Meaningful Objects

My family got a very hard lesson recently in how human beings give meaning to objects. Coming back from a plane trip, my six-year-old’s favorite stuffed animal was left on the plane. Despite multiple trips to the airport lost and found, poor Moussie was gone. All of us cried. Once my wife even remarked, “We’ve cried less for human family members who have died.” And it was true. This stuffed dog had an incredible amount of meaning for us.

In considering the characteristics of good interaction design for my book, meaningful was one trait I have frequently thought I overlooked. But I’m not sure designers can really make anything meaningful to anyone. Objects only become meaningful through use and context.

Ruth Mugge, a PhD Student at Delft University of Technology, did her dissertation on product attachment–why people get attached to the things they do. Here’s a brief article on her work:

Mugge’s underlying idea was that if people feel strongly attached to a product, they will be less likely to discard it (which her research confirmed). The lifespan of the product therefore increases, which has positive environmental effects. Mugge distinguishes four factors influencing product bonding: self-expression (can I distinguish myself with a product?), group affinity (does ownership of a product connect me to a group?), memories (related to the product) and pleasure (provided by the product).

Now, I have not read Making Meaning: How Successful Companies Deliver Meaningful Experiences yet, but I am dubious that designers alone can make a product meaningful. Pleasurable, yes. Useful, yes. But meaningful? Significance is a personal thing; what might be important to one person is garbage to another. I’m not sure you can make meaning anymore than you make an experience; both are created in the minds of users. As a designer, you can only design for the possibility of meaning (and for an experience).

I think I am much more of the school of thought outlined by Peter-Paul Verbeek in his book What Things Do (My review). Products, Verbeek writes, coshape the relation between humans and the world. Objects allow us to form a relationship with the world based on how they are used. The meaning we derive from objects comes from that use. Had my daughter’s stuffed animal sat on a shelf untouched, it would not have the same meaning as it had because it was used. Thus, designers should design for use, not meaning. Meaning comes through use. Verbeek says, “Products to which people develop an attachment are not generally as emotionally charged and irreplaceably present as heirlooms, but neither are they as anonymous as a throw-away item…what distinguishes these goods from our most loved possessions is that they are used rather than cherished.”

Moussie was both used and cherished. He was meaningful. Goodbye, old friend. Thanks for everything.

5 thoughts on “Meaningful Objects

  1. That’s really sad about Moussie, sorry to hear that story. Probably doesn’t help but it is going to make an interesting story for your daughter when she’s a lot older – I can imagine her retelling this story at a dinner party when she’s in her 20s.

  2. Dan, hopefully, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you do read Making Meaning. First, while the title is alliterative, we’re very clear in the book that designers mostly EVOKE meaning, not create it (though in some cases, they can contribute to making new meanings). Second, we explain how. Third, we talk some about how it’s already happening, mostly accidentally/unintentionally or instinctively (which aren’t very good business strategies).
    You should also read The Meaning of Things by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as it’s still one of the best pieces of research and analysis of meaning and objects.

  3. Interesting. A little snippet from an iRobot NPR interview a couple of days ago stuck in my mind. They reported that a significant number of customers who returned devices for repair specifically requested the exact same device be returned, not a new replacement, the old one they’ve become attached too.
    I cant help but feel there’s a fundamental difference between emotional meaning we apply to a product and the delightful attachment we can draw from something like an iRobot, mini cooper, chumby, some Apple products, etc.
    To a certain degree I think the latter can be a design goal, if understood correctly, and I agree the former is completely out of the designers control.

  4. The Australian artist and jeweller, Susan Cohn, has done a lot of work in this area. She makes a lot of jewellery from anodised aluminium precisely because it scratches and marks and dents so much. The evidence of use is really important in jewellery.
    She also talks about the culture of expensive fakes (Rolexes, etc.) and fakes of her own jewellery. She said to me once that if she were to offer someone a real piece in exchange for a fake one their partner had given them on a special occasion and that they had worn for ages, they probably wouldn’t take it.
    So, no, you can’t design meaningful attachment into an object, but you can design an object to acquire it quicker than others. Evidence of use is a good road – think of leather ageing compared to plastic, for example. Most modern products are shiny mass-produced meaningless junk, sadly.

  5. You might find “Emotionally Durable design” by Jonathan Chapman highlights a lot of the issues around lack of emotional attachment and superficial experiences with products. Inspired me tremendously for my thesis work back in the days, a great argument and easy read.

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