J. Design Research, Vol. 16, Nos. 3/4, 2018 247
Copyright © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Inderscience Publishers Ltd. This is an Open Access Article
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Objects with symbolic meaning: 16 directions to
inspire design for well-being
Department of Industrial Design,
Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering,
Delft Institute of Positive Design,
Delft University of Technology,
Department of Product Innovation Management,
Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering,
Delft University of Technology,
Department of Industrial Design,
Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering,
Delft Institute of Positive Design,
Delft University of Technology,
Abstract: The symbolic meaning of a product can contribute to people’s
well-being. Previous research (Casais et al., 2016) has identified six distinct
well-being enhancing symbolic meanings in products (based on Ryff, 1989):
positive relations with others, personal growth, autonomy, environmental
mastery, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. To support design activities with
a focus on symbolic meaning, the current paper introduces 16 design directions
that can be used for ideation and conceptualisation. These directions were
developed in a two-stage process. First, 50 product examples were selected for
their ability to encourage one or more of the six symbolic meanings. Second,
these examples were used as stimuli in individual sessions with seven designers
and design researchers. Participants analysed the product examples to infer the
underlying design intentions, which were used to formulate the 16 symbolic
meaning-focused ‘design for subjective well-being’ strategies.
Keywords: positive design; design directions; symbolic meaning; well-being.
Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Casais, M., Mugge, R. and
Desmet, P. (2018) ‘Objects with symbolic meaning: 16 directions to inspire
design for well-being’, J. Design Research, Vol. 16, Nos. 3/4, pp.247–281.
248 M. Casais et al.
Biographical notes: Mafalda Casais is a PhD candidate at the Department of
Industrial Design Engineering, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, TU
Delft, The Netherlands. Her research is being developed at the Delft Institute of
Positive Design (http://www.diopd.org), focusing on the symbolic meaning of
products, and its influence and contribution to subjective well-being of people.
Her background includes illustration, graphic design, and product design.
Ruth Mugge is a Professor of Design for Sustainable Consumer Behaviour at
the Department Product Innovation Management, Faculty of Industrial Design
Engineering, TU Delft, The Netherlands. After finishing her Master’s degree in
Industrial Design Engineering, she completed a PhD project on the topic of
product attachment. Her current research focuses on investigating how product
appearance influences consumer response to products. She has published on
these topics in several international journals.
Pieter Desmet is a Professor of Design for Experience at the Department of
Industrial Design Engineering, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, TU
Delft, The Netherlands. His main research interest is in understanding why and
how design evokes emotion, and how design can contribute to the well-being of
individual users and communities. He supervises a research group that studies
various aspects of user experience, and chairs the ‘Delft Institute of Positive
Design’ (see http://www.diopd.org). This institute aims to initiate and stimulate
the development of knowledge that supports designers in their attempts to
design for human flourishing. He is board-member of the International Design
and Emotion society (see http://www.designandemotion.org), and has
published over 80 scientific (journal) papers and book chapters; edited three
books, three special issues, and two conference proceedings on a variety of
aspects of experience-driven design.
This paper is a revised and expanded version of a paper entitled ‘Extending
product life by introducing symbolic meaning: an exploration of design
strategies to support subjective well-being’ presented at Product Lifetimes and
the Environment (PLATE) Conference, Nottingham, 17–19 June, 2016.
Consumer products can be repositories of personal symbolic meaning (e.g., Belk, 1988;
Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, 1981; Wallendorf and Arnould, 1988). They can
obtain their symbolic meaning when people associate them with meaningful or relevant
experiences, people, places or ideas. For example, a proud mother may cherish her son’s
first sports medal, or a husband might be fond of a backpack that he took on his
honeymoon. These are examples in which, through association, products have come to
represent certain meaningful life experiences (Goodman et al., 2016; Yang et al., 2017).
There are other ways in which products can obtain a symbolic meaning. For example, a
product can symbolise a loved person, the relationship one has (or had) with them, or
their life experiences. These are often products that belonged to the loved person. An
example is an heirloom pocket watch that one’s grandparents carried with them during
the ordeals of wartime immigration and is now kept in the family. Such products may
also represent aspirations or life goals. In contrast to the first two reasons, this symbolic
meaning has a future rather than a past orientation. An example of this is the traditional
Objects with symbolic meaning 249
Japanese Daruma doll, which is given as a gift to wish prosperity and encouragement,
and used as a good luck talisman representing a person’s life goals.
Various studies have explored the phenomenon of symbolic product meaning.
Questions that have been addressed include: what makes a product meaningful
(Friedmann and Lessig, 1986; Kleine and Kernan, 1988) and what kinds of meanings can
products have (Dittmar, 1991; Fournier, 1991; McCracken, 1986; Richins, 1994). More
recently, researchers have also started to explore the effects of symbolic meaning on
consumer behaviour and experience. Symbolic meaning can prolong and valorise
experiences (Love and Sheldon, 1998), and help people to relive or re-consume these
experiences (Sääksjärvi et al., 2015). Mugge and colleagues (2008; 2009) found that
symbolic meaning can stimulate product attachment, and that this attachment can
motivate consumers to postpone product replacement. Related to these findings, several
studies have explored how symbolic meaning can support ‘emotional durability’ (e.g.,
Chapman, 2005; van Nes and Cramer, 2005; Van Krieken et al., 2012). Symbolic
meaning can also contribute to the consumer’s subjective well-being (Pohlmeyer, 2012).
In the field of ‘positive psychology’, subjective well-being is generally defined as a
phenomenon with both cognitive and subjective components: a positive appreciation of
one’s life, a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile, combined with the
experience of joy, happiness, and contentment (Eid and Diener, 2004; Lyubomirsky,
2007; Veenhoven, 2011). Research in positive psychology has sought to devise and test
positive interventions (e.g., activities) to support it (Boniwell, 2012; Snyder and Lopez,
2002). Products and their design can play a role in facilitating such activities and
symbolising such meaningful experiences, thereby supporting subjective well-being
(Abalada, 2014; Desmet, 2011; Escobar-Tello, 2016; Lacey, 2009; Ruitenberg and
Casais et al. (2016) found six distinct symbolic meanings of everyday consumer
products that can contribute to subjective well-being. These are symbolic meanings that
represent and signify
1 positive relations
2 personal growth
3 purpose in life
4 environmental mastery
6 self-acceptance (Casais et al., 2016; see Section 2 for a description).
