Posts Tagged ‘Meaning’

Consumers evoke from the visual appearance of a product their impressions of its beauty or aesthetics. They may also interpret physical features embedded in the product form (e.g., handles, switches, curvature) as cues for a proper use of the product. But there is an additional hidden layer of the design that may influence the judgement of consumers, that is the intention of the product designer(s). The intention could be an idea or a motive behind the design, as to what a designer wanted to achieve. However, intentions, only implicit in product appearance, may not be clear or easy to infer.

The intention of a designer may correspond to the artistic creativity of the product’s visual design (i.e., aesthetic appeal), its purpose and mode of use, and furthermore, extending symbolic meanings (e.g., social values, self-image of the target users). For a consumer, judgement could be a question of what one infers and understands from the product’s appearance, and how close one understands it to be the intention of the designer. For example, a consumer can make inferences from cues in the product form  (e.g., an espresso machine) about its appropriate function (e.g., how to insert a coffee capsule in order to make a drink) — but a consumer may ask herself, is that the way the designer intended the product to be used?  These inferences are interrelated and complementary in determining the ‘correct’ purpose, function or meaning of a product. There are original and innovative products for which the answers are more difficult to produce than for others based only on a product’s appearance.

  • Note: Colours and signs on the surface of a product may be informative in regard to function as well as symbolic associations of a product.

The researchers da Silva, Crilly and Hekkert (2015) investigated if and how consumers’ knowledge of the designers’ intentions can influence their appreciation of the respective products. Yet, in acknowledgement that consumers are likely to derive varied inferences on intention (some of them mistaken) from visual images of products, the researchers present verbal statements on intentions in addition to images. Moreover, their studies show that there is important significance to the contribution of the verbal statements, explicitly informing consumers-respondents of designers’ intentions, in influencing (improving) consumers’ appreciation of products (1).

To  begin with, consumers usually have different conceptions and understanding of design than professionals in the field. Thereby, most consumers are not familiar with terminology in the domain of design (e.g., typicality/novelty, complexity, unity, harmony) and may use their own vocabulary to describe attributes of appearance; if the same terms are used, they may not have the same meaning or interpretation among designers and common consumers (2). Nevertheless, consumers have innate tastes for design (e.g., based on principles of Gestalt), and with time they may develop better comprehension, appraisal skills, and refined preferences for design of artefacts (as well as buildings, paintings, photographs etc.). The preferences of individuals may progress as they develop greater design acumen and accumulate more experience in reacting to designed objects while preferences may also be affected by one’s personality traits. Design acumen, in particular, pertains to the aptitude or approach of people to visual design, which may be characterised by quicker sensory connections, greater sophistication of preferences, and stronger propensity for processing visual versus verbal information (3). The gaps prevailing between consumers and designers in domain knowledge and experience may cause diversions when making inferences directly about a product as well as when ‘reading’ the designer’s intention from the product’s appearance.

The starting point of da Silva, Crilly and Hekkert posits that “the designer’s intention can intuitively be regarded as the essence of a product and that knowledge of this intention can therefore affect how that product is appreciated” (p. 22). The ‘essence’ describes how a product is supposed to behave or perform as foreseen by the designer; thinking about it by consumers can give them pleasure as much as perceiving the product’s features.

Appreciation in Study 1 is measured as a composite of five scale items — liking, beauty, attractiveness, pleasingness, and niceness; it is a form of ‘valence judgement’ but with a strong “flavour” of aesthetics, a seeming remainder of its origin as a scale of aesthetic appreciation adapted by the researchers to represent general product appreciation.

  • Note: The degree to which the researchers succeeded in expanding the meaning of ‘appreciation’ may have some bearing on the findings where respondents make judgements beyond aesthetics (e.g., the scale lacks an item on ‘usefulness’).

At first it is established that knowledge of explicit intentions of designers, relating to 15 products in Study 1, influenced the appreciation of the designed products for good or bad (i.e., in absolute values) vis-à-vis the appreciation based on pictures alone. Subsequently, the researchers found support for overall increase in appreciation (i.e., positive effect) following the exposure to explicit statements of the designers’ intentions.

A deeper examination of the results revealed, however, that for three products there was a more substantial improvement; for ten products a moderate or minor increase was found due to intention knowledge; and two products suffered a decrement in appreciation. Furthermore, the less a product was appreciated based only on its image, the more it could gain in appreciation after consumers were informed of the designer’s intention. Products do not receive higher post-appreciation merely because they were appreciated better in the first place. More conspicuously, for products that were more difficult to interpret and judge based on their visual image, knowledge of the designer’s intention could help consumers-respondents realise and appreciate much better their purpose and why they were designed in that particular way, considering both their visual appeal and function (but there is a qualification to that, later explained).

The second study examined reasons for changes in appreciation following to being informed of designers’ intentions. Study 2 aimed to distinguish between appreciation that is due to appraisal of the intention per se and appreciation attributed to how well a product fulfills a designer’s intention, independent of whether a consumer approves or not of the intention itself. This study concentrated on three of the products used in Study 1, described briefly with their stated intentions (images included in the article):

  • A cross-cultural memory game (Product B) — The game “was designed with the aim of making the inhabitants of The Netherlands aware of their similarities instead of their differences” (i.e., comparing elements of Dutch and Middle Eastern cultures). [Product B gained the most in post-appreciation in Study 1.]
  • A partially transparent bag (Product C) — Things that are no longer in need, but are still in good condition, can be left in this bag on the street for anyone interested: “It was designed with the aim of enabling people to be generous towards strangers.” [Moderate gain.]
  • A “fitted-form” kitchen cupboard (Product G) — In this cupboard everyday products can be stored in fitted compartments according to their exact shapes. The designer’s intention said the product “was designed with the aim of helping people appreciate the comfortable predictability of daily household task”. [Product G gained the least in post-appreciation in Study 1.]

