Letting Objects speak

DS 69: Proceedings of E&PDE 2011, the 13th International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education, London, UK, 08.-09.09.2011

Year: 2011
Editor: Kovacevic, Ahmed, Ion, William, McMahon, Chris, Buck, Lyndon and Hogarth, Peter
Author: Leblanc, Tatjana
Series: E&PDE
Section: Pedagogy
Page(s): 305-310


“We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all we are surely Homo significans - meaning makers“ D. Chandler
Communication is not limited to words, sounds or gestures that people use to converse among themselves. Artifacts are also vehicles of messages, which emit multi-sensory cues and generate affordance. Yet, in order to be understood we need to speak the same language. Therefore, designers need to learn how to use cues that can be effortlessly interpreted by a variety of users. Creating meaningful products is a subject that is indeed of great importance to design. Although, linguists, semioticians and cognitive psychologists make the study of perception and cognitive processes their main concern, design has become interested in how people generate or derive meaning from products that they use. Krippendorff stresses that “Design has to shift gears…” and focus on creating products that are meaningful to the user and that are able to easily communicate its purpose and values. However, the question remains, how to know what something means to others or more so, how to design meaningful things?

In order to address this aspect of designing, some design schools started introducing their students to human perception and cognitive processes with the intent to increase their awareness about the nuances of human perception and experience of the material world. Such insights help designers better understand the end users and target the design message accordingly. The purpose of this paper is to present a series of analytical and creative exercise modules that have been especially designed to teach students to decipher the semantic qualities of artifacts and to categorize them, to generate sense-making messages and cues that denote a specific use and connote values (Brand value). In addition, students explore explicit or subtle ways of communicating and reflect on when products can be/ should be polysemic or monosemic. In other words, they learn to see, by looking for cues and interpreting them in order to apply the knowledge gained to design by using shapes, colors, textures, materials, sounds and so on. This teaching approach helps develop the ability to articulate design intent, to describe a product’s character, to justify design language, to communicate through signs and ultimately to create meaningful things. These exercises revealed themselves as an excellent evaluation tool allowing teachers to judge students’ ability to assimilate and apply theoretical knowledge to design problems rather than evaluating their ability to memorize theories through traditional exams.


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[3] Krippendorff, K., (2006) The semantic turn, a new foundation for design. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group.

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Keywords: product semantics, meaningful design, teaching method, evaluation method


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