To summarise, the body of research that has investigated the effects of symbolic meaning
on consumer experience and behaviour indicates that products with symbolic meanings
can help their owners to anticipate, encourage, preserve and prolong meaningful life
experiences. In addition, these products can serve as reminders of such experiences and
help people to relive and share them, which, in turn, can support consumer well-being. In
our view, this represents an interesting opportunity for ‘positive design’, the field of
research and practice that focuses on design for the well-being of individuals and
communities (e.g., Corrigan-Doyle et al., 2016; Desmet and Hassenzahl, 2012; Desmet
and Pohlmeyer, 2013; Petermans and Pohlmeyer, 2014). In the current paper, we aim to
explore the possibility to develop design directions that can inspire designers when
250 M. Casais et al.
designing with well-being related symbolic meanings. While previous research has
shown that symbolic meaning can contribute to a person’s well-being and elicit
attachment to products, it is not yet known if (and if so, how) products can be designed
with the deliberate intention to support consumers in attributing such symbolic meanings,
particularly with the aim of having a well-being effect.
As symbolic meaning is subjective, we do not expect to find one-to-one relationships
between product features and associated meanings. A product’s symbolic meaning is
obtained in the personal consumer-product relationship and is determined by the person’s
situated experiences and the degree to which this person associates the product with these
experiences. Essentially, any product can have any symbolic meaning. Something as
simple as a paperclip can be cherished – perhaps it was used to bind the pages of
someone’s first contract as an independent consultant. In this example, it seems illogical
to search for qualities of the paperclip design that contributed to the meaning formation.
However, that does not imply that it is not possible to formulate design directions that can
support designers in designing for symbolic meaning attribution. The challenge is similar
to the one faced in the field of experience or emotional design (e.g., Desmet et al., 2016;
Ozkaramanli and Desmet, 2012). Like symbolic meaning, emotions are subjective and
cannot be designed directly. At the same time, a variety of useful tools are available to
support designers in addressing the emotional impact of their designs. Rather than being
prescriptive, these tools are inspirational. Some inform designers about the variety of
emotions, the process of emotions, and manifestations of emotions (e.g., Yoon et al.,
2016). Others can inspire by offering multiple examples of how products have evoked
certain emotions in real-life experiences (e.g., Desmet, 2012; Fokkinga and Desmet,
2013; Huisman et al., 2013). Our current aim is similar. We report a study in which
designers and design researchers analysed existing products in order to identify design
directions. Here, we refer to design directions as ‘directed plans of action’ that can inform
and inspire designers to include well-being related symbolic meaning in their design
activities. The aim was to formulate a variety of diverse design directions that, as a
collection, shed light on the variety of well-being related symbolic meanings and provide
inspiration for addressing these meanings in creative idea generation. The study resulted
in 16 design directions, which we will describe and discuss below. In the general
discussion, we reflect on the implications of this study for the field of positive design.
In a previous study, we found that consumer products can support subjective well-being
with at least six symbolic meanings (Casais et al., 2016). These symbolic meanings
represent the determinants of psychological well-being that were formulated by Ryff
1 Positive relations with others: products that symbolise meaningful and reciprocal
relations and affiliations that provide a sense of belongingness.
2 Personal growth: products that symbolise acceptance of past experiences or openness
to new challenges, which afford a sense of maturity and development.
3 Purpose in life: products that symbolise personally significant goals that give a sense
of purpose and direction in life.
Objects with symbolic meaning 251
4 Environmental mastery: products that symbolise social thriving and the ability to
build a context that is suitable for personal needs and values.
5 Autonomy: products that symbolise self-reliance in thought and action, and a sense
6 Self-acceptance: products that symbolise self-compassion and a positive self-image.
To explore which design directions can embody these six meanings, 50 existing products
were analysed. First, 50 products were selected that were interpreted (by design
researchers with expertise in well-being) as having the ability to support one or more of
the six symbolic meanings. Next, in individual sessions, these products were discussed
with seven designers and design researchers. They were asked to categorise and analyse
each product. They reflected on the relationship between the designs and the symbolic
meanings, hypothesised what design decisions may have supported that relationship, and,
based on these considerations, formulated design directions.
Table 1 Profiles of two sets of experts who collected and selected the product examples (each
expert code refers to a different individual)
Stage of stimuli
preparation Code Qualification (*) Age Gender Role (*) Refereed
EX01 PhD in Industrial
42 Male Professor in design
design for emotion
and positive design
EX02 PhD in Industrial
37 Female Associate
EX03 MSc in Product
30 Female Design researcher
in positive design
EX04 MSc in Industrial
31 Male Researcher in
design for rich
EX05 MSc in Industrial
30 Female Researcher in
EX06 MSc in Industrial
35 Male Researcher in
Selection of 50
examples to be
used as stimuli
in the study
EX07 MA in Creative
27 Female Researcher in
design for loss
Notes: (*) At the moment the study took place.
252 M. Casais et al.
2.1 Stimuli collection
In order to select the 50 product examples used in the study, three expert researchers (see
Table 1) collected 100 product examples that were considered examples to which, in our
view, well-being related symbolic meaning could be attributed.
Potentially, any product can gain symbolic meaning through its evolving relationship
with the user. However, in this procedure we were looking for products that seem to have
been designed specifically with the well-being effect in mind Our goal in the stimuli
collection phase was to gather product examples that, in our view, are likely candidates
for the attribution of well-being related symbolic meaning, i.e., designed to facilitate the
attribution of this kind of meaning.
The sources for images and descriptions were well-established online design blogs,
such as Dezeen (http://www.dezeen.com), Design Milk (http://design-milk.com), Yanko
Design (http://www.yankodesign.com), Core 77 (http://www.core77.com) and Mocoloco
(http://mocoloco.com). From the blog posts, we retrieved, as much as possible, objective
descriptions about the product, avoiding opinions or subjective remarks. To find relevant
products, meaning-related keywords were used, such as the six symbolic meanings and
other descriptors like ‘symbolic meaning’, ‘sentimental value’, ‘cherished possessions’,
and ‘meaningful interactions’. Furthermore, specific types of meaningful possessions
were used as search keywords, such as ‘heirlooms’ and ‘souvenirs’ (for the complete list
of keywords see Annex).
2.2 Stimuli selection
The collection of 100 items was narrowed down to a manageable size by selecting those
with the closest links to well-being related symbolic meaning. This was done in a
one-hour session with four design researchers with expertise in positive design (see
Table 1). A set of 100 stimuli cards was printed, each card depicting one of the
symbolically meaningful product examples. The cards measured about 10 by
5 centimetres, and featured a photograph or concept image, information about the
product, the name and designer of the product, and sources of image and text (Figure 1).
The images were selected in order to be as clear as possible (e.g., in use, as a standalone),
thereby making it quick and easy to understand the product example.
The experts were instructed to select 50 symbolically meaningful products, based on
the six symbolic meanings, which were introduced at the beginning of the session.
Specifically, they were requested to read the product descriptions and infer their effect on
people’s subjective well-being. The experts were instructed to consider the products’
ability to be a likely candidate for symbolic meaning attribution, which potentially could
have a well-being effect. Initially the choice was individual, in three piles of ‘yes’, ‘no’
and ‘maybe’ respectively, followed by a discussion on the final collective selection.
