If your work shares similar ideas to this article, we are building a community of like minded designers and would love to hear from you. Find us at mattermindstudio.com.
Industrial designers are equipped with skills like ergonomics, technology, sustainability, rendering, systems-thinking and aesthetics. All are useful skills to begin solving for some of today's problems. These skills have been instrumental since the beginning of the industrial era. We tend to keep this kind of functionality at the center of what it means to be a designer of objects. We're perpetually asking: How does this product compare to other products on the market? How will my users interact with it? How do I make use of a new technology? How can this be manufactured most efficiently? What's the lifespan of this product?
If we look beyond the lens which products are most commonly understood, we see that designed objects are emotionally charged. Objects can illicit emotions of love or hate, they provoke pleasure or displeasure—but objects can play a more critical role.
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Objects like Venus of Willendorf and transitional objects fall within a particular spectrum of artifacts. Venus of Willendorf is one of the first sculptures of the human figure dating back 25,000 years ago and it happens to symbolize fertility and health. Transitional objects, like your everyday teddy bear, function as a way for a child to begin distinguishing 'the self' from 'the mother.' This category includes on one hand, thehistoric relationship between humans and objects, and on the other, the psychological effect objects have on us. They represent examples of the innermost conditions that all humans share—fear, grief, acceptance, denial, growth, anxiety, love, aspirations, healing, death. Objects play a critical roles in the human condition. To designers like me, this basic understanding is precisely what is kept in the periphery or is altogether absent from the principles with which we currently design.
When the idea that objects play not only inherent but also critical roles in the human condition is left out of the design process, it leads to an excess of fancy paper-clip holders, thousands of flat-packed cardboard chairs and fixations on the radius of a table corner. These types of designs aren't wrong, they've simply lost the higher order meaning of what it essentially is to be designing an object. Designers also make things like chairs or watches more sentimental or plug behavior-change into smart objects. While these types of designs may be beautiful, they often fail to properly question where the project will live and what implications they have on our history and cognition.We should be wary when we design simply for the sake of generating more sentimental experiences or for the sake of creating different kinds of emotional experiences. We should be cautious of the implications of blind faith for creating products.
I'm arguing that product design should carve out a new practice-based discipline that's about changing the way we think about, make and use objects. We can begin asking, 'How do we translate intelligence from the social sciences in to creating this object? How will users make significant meaning of this object in their lives? What future role will this object sustain in this person's family history?'
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Philosophy, cognitive science, anthropology, sociology and the arts have repeatedly shown us objects have the power to bring about complex thoughts and emotions and affect our well-being in compelling ways. We need to contain this understanding for how objects affect us into how we design, not merely in the aesthetics and purpose of the final product. How might decades and centuries of theory translate to a new design discipline? In what ways can this be situated more centrally in the sphere of industrial design than speculative design or object d'art? How might we redefine functionality?
Below are snapshots of a few notable case studies that begin to illustrate these conditions and domains.
Poetic Negotiations by Helena Kjellgren
A Certified Nurse Assistant sits down with a design researcher. One by one, the designer reveals a card and asks, "How would you read this image" and "How would you relate that to your work?"
Domain: Health Care; Dementia
In a healthcare setting, Certified Nurse Assistants are the caretakers who spend the most time with patients, yet their experience is not valued as highly as nurses or doctors. Design is used to articulate values that lie in the interactions between patient, caregiver and objects. Abstracted visual representations of objects act as mnemonic devices to prompt Certified Nurse Assistants to reflect on and reveal their experiences with dementia patients to researchers.
Material Communications by Doremy Diatta
After several child-focused therapy sessions, parents meet with design researcher and clinician to be introduced to a therapy object. The parent takes this object home to remind them of the skills they've learned in therapy. This object belongs to a larger set. [Photo by Daisy Chen]
Domain: Child Development; Family Therapy
Therapy often focuses on the thoughts one has and the actions one takes; leaving out the thousands of environmental factors one interacts with on a daily basis. A new spatial intervention works to aid clinicians in teaching behavioral therapy skills to parents. Symbolic objects elicit parents' memories of skills learned in behavioral therapy and are materializations of social, emotional lessons that result in parents practicing their skills more frequently at home.
Emotional Waste Management by Colleen Doyle
The user takes The Travel Spool to the corner store, the doctor's office or on vacation. When the user feels inclined, he ties a piece of string on an object. Over time, the user sees evidence of their experiences in the absence of the string on the spool. This object belongs to a larger set.
When we rely too heavily on material objects to carry our emotional waste, we may find ourselves burdened with a physical weight in the form of clutter. Design is used here as an agent to better understand why we acquire and keep objects in order to change how we consume and dispose of them. Objects act as materializations of sentiment and as essential items of psychological utility.
Vivere et Mori by June West
The grieving user looks into the 3-faced mirror for a confrontation with her own face and mortal body. The user poses questions to the 3 faces presented in the mirrors. This object belongs to a larger set.
Domain: Mental Health; Bereavement
Individuals struggle to find ways of coping with death. Traditional religions less frequently provide the structures to ease the psychological ramifications of grieving and the space for reflecting on what is truly important in life. Design is used for individuals to consciously compose their own frameworks, rituals, and objects for healing and contemplation. Objects act as mediators between oneself and the metaphysical.
Atmosphere Design by Lillian Tong
In a moment of stress or disarray, an employee opens the "Calm" ritual curtain and follows the form of the waves to be in a better state for starting her next task. This object belongs to a larger set.
Domain: Workplace Design
Because of globalization and economic competition, the workplace has become increasingly oppressive for employees. Design is used to rethink productivity in the workplace and result in the creation of emotional rituals. Objects act as prompts to perform with and aid in transitions between emotional states throughout the work day.
If your work, whether it's related to design or not, takes on a similar perspective we would love to hear about you and your work through this form. We are currently growing this discipline via community-building and research while building a formal practice. Visit Lillian, Colleen, and Doremy at mattermindstudio.com to learn more.