’s very startled. The way he turn’s his body and holds his arms tells me enough.

    I find your explanation rather silly. This has nothing to do with remembering something form childhood. Emotions are expressed using your whole body. By focusing on the face you missed all the other expressions the makers of the commercial used to convey the kids emotions.

    This is however nothing new. For instance stage actors need to use their whole body all the time to express emotions. Because only the first couple of rows can see an actors face. It wouldn’t be as convincing otherwise.

  3. Greg Giersch on

    Great point on how we can humanize technology in a more subtle manner. It doesn’t always take a face to convey emotions and tap into our universal memories.

  4. I agree with Kamiel… this type of full body expression is all over, but I’ve grown to learn from it in Lucha Libra wrestling (a style of Mexican professional wrestling famous for use of masks). In a conversation with several professional wrestlers years ago, I expressed that if I ever could do wrestling, I’d love to wear a mask because I didn’t think I could make the faces, but they explained so much of what wrestling was about was the body. You had all these wrestlers who wore full face masks, but you never once wondered “are they in pain?”… “are they a bad guy”… “are they happy”… your body conveys all of this. I just thought the commercial had great direction because the kid did such a great job :) The direction was the winner here.