Examples of quotes retrieved from the discussion referring to the ability of a product to
be a likely candidate for symbolic meaning attribution are: “The user has to do something
with it in order for it to work, and also the user is left to use his or her imagination. I
would say this is meaningful because every time you see it, you also see something that
you did with it and it makes it personal” (EX04); “Some objects don’t connect to six
symbolic meanings because they are meaningful universally. However, this one has the
“self” element. It’s about self-development” (EX05). “There are these kind of
Objects with symbolic meaning 253
communication devices that intentionally restrict how people communicate. It’s about
making it somehow poetic, and that’s what makes it meaningful” (EX04).
Figure 1 Examples of stimuli cards used in the study (see online version for colours)
Note: The images are pixelated for copyright purposes.
Following the discussion, the experts were able to reach consensus easily and quickly.
All six symbolic meanings were taken into account in the product selection. The final
selection of 50 stimuli with the respective descriptions can be found online:
Following the stimuli selection phase, seven participants joined the study. Four of them
were design researchers and three were designers (see Table 2). The main criterion for
selecting participants was that they had to have sufficient experience with product design
(having at least a bachelor degree in industrial design). Recruiting both designers and
design researchers as participants aimed to bring both a practical and a reflective
perspective on the study. A pilot session was conducted beforehand to refine the study
The study was conducted in individual sessions, which were structured in two parts
(taking on average 3 hours and 50 minutes), preceded by an introduction to the research
and the well-being related symbolic meanings: part 1, the categorisation of product
254 M. Casais et al.
examples in the meaning categories; and part 2, the analysis of the resulting groups and
exploration of potential design strategies, and elaboration of specific meaning-driven
design directions. To keep the tasks feasible for the participants, the study was split into
two sessions held on different days, the first dedicated to the categorisation of product
examples, and the second to the analysis and formulation of design directions.
Table 2 Profile of participants
Code Qualification Age Gender Years of experience
in design Role/field of work
DRP01 MSc in Product Design 29 Female 11 Design researcher in
the field of design
DP02 MSc in Industrial Design
Engineering (design for
27 Male 10 User-centred designer
DRP03 MSc in Industrial Design
Engineering (design for
30 Female 12 Design researcher in
the field of positive
DP04 MSc in Industrial Design
29 Male 11 Industrial designer
DRP05 MSc in Design 31 Male 12 Design researcher in
the field of design for
DP06 Bachelor in Engineering
(industrial product design)
35 Male 8 Industrial designer
DRP07 MSc in Industrial Design
Engineering (design for
29 Female 10 Design researcher in
the field of co-design
Notes: DRP = design researcher; DP = designer, each participant code refers to a
Three days before the study, all participants received the selection of 50 product
examples in the form of stimuli cards. Each card contained a photograph or concept
image of the product and textual information (see Figure 1). Participants were sent the
designs before the session to provide them with sufficient time to familiarise themselves
with the designs. They were instructed to take some time (as much as they needed) to get
acquainted with the designs by looking at the pictures and reading the descriptions on the
cards. We decided to include this step in the procedure because we expected that the
participants would feel overwhelmed if we asked them to get acquainted with the designs
at the start of the session.
During the introduction (approximately 25–30 minutes) the researcher explained the
framework of six symbolic meanings, and provided a short summary of each category for
the participant to read, including examples of stories of meaningful products for each
symbolic meaning (Casais et al., 2016). The framework categories were presented in the
form of cards (in a similar format as the product example cards) to provide the participant
with a visual reminder of the symbolic meanings.
Next, the 50 product example cards were provided, and the participant was instructed
to go through them and check if all examples were clear, and to indicate anything they
Objects with symbolic meaning 255
found ambiguous. This lasted for about 10 minutes. Subsequently, the participant
categorised the products using the six well-being related symbolic meanings. The
participant was instructed to divide the product examples into the six categories quickly
and intuitively, while vocalising his/her thoughts, and to use post-it notes to indicate
examples that fit multiple categories. At this point, the participant was reminded not to
fixate on specific features of the product examples, and instructed to focus on the essence
of the designs. The categorisation task lasted approximately 1 to 2 hours.
Following the categorisation task, the participant engaged in exploring and
uncovering preliminary ‘design for well-being’ directions. This lasted approximately 2 to
3 hours. Specifically, the participant was instructed to explore each group of categorised
product examples, inferring the intended strategy behind each product or group. Once
more, the participant was encouraged to vocalise his/her thought process, and to write
keywords and possible strategies embodied in the products using post-it notes. During the
categorisation and analysis exercises, participants intuitively created sub-groups
according to the general approaches of the products in terms of symbolic meaning. Once
all the categorised groups were analysed, the participant paired similar approaches into
better-defined, potentially promising design directions and identified multiple examples
to illustrate them.
2.5 Data analysis
The sessions were recorded with video and photos. The tasks were conducted thoroughly,
and the participants seemed satisfied when they had finished; each generated 10 to
30 design directions. The produced design directions were analysed using the ‘Gioia
methodology’ (Gioia et al., 2012) because it offers a well-guided generative analytical
procedure. This methodology, which is based on the idea that qualitative data can be
rigorous and systematic in the generation of new ideas, proposes three steps: grouping
direct quotes from participants in first-order ‘informant-centric’ descriptions, organising
them into second-order ‘research-centred’ themes, and refining these into new concepts.
It has been used in several studies, mostly in the fields of administration, management
and human relations (for an overview of examples, see Gioia et al., 2012).
An example of the analysis of a product is presented (Table 3) and explained below.
In this example, participants discussed a product and tried to infer a possible underlying
design strategy by analysing its features and affordances, its commercial promises, and its
potential effects on the owner’s well-being. The result is a strategy that can be used in
other product typologies with the aim of producing a certain effect.
For the analysis, participants’ descriptions of preliminary design directions on post-it
notes were used as units of analysis, and audio recordings were used as a complementary
source to clarify any ambiguity. These ‘first-order’ descriptions (using participant-based
terms) were combined according to their semantic similarity and simplified while still
preserving the core meaning intended by participants. The first-order descriptions were
then abstracted into ‘second-order’ themes (using terms and concepts constructed by the
researchers) that aimed to better outline clear and usable design directions. This process
was conducted in an iterative way and by simultaneously considering all the participant
descriptions, to ensure that data saturation had been reached, that is, to ensure that all
possible themes were generated, and that they were not ambiguous or likely to be divided
into new or sub-directions. Lastly, the themes were narrowed down to one or more
well-defined and clear design directions.