Consistent with Study 1, these three products were appreciated similarly and to a high degree based on images alone, and their appreciation increased to large, medium and small degrees after being informed of intentions. It is noted, however, that overall just half of respondents reported that knowing an intention changed how much they liked the respective product (about two-thirds for B, half for C, and a third for G). Subsequently respondents were probed about their reasons for changes in appreciation (liking) and specifically about their assessment of the product as means to achieve the stated intention. Three themes emerged as underlying the influence of intention knowledge on product appreciation: (a) perception of the product; (b) evaluation of the intention; and (c) evaluation of the product as a means to fulfill its intention (as explicitly queried).

Knowledge of the designer’s intention can change the way consumers perceive the product, its form and features. Firstly, it can make the product appear more interesting, such as by adding an element of surprise, an unexpected insight about its form (found especially for product B). In some cases it simply helps to comprehend the product’s form. The insight gained from knowing the designer’s intention may be expressed in revealing a new meaning of the product that improves appreciation (e.g., a more positive social ‘giving’ meaning of product C). But here is a snag — if the intention consumers are told of contradicts the meaning they assigned to the product when initially perceiving its image, it may inversely decrease one’s appreciation. For example, the ‘form-fitted’ cupboard (G) may seem nicely chaotic, but the way a consumer-participant interpreted it does not agree with the intention given by the designer (it ‘steals’ something from its attraction), and therefore the consumer becomes disappointed.

Upon being informed of the designer’s intention, a consumer may appreciate an idea or cause expressed in the intention itself (e.g., on merit of being morally virtuous, products B and C). The positive attitude towards the intention would then be transferred to the product (e.g., ‘helping people is a very beautiful thing’ in reference to C). On the downside, knowing an intention may push consumers away from a product (e.g., disliking the ‘predictability’ of one’s behaviour underlying product G). A product may thus gain or lose consumers’ favour in so far as the intention reflects on its essence.

But relying on a (declared) intention for the idea, cause or aim it conveys is not a sufficient criterion for driving appreciation upper or lower. Consumers also consider, as expected of them, whether the product is an able means to implement an idea or fulfill its aim. It is not just about what the designer intended to achieve but also how well a product was designed to achieve the designer’s goal. Participants in Study 2 were found to hold a product in favour for its capacity to fulfill its intended aim, even though they did not judge it as virtuous or worthy. There were also opposite cases where appreciation decreased but participants pointed out that the fault was not in the intention, rather in its implementation (e.g., “I think it’s a good idea [intention] but this [product C] won’t really work”). The authors suggest that participants use references in their judgements, including alternative known or imagined products which they believe to be more successful for fulfilling a similar aim or alternative aims or causes they could think of as appropriate for the same product.

The researchers find evidence in participants’ explanations suggesting they see how efficiency can be beautiful (e.g., how materials are used optimally and aesthetically). They relate this notion to a design principle of obtaining ‘maximum-effect-from-minimum-means’. Participants also endorsed novel or unusual means to realise the intention behind a product. Hekkert defined the principle above as one of the goals to pursue for a pleasing design.  It means conveying more information through fewer and simpler features, creating more meanings through a single construct, and applying metaphors. Hekkert also recommended a sensible balance between typicality and novelty (‘most advanced, yet acceptable’) that will inspire consumers but not intimidate them (4).

  • This research was carried out as part of the Project UMA: “Unified Model of Aesthetics” for designed artefacts at the Department of Industrial Design, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. (See how the model depicts a balance in meeting safety needs versus accomplishment needs for aesthetic pleasure: connectedness-autonomy, unity-variety, typicality-novelty).

Knowledge of the intentions of designers can elucidate for consumers why a product was designed to appear and to be used in a particular way. It contributes motivation or cause (e.g., social solidarity, energy-saving) for obtaining and using the designed product. But the intention should be reasonable and agreeable to consumers, and the product design in practice has to convince consumers it is fit and capable to fulfill the intention. It is nevertheless desirable that the product is visually pleasing, as an object of aesthetic appeal and as a communicator of functional and symbolic meanings.

When marketers assess that consumers are likely to have greater difficulty to interpret a product visual design and infer the intention behind it, they may wisely accompany a presentation of the product with a statement by the designer. This would apply, for instance, to innovative products, early products of their type, or original concepts for known products. The designer may introduce the design concept, his or her intention or aim, and perhaps how it was derived; this introduction may be delivered in text as well as video in assorted media as suitable (print, online, mobile). On the part of consumers, exposure to the designer’s viewpoint would  enrich their shopping and purchasing experience, helping them to develop better-tuned visual impressions and judgements of products.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


(1) How People’s Appreciation of Products Is Affected by Their Knowledge of the Designers’ Intentions; Odette da Silva, Nathan Crilly, & Paul Hekkert, 2015; International Journal of Design, 9 (2), pp. 21-33.

(2) How Consumers Perceive Product Appearance: The Identification of Three Product Appearance Attributes; Janneke Blijlevens, Marielle E.H. Creusen, & Jan P.L. Schoorman, 2009; International Journal of Design, 3 (3), pp. 27-35.

(3) Seeking the Ideal Form: Product Design and Consumer Response; Peter H. Bloch, 1995; Journal of Marketing, 59 (3), pp. 16-29.

(4) Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design; Paul Hekkert, 2006; Psychology Science, 48 (2), pp. 157-172.

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