Design for Meaning

09/13/2011 05:06 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

Why do we have strong emotional reactions to some experiences, while others leave us cold? The answer can be found in how our brain interprets the sensory stimulations of pleasure and pain by matching them to our perception of meaning. Matching our sense experience to our idea of meaning produces the emotional feelings that dictate our everyday behavior. In the ongoing search for new business opportunities, corporations are now looking to design to connect with their users meanings and emotions.

In the past, design for meaning received cursory attention and was based on the individual designer's personal perception of what was meaningful. Inspired by technical requirements in the design brief, designers traditionally started projects with a one-day user interview, followed by a short search for some visual inspiration. This inspiration might show up for them through nature, art, fashion, movies, products, automobiles or architecture. While these sources might have provided a rich and diverse range of meanings, they were not necessarily the most appropriate ones for the users and the business opportunity at hand.

In my first job, we were charged with designing the "Bun Burner", a late night infomercial exercise-product for women. None of us guys would dream of using the product ourselves as it was targeted toward women wanting cute buns. But, in reality, the product would only be used for a couple of days and would soon be gathering dust in the garage while the users continued to pay installments, all the while feeling they had failed to achieve their goal.

So, how is meaning designed into products? Not surprisingly, honesty is the best approach and, according to Psychiatrist Victor Frankel, when you boil meaning down to its essence, you are left with love, courage and accomplishments. When design teams focus their design efforts on the overlap in meaning between users and themselves, the design results become a win-win.

Using honest design language to make product stories real is the visual result of good design. By visualizing meaning though the selection of proportion, details, texture, color and symbols designers can effectively communicate meaning to their users. The meaning needs to be memorable and clear so that users can easily relay the story to family and friends and the effect of corporate communication though design is dwarfed by the interactions that spread the story in social networks.

BMW designers take advantage of the passion for courage and accomplishment with their users and Toyota designers leverage the shared love and respect for the environment that they have with their users. By methodically including meanings such as these into business plans and design briefs, the creation of emotionally engaging products is promoted.