256 M. Casais et al.
Table 3 Example of the analytical process of one product
Product example Examples of participant quotes First-order descriptions
(condensed) Second-order t hemes Design direction and
“The numbers themselves give you a
clear sense of progress, it’s measured”;
The product helps to track progress; Facilitat ing a sp ecific
lifestyle (e.g., active/f itness);
Makes user consistent and
confident in a sustainable lifestyle;
Showing progress and
“It somehow enables you, makes you
more consistent, makes it easier and
more consistent. W hen you know ho w
you are doing, you can measure your
progress to feel more confident”;
Reflects achievements by
visualising growth or good
Facilitating the achievement
“The brief would be to make the
motivation or the goals tangib le, that you
can count it, or that you can grasp it”;
toward important goals or
“The strategy here is about giving subtle
Making the intangible,
999bottles: “999bottles is
a stainless steel bottle
that includes three
numbered dials around
its base. Every time the
user refills the bottle,
he/she advances the dial
a notch, adding up the
number of plastic bottles
saved, thus encouraging
Text adapted from:
http ://999bo ttles.com/
“It’s all about having an external trigger
that triggers intrinsic motivation. The
trigger, in this ca se, is a s ub tle rewa rd or
seeing the numbers, but it can be
It is designed for intentional
behaviour by giving feedback to the
user (e.g. allowing the user to
control choices, keep track of
progress, providing challenges).
Making goals or
achievements (and progress)
‘Keep track of
feedback on progress
Purpose in life
Objects with symbolic meaning 257
In total, the coding process resulted in 16 design directions (Table 4).
Table 4 Summary of the resulting design directions
Symbolic meaning Design direction Description
By facilitating the practice of
of a group
By using unique characteristics of the groups
the user belongs to (e.g., culture, profession)
Support active personal
By providing a platform for active reflection
on lessons learned and future expectations
By focusing on adaptability to accommodate
physical and/or psychological change
Support acceptance and
growth from past
By providing a tangible representation of the
passage of time
Enhance memories By offering a positive context or activity to
reflect on memories of loved ones
By providing an external trigger that suggests
beneficial activities or behaviours
Provide a sense of
By allowing the user to manage personally
significant goals, or to eliminate obstacles in
Purpose in life
Keep track of progress By providing visual feedback on progress
towards personally significant goals
By translating messages into a sensorial
Provide a context for
By making use of the context or limitations as
Destigmatise By enhancing the aesthetic qualities of
physically enabling products
Design for mindfulness By slowing down processes or disclosing
mechanisms behind products to promote
Redirect the user’s
By designing an intervention that requires
attention from the user to distract from
By providing tools for user input at an
aesthetic and/or functional level
Allow self-expression By providing a tangible platform to wear,
share or display personally significant ideas
In this section, the design directions are explained and illustrated with product examples,
and their potential effects are discussed along with the relevant literature.
258 M. Casais et al.
4.1 Design directions for the symbolic meaning of positive relations with others
The symbolic meaning of positive relations with others symbolises quality relations and
affiliations that contribute to a sense of belongingness. Two of the resulting design
directions aim to trigger this symbolic meaning:
1 support meaningful affiliations
2 embody characteristics of a group.
4.1.1 Support meaningful affiliations
The design direction ‘support meaningful affiliations’ can be concretised by facilitating
the practice of group or community activities. It suggests that by making such practices
more accessible, a product can gain the value of belongingness and thus support
subjective well-being. The proposed design direction relates to the desire to form social
attachments and to feel inclusion, which is linked to a fundamental human need for
belongingness (Baumeister and Leary, 1995). This sense of belongingness can be
supported in different ways: for example, through group or community activities in which
there is a recognition of membership, or through activities associated with belief and
spirituality, which do not necessarily imply the physical presence of a group, but still
support the sense of feeling part of something bigger than the self (Mehta and Belk, 1991;
Widman et al., 2009).
A product that provides guidance and simplifies or provides easier access to group or
community activities can encourage a person to cultivate such meaningful affiliations and
is thus conducive to gaining a symbolic meaning related to those positive relations,
provided that the activity the product facilitates and the group it represents are of
emotional relevance to the person.
Figure 2 EL Sajjadah by SOPDS (see online version for colours)
Note: Reprinted with permission.
An example of a product that can illustrate this design direction is the EL Sajjadah,
designed by Soner Ozenc (Soner Ozenc Product Design Studio) (Figure 2). This product
supports meaningful affiliations by facilitating the practice of community activities. It is
an electroluminescent praying carpet with a built-in compass. The carpet lights up when
facing Mecca, and recreates the atmosphere of a mosque through light and printed
Objects with symbolic meaning 259
patterns. Study participants identified the potential of the (inferred) design strategy of this
product in the following way: “It is an enabler for personally significant values or goals.
In this case, religion is a value, it’s a big value and it’s also a goal that you want to obey,
so you do things that make you part of that religion” (DRP03). “You belong to a group,
and the product is allowing you to perform the activity that relates you to a group”
4.1.2 Embody characteristics of a group
The design direction ‘embody characteristics of a group’ can be manifested by making
use of unique features of meaningful groups a person belongs to (e.g., culture,
profession). It suggests that by using familiar references that reflect social identity, a
product can gain a symbolic meaning to the person and thus support their subjective
well-being. Like the previous design direction, it relates to the human need for
belongingness. Moreover, it builds on the idea that products have an important role in
symbolising group affiliations, and in the construction and communication of social
identity (Belk, 1988; Ledgerwood et al., 2007). When considering this design direction,
designers can, for example, focus on specific features of a culture’s craftsmanship and
folklore, on institutional imagery and subculture imagery, or even on personal
characteristics (like being left-handed) to generate identification with a product and
increase its value to the consumer. An example of this is the El Botijo (see
http://www.monicathurne.com/?/projects/elBotijo), designed by Monica Thurne and
Mariana Lerma (Wowqstudio Design Collective). This product is a water container made
of unglazed ceramics that cools water without refrigeration, even in warm weather. It is a
redesign of the traditional Spanish water container, keeping its materials and function.
Besides being a functional product, this vessel can be seen as a material repository for
traditional artefact production techniques and social practices, and embodies group
characteristics of Mediterranean culture. Study participants mentioned the potential of
this design direction when referring to El Botijo: “The material is used to portray a
culture. It portrays the art that has been there for ages. The function even is indicative of
a culture” (DRP01). “It’s about taking a cultural reference to make it into something that
you can carry, you can have with you as a part of your identity” (DP02).
This design direction is linked to the idea that consumer goods have deep cultural
meanings (McCracken, 1986) and that using cultural references in design is a way to
preserve the heritage of people and extend it to other contexts (Lin, 2007). Furthermore,
having a sense of belonging to one’s community has been found in previous research to
be a strong predictor of well-being (Leung et al., 2011). A product that symbolises such
meaningful affiliations can remind a person of that kinship or membership and encourage
feelings of belongingness, thereby supporting their subjective well-being.
4.2 Design directions for the symbolic meaning of personal growth
The symbolic meaning of personal growth symbolises the acceptance of past experiences,
openness to new challenges, continued development and maturity. Four of the resulting
design directions aim to trigger this symbolic meaning:
1 support active personal development
2 embody personal growth
260 M. Casais et al.
3 support acceptance and growth from past experiences
4 enhance memories.
4.2.1 Support active personal development
The design direction ‘support active personal development’ can be adopted by providing
a platform for active reflection on lessons learned and future expectations. Such
reflection activities, manifested in the form of diary-keeping, for example, have been
shown to relieve stress and anxiety (Burt, 1994) and hold high transitional value (Sosin,
1983). The proposed design direction suggests that products that assist with personal
reflection practices can gain an important symbolic meaning to the person, because they
provide an intimate overview of their life: these products support the reminiscence of
personal achievements, the contemplation of past experiences, and the projection of
personal goals, thereby supporting well-being. Reflective practices – including reflecting
on negative past events, mediated by tools (e.g., writing exercises), products or
technology (interactive systems, social media, etc.) – have been show to result in
increased well-being (Isaacs et al., 2013; Mols et al., 2017). To illustrate this, an example
of a product that supports active personal development by providing a platform for
reflection is the OWL – on the wisdom of life, designed by Elger Oberwelz and Yusuke
Miyashita (Designs On/IDEO). It is a wall-mounted ‘time capsule’ that contains 80 tubes,
representing the years in a person’s life (Figure 3). Each year, the owner writes a
reflection on the past year (placing it on the top row, visually representing the ups and
downs) and a wish for the coming one (on the bottom row). This product also allows the
whole family to participate in reflection on personal development, helping members to
share their accomplishments and hopes. In the study, participants identified the potential
of this design direction in OWL in the following way: “It has a component of self, but
that may have nothing to do with having achieved important goals, actually, if you had
failed in all your goals, this would still be about self-development” (DRP03). “You can
specifically see the growth, or read it” (DP04). “It enables the process of reflecting on
past and future experiences, it provides a deliberate action to reflect, a mindful reflection
Figure 3 OWL – on the wisdom of life by Designs on/IDEO (see online version for colours)
Note: Image courtesy of IDEO, reprinted with permission.
Objects with symbolic meaning 261
4.2.2 Embody personal growth
The design direction ‘embody personal growth’ can be applied by focusing on
adaptability to accommodate physical and psychological change, stimulating intentional
behaviour of the user and the will to mature and develop further.
When people grow older, their bodies change. When people go through certain life
milestones, their ideas about the world and themselves change. Change is an inherent and
desirable part of growth and development, because it is by adapting to new realities that
people can thrive. Acknowledging and accepting change bolsters maturity, which has
been shown to support well-being (Sheldon and Kasser, 2001). Furthermore, research on
well-being has shown that reflecting on one’s growth is not only a habit of happy
individuals, but is also prescribed as a well-being enhancing exercise (Lyubomirsky,
2007; Lyubomirsky and Kurtz, 2008). A product that visualises change and personal
growth may assist in such reflective practices. Products that allow a visual overview on
personal growth can, by association, become valuable to the person and stimulate further
growth, supporting the person’s sense of accomplishment. An example of a product that
embodies personal growth by focusing on adaptability to accommodate physical and
psychological change is the Weight Recorder designed by Wu Weiche (Weiche Design
Works) (Figure 4). It is a weight chart that pregnant women can use to record their
changing weight by drawing on a disk that can be preserved. It relates to the symbolic
meaning of personal growth because it adapts to changes and records them, creating a
tangible representation of physical and emotional experiences and thereby has the
potential to gain symbolic meaning and support well-being. Participants in the study have
discussed the product’s potential to support subjective well-being through this design
direction: “The product shows progress on something personal that is life changing”
(DP06). “It has an emotional connotation, but it is about emotional growth, embodying
self-growth” (DRP03). “It is making it tangible, making the self-development of that
person tangible, making the transition into something perceptible” (DP02).
Figure 4 The weight recorder by Weiche Design Works (see online version for colours)
Note: Reprinted with permission.
4.2.3 Support acceptance and growth from past experiences
The design direction ‘support acceptance and growth from past experiences’ can be
expressed by providing a physical representation of the passage of time that embodies
262 M. Casais et al.
and offers an overview of past occurrences, events, thoughts, actions, or experiences that
have supported a person’s development and maturity. To create a representation of time
that is relevant for the target group, designers can consider different time scales to suit
different people, and create metaphors that reflect those differences. Using metaphors can
be a way for designers to create products that people find compelling (Hekkert and Cila,
This design direction suggests that having a physical reminder of the past year can
help a person come to terms with positive and negative events. This object thereby gains
a symbolic meaning related to maturity and growth and thus supports subjective
well-being. For example, designer Siren Wilhelmsen developed the 365 knitting clock, a
24-hour clock that produces a scarf over the course of a year to show the nature of time in
a different manner (see http://www.sirenelisewilhelmsen.com/work.html). It knits one
complete circle of stitches every day and displays the time by the position of the thread.
The incomplete scarf hangs from the clock, representing the time that has passed, and the
ball of yarn represents the amount of time left in the year. After 365 days, the two-metre
scarf is ready to be worn. By metaphorically carrying the previous year with them in the
form of a scarf, the person also carries the good and bad experiences that happened in
that time. A very positive year can be worn with pride and confidence, whereas a
negative year can be a reminder of perseverance and strength. In the long term, certain
special years may be kept and worn to remember important moments. Past research has
shown that reflective practices have a positive effect on health (both physical and mental,
particularly in respect to depression and anxiety) (Frisina et al., 2004). Even when the
reflection is on negative events it can have positive results (Wilson and Gilbert, 2008).
Participants identified the potential of the design direction through their discussion of the
365 knitting clock: “It shows the passing of time. The generic clock tells you the time
that it is now, this shows the time that has passed” (DP04). “It’s a passive kind of
reflection” (DRP01). “It takes this symbol, the very common concept of time, as the
element. It’s about emotional self-growth that applies to everyone” (DRP03).
4.2.4 Enhance memories
The design direction ‘enhance memories’ can be concretised by offering a positive
context or activity to reflect on memories of loved ones. While also promoting the
association with the symbolic meaning of positive relations with others, this design
direction is closer to the symbolic meaning of personal growth due to the encouragement
of reminiscence and reflection on memories linked to those relationships. Reminiscence –
the ability to recollect good things – can be used as a form of therapy. Previous research
has reported that reminiscence therapy can improve socialisation, promote a sense of
accomplishment and decrease symptoms of depression (e.g., Bohlmeijer, 2007; Chiang
et al., 2010). Activities of reminiscence therapy include sharing memories and life stories,
recalling family history and positive relationships, and recalling transition moments and
milestones. Products can enable immersive experiences that assist people in revisiting the
impact of their memories (and enhance them) rather than in recalling objective
circumstances of their past (i.e., merely pointing out objective information). This, in turn,
can influence personal judgements about one’s past and trigger a symbolic meaning
linked to personal growth, which can support subjective well-being.
One product that exemplifies this design direction is the Heirloom, by designer Nikki
George Ferguson (see http://design-milk.com/the-heirloom-by-nikki-george-ferguson).
Objects with symbolic meaning 263
The Heirloom enhances memories by offering an activity to remember and reflect on
memories of loved ones. It is a device that allows a person to display a sentimental object
of their own, and to record thoughts and stories about it so that it can be passed down to
the next generation. While admiring the object, the receiver/listener can turn the
Heirloom dial to hear the voice of the loved one telling their story or a memory related to
the object. This serves to encourage family members and loved ones to consider not only
the way they saw and knew the owner and the object, but also to imagine how these
memories will last beyond their own lifetime. Study participants discussed the potential
of the product regarding the design direction in the following way: “This is something
you want to go back on, something to treasure. It gives you an emotional moment with
this memory” (DP06). “It creates a personal bridge between the past and the future
through a personal object” (DP04). “The product is giving you this level of deepness. It’s
not like looking at a photo, it’s closer to the idea of video. It’s about the level of feeling
you can have from a product” (DRP05).
4.3 Design directions for the symbolic meaning of purpose in life
The symbolic meaning of purpose in life symbolises personally significant goals and
aspirations, and a sense of directedness. Three of the resulting design directions aim to
trigger this symbolic meaning:
1 encourage positive change
2 provide a sense of control
3 keep track of progress.
4.3.1 Encourage positive change
The design direction ‘encourage positive change’ can be put in practice by providing an
external trigger that encourages beneficial activities or behaviours. A product that gives
agency to a person to determine his or her personally meaningful goals in a simplified
way, and also provides room for the person to determine whether he or she is able and
willing to pursue them, is more likely to be effective (Ruitenberg and Desmet, 2012).
This design direction proposes that a product can be a catalyst that encourages a person to
take positive action by providing personally meaningful feed-forward. Moreover, by
symbolising a desired behavioural change, a product can gain symbolic meaning to a
person. Past research has shown that setting specific goals increases motivation and
encourages a positive attitude towards the tasks it involves (Bryan and Locke, 1967).
Furthermore, personal beliefs about willpower and one’s ability to succeed have been
shown to influence one’s well-being (Bernecker et al., 2017). Therefore, incorporating a
visual component into goal pursuit – which can be made tangible by a product – increases
the chance of success, which in turn fosters subjective well-being.
An example of a product that encourages positive change by providing an external
trigger is the Blank Wall Clock by designer Martí Guixé (Alessi). The Blank Wall Clock
provides a blank surface with white hour and minute hands, and allows the user to assign
an idea to each hour by writing it down with a whiteboard marker (Figure 5). The
uniqueness of the ideas people write down can elicit a very personal and powerful effect.
When these align with personally meaningful wishes, dreams, or goals, the product
264 M. Casais et al.
becomes a source of inspiration and motivation for the person using it, potentially gaining
the symbolic meaning of directedness and purpose, and thus supporting subjective
well-being. Participants in the study identified the potential of the product and its inferred
design direction as follows: “It’s about designing for mindfulness though giving control.
It is a subtle everyday reminder” (DRP03). “It really involves the user in his own
motivation routine” (DP02). “It reminds the user via cues of everyday objects. Giving
cues to yourself in a ubiquitous way” (DRP01). “You are defining time, over and over
Figure 5 Blank Wall Clock by Martí Guixé/Alessi (see online version for colours)
Note: Photo imagekontainer, reprinted with permission.
4.3.2 Provide a sense of control
The design direction ‘provide a sense of control’ can be put in practice by enabling
people to manage personally significant goals or eliminate obstacles to their fulfilment.
There is recognisable challenges people face when managing willpower: there must be a
balance between the cognitive ‘cool’ system of thinking and the emotional and instinctive
‘hot’ system of doing. However, this balance is affected, and often undermined, by stress
and the individual’s ability to self-regulate (Metcalfe and Mischel, 1999). Research has
shown that forming a pre-commitment improves chances of success in goal achievement,
but that on their own (e.g., with self-imposed deadlines) people do not achieve optimal
results (Ariely and Wertenbroch, 2002). In light of that, products can act as tangible
commitment devices by supporting willpower, promoting good habits and lessening
dilemmas. The value of delayed gratification has been recognised by previous studies
(Doerr and Baumeister, 2010; Ryff, 1989), but it is not without its challenges; products
that can facilitate it (Pohlmeyer and Desmet, 2017) can thereby potentially gain a
symbolic meaning related to control, directedness and purpose, which in turn can support
An example of a product that provides a sense of control by facilitating the
elimination of obstacles in the pursuit of personally significant goals is the Kitchen Safe,
designed by David Krippendorf and Ryan Tseng (kSafe) (Figure 6). The Kitchen Safe is
a time-lock container that cannot be opened until the timer reaches zero. It allows people
to have control over several situations, such as limiting unhealthy snacks, saving money
by preventing mindless spending, unplugging from mobile devices or videogames, and
Objects with symbolic meaning 265
cutting back on smoking. Study participants discussed the potential of this design
direction through this product: “This is about designing something to teach people the
value of patience and self-control” (DP04). “In the long term it helps build intrinsic
motivation” (DRP01). “The strategy is to create a barrier. It creates symbolic meaning by
motivating the person to stick to an important goal, it is done by eliminating whatever
stands in the way of that goal. Eliminating the obstacles by creating a barrier. The
designer can question: what are the obstacles, and how can I help eliminate them”
Figure 6 Kitchen Safe by kSafe (see online version for colours)
Note: Reprinted with permission.
4.3.3 Keep track of progress
The design direction ‘keep track of progress’ can be made concrete by providing visual
feedback on progress towards personally significant goals. By feedback we mean an
external response signalling progress towards a certain goal, with output, for example, at
certain milestones or upon the completion of the goal. If a person aims to be more
virtuous, such as by being more environmentally conscious, small steps can provide a
sense of progress. Products that provide feedback on such steps can, by association, gain
a symbolic meaning of directedness and purpose and thus support subjective well-being.
Depending on a person’s goals and aspirations, the measurement of progress can vary in
difficulty; nevertheless, past research has pointed out that having a sense of purpose is
essential to keep people motivated (e.g., Amabile and Kramer, 2011). The way people
interpret feedback is also a crucial aspect to consider when designing. It is plausible to
consider that people unconsciously undermine their progress towards a goal by giving
themselves permission to relax after reaching a certain milestone, because they estimate
having done outstanding work and fail to predict the actual amount of work still required.
Feedback, therefore, is not just informative, but also has emotional consequences. This is
relevant when designing for well-being, because when the information triggers positive
emotions (for example, when the feedback is only perceived as positive) it can be a
powerful motivating factor.
An example of a product that helps people keep track of progress on personally
significant goals by providing measurable feedback is 999bottles by Artefact (see
https://www.artefactgroup.com/work/999bottles). It is a reusable durable metal bottle
with three numbered dials that count the number of plastic bottles that are ‘saved’. It
266 M. Casais et al.
works with a mobile application that informs the person about the specific impact of
different stages (e.g., ten bottles are the equivalent to the cost of the 999bottles, etc.).
Together, the 999bottles and the application are designed to help people visualise the
positive impact of their choices on the environment. Study participants pointed out the
promising features of the 999bottles in regards to the design direction: “It encourages
people to be more sustainable in a quantified way. It keeps track of behaviour” (DP04).
“It makes the motivation tangible, that you can count it, or grasp it” (DP02). “It’s about
giving subtle rewards. What happens with personally meaningful goals is that they are
not so visible to you, you can easily push them back. So you need something that brings
them more to the foreground, and this bottle does that” (DRP03).
4.4 Design directions for the symbolic meaning of environmental mastery
The symbolic meaning of environmental mastery symbolises the ability to manage or
create a suitable environment to accommodate personal needs and values. Two design
directions resulted that aim to trigger this symbolic meaning:
1 support multi-sensorial communication
2 provide a context for meaningful interaction.
4.4.1 Support multi-sensorial communication
The design direction ‘support multi-sensorial communication’ can be put in practice by
translating messages into a sensorial experience. Communication is an essential aspect of
the creation of a suitable context for human flourishing. Face-to-face communication
involves multiple modalities: verbal (words), para-verbal (tone) and non-verbal language,
like touch, smell, and micro-expressions. From a design standpoint, this direction is
interesting because a multi-sensorial approach can enrich the experiences people have
with products (Schifferstein and Desmet, 2008; Schifferstein, 2011) and designers can
manipulate all aspects of a product to influence the way it is experienced (Ludden and
Schifferstein, 2009). From a user standpoint, research on the subject has indicated that
product-mediated contact can effectively transmit affect, and is more powerful when it
considers elements of human physicality such as touch and intentionality (Lenay, 2010;
Smith and MacLean, 2007). Design interventions that consider these aspects can
strengthen relationships and promote closeness (e.g., Visser et al., 2011).
This design direction suggests that by translating messages into sensorial experiences,
a product can potentially gain symbolic meaning to a person by becoming a proxy of the
intended receiver. People can more clearly convey emotions, more strongly react, and
cultivate proximity even in a scenario of physical separation, than when using means of
communication that rely on a simpler type of messaging. An illustrative example of a
product that supports multi-sensorial communication by translating a message into a
sensorial experience is the Elfoid P1 by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory (Advanced
Telecommunications Research Institute International) (Figure 7). This hybrid cell
phone-robot concept is a simplified human figure that transmits voice and motion to
convey human ‘presence’. Supporting multi-sensorial ways of communicating represents
an opportunity to enrich the message and the experience of receiving it by rendering it
closer to a direct interaction and incorporating audio and/or kinaesthetic elements as a
metaphor for intimate human behaviours. During the study, participants identified the
Objects with symbolic meaning 267
potential of the design direction by referring to this product in the following way: “It’s a
platform for communication, it’s an exchange of certain behaviours” (DRP03). “It’s an
imitation of reality, mimicking motion” (DRP01). “It’s a way to communicate presence
and physicality. It translates a physical action into something else” (DP04).
Figure 7 ElfoidTM by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, Advanced Telecommunications Research
Institute International/ATR (see online version for colours)
Note: Reprinted with permission.
4.4.2 Provide a context for meaningful interaction
The design direction ‘provide a context for meaningful interaction’ can be exercised by
making use of the context or limitations as an advantage. This design direction is closely
linked to the essence of environmental mastery, which is the ability to find, adapt or
create a suitable context to thrive in Ryff (1989). Design is traditionally characterised as a
discipline of solving problems, concerned particularly with bringing the user or product
from an insufficient state towards a problem-free ‘neutral’ stage. While this is relevant in
many contexts, such as in healthcare, we believe that going beyond this can have a great
impact on the users and their context. Converse to a problem-driven approach, a
possibility-driven design approach aims for an impact in the positive spectrum of
experience (Desmet and Hassenzahl, 2012; Jimenez et al., 2014). Designing a context by
looking at its limitations not as problems to be solved, but rather as opportunities to be
explored can generate new and innovative interventions. Meaningful interactions can
occur between different persons, between people and products, and between people and
their environment, for instance. Designers can help create this value by enabling people
to reframe the perceived limitations in their environment. A design intervention that helps
people make the best of the context, and turns limitations into potential advantages, can
potentially gain symbolic meaning and thus support well-being.
To illustrate this, imagine a child with cancer, who is confined to a hospital
environment. The child’s strength and disposition vary according to the stage of
treatment, and in certain moments playing is not only desirable, but necessary for
adequate physical and psychosocial development (Frost et al., 2012). However, play can
be a challenge in this setting. An example of a product that makes use of physical
limitations in the context of hospitalised children to provide meaningful interactions is
KonneKt by designer Job Jansweijer (studio Elk). KonneKt is kit of shapes that can be
268 M. Casais et al.
attached to a window using suction cups (for individual play) or magnets (for group play)
(Figure 8). It enables children to play games with their peers, using the very windows that
physically divide and isolate them – usually seen as a limitation – as a playground. The
given example is, of course, relevant for the specific context for which it was designed;
however, designers can consider a similar strategy for different contexts. Participants in
the study recognised the opportunities in this design direction by commenting on
KonneKt’s interesting elements: “These children have the motive for sharing and playing,
and this product actually helps them under these challenging circumstances to do that, to
actualize that value” (DRP03). “This product is enabling interaction between two users
that cannot interact directly” (DP02).
Figure 8 KonneKt by Job Jansweijer (see online version for colours)
Note: Reprinted with permission.
4.5 Design directions for the symbolic meaning of autonomy
The symbolic meaning of autonomy signifies a sense of independence and self-reliance in
both thought and action, and the ability to resist external pressures. Three of the resulting
design directions aim to trigger this symbolic meaning:
2 design for mindfulness
3 redirect the user’s attention.
The design direction ‘destigmatise’ can be put to use by enhancing the aesthetic qualities
of physically enabling products. Past research exploring the destigmatisation of assistive
products through design (Vaes, 2014) has identified different levels of intervention:
product-focused interventions (e.g., reshape a product meaning through advances in
technology), people-focused interventions (e.g., endow the product user with extra
abilities), and culture-focused interventions (e.g., campaigns or interventions that educate
the public or change their views). We propose, in complement, that enhancing the
aesthetic qualities of assistive products, not only through technology, but also through the
normalisation of their features, can generate a strong meaning of empowerment to the
Objects with symbolic meaning 269
person using them. Overcoming a recognisable aesthetic of physically enabling products,
i.e., predominantly white using metallic and plastic materials, and presenting them as
general consumer goods can reduce their stigmatising effects (Correia de Barros et al.,
2011) and even produce positive emotions (Desmet and Dijkhuis, 2003). The symbolic
connotation of the product to a person’s sense of autonomy with an added feeling of
‘normality’ can generate value that contributes to their subjective well-being.
An example of a collection of products that aims to destigmatise by enhancing the
aesthetic qualities of physically enabling products is the No Country for Old
Men/Together Canes by designers Francesca Lanzavecchia and Hunn Wai (Lanzavecchia
+ Wai) (Figure 9). This collection of canes is described as ‘walking aids for living, not
just mobility’, which suggests that in addition to providing physical support, the products
were designed to accommodate modern living, such as using mobile devices. Study
participants recognised the potential of the design direction by discussing this product in
the following way: “This is really about making an object-based stigma into a beautiful
intervention” (DP02). “It empowers you to feel like you are in control” (DRP01).
Figure 9 No Country for Old Men/Together Canes by Lanzavecchia + Wai (see online version
Note: Reprinted with permission.
4.5.2 Design for mindfulness
The design direction ‘design for mindfulness’ can be applied by slowing down processes
or disclosing mechanisms behind products to promote mindful living. Fuad-Luke (2010)
introduced a ‘slow design’ approach to improve and extend person-product relationships,
through which the author proposed to explore greater awareness and sensibility regarding
design, production, and consumption. In complement to this idea, the design direction
proposes that, at a product level, designers can explore the mechanisms and processes
that enable products to function, and expose or modify them to allow people’s agency
and intentionality to play a role in product use.
An example of a product that was designed for mindful use by disclosing its
mechanism is the Standard Lamp, a part of the Standard Collection by designers Calen
Knauf and Conrad Brown (Knauf and Brown) (Figure 10). The lamp does not have an
‘on-off’ switch, so the person using it has to choose between two kinds of fixtures and
place it in a copper tower to complete an electric circuit. In this product, the person’s
270 M. Casais et al.
agency and autonomy are evidenced because the processes that make the lamp function
are not automatic, and the person has to intentionally perform them. The result is that the
person builds a thoughtful relationship with the product, actively making decisions that
usually would not be necessary, which fosters mindful and attuned living. This relates to
autonomy because it contributes to a sense of self-reliance in the user by enabling them to
understand the process and intervene in any part of it. Previous research has recognised
the slowing down or disclosing of processes behind products as a way to ritualise product
use, which results in added value and an improved experience (Fuad-Luke, 2010). In
turn, this approach contributes to delaying gratification, which is a valuable aspect of
well-being (Doerr and Baumeister, 2010; Ryff, 1989). Participants from the study
identified the potential of this design strategy through the discussion of the Standard
Lamp’s features and effects: “It’s about designing something to help people reflect on
everyday given things, objects, actions; to challenge people on actions that they would
otherwise perform without thinking, by increasing effort” (DP04). “It’s about challenging
assumptions, how you think of your mindset, your attitude, so it triggers something”
Figure 10 The Standard Lamp by Knauf and Brown (see online version for colours)
Note: Reprinted with permission.
4.5.3 Redirect the user’s attention
The design direction ‘redirect the user’s attention’ can be put into practice by designing
an intervention that requires attention from the person, thereby distracting from negative
situations. Instead of solving a problem, this type of design strategy focuses on an
opportunity that has great potential to improve people’s lives, such as by fulfilling a need
for relatedness (Desmet and Hassenzahl, 2012). This ‘caretaking’ role the person takes on
with the product can temporarily decrease the attention they might be bestowing on
negative situations, and promote feelings of competence and control, and thus potentially
provide the product with a symbolic meaning related to autonomy. An (extreme)
anecdote to illustrate this is a child with cancer, afflicted by a debilitating health problem
and limited in most normal child-like activities. A design intervention that actively asks
for the child’s attention can potentially distract from the illness and restore a sense of
autonomy by supporting the ability to be the caretaker as opposed to the one being taken
care of. An example of a product that does this is Liv, developed by a team of design
Objects with symbolic meaning 271
students (Floris Plink, Hylke Visser, Josette Kuipéri, Leonard Moonen, Lotte Salomé,
Saskia Mosterman, and Seungmin Lee) mentored by Marco Rozendaal, Aadjan van der
Helm and Chris Kievid (minor course Interactive Environments, Faculty of Industrial
Design Engineering, TU Delft). Liv is an interactive creature that requires movement and
social attention (Figure 11). Specifically, it emits sound and colour signals that indicate
that it wants to be played with or wants social contact with other Livs. Liv aims to
encourage more active and social behaviour from hospitalised children, which is expected
to improve their emotional well-being. By providing entertainment and stimulation,
robots and other interactive devices can effectively improve the objective and subjective
well-being of healthcare users and decrease isolation (Robinson et al., 2013). Study
participants discussed this product example and identified the potential of the inferred
design direction: “It’s about relatedness. It’s like a Tamagotchi. It’s about the need to
care for others and to be cared for” (DP02). “The object asks for attention. By demanding
attention, you get distracted. It reminds the user in visual cues. It provides pretext for
Figure 11 Liv by TU Delft/Interactive Environments (see online version for colours)
Note: Reprinted with permission.
4.6 Design directions for the symbolic meaning of self-acceptance
The symbolic meaning of self-acceptance signifies the acceptance of positive and
negative aspects of oneself, self-compassion and a positive self-image. Two of the
resulting design directions aim to trigger this symbolic meaning:
1 allow shared transformation
2 allow self-expression.
4.6.1 Allow shared transformation
The design direction ‘allow shared transformation’ can be put in practice by providing
tools for people’s input at an aesthetic and/or functional level. This design direction
suggests that a product that invites people to invest time and effort in it can gain symbolic
meaning. The transformation of the object can lead, to some extent, to the transformation
of the person as well: someone who invests time and effort to modify something is also
272 M. Casais et al.
affected by it, such as by releasing their creativity. In addition, an object that is
transformed by a person retains marks of intentionality as a signature. Accepting the
result of such transformation can help people have a positive view on the self (“I made
this and it is beautiful/unique”). One way this design direction could be implemented is
by facilitating temporary or permanent transformations of an intentionally incomplete
product. Previous research supports the idea that unfinished products invite exploration,
resulting in enhanced product attachment (Borjesson, 2009; Mugge et al., 2009). A longer
and more meaningful relationship with a product can, in turn, offer clearer signals of
self-image. Of the 16 proposed design directions, this is the one that most literally
activates people to immerse their own narratives in a product and its features.
An example of a product that allows shared transformation by giving room for
people’s input at an aesthetic and functional level is the Meaning of Time by designer
Bomi Kim (Figure 12). It is a clock mechanism without hands, which invites a person to
insert a tangible element to complete the object, involving him/her in the aesthetic and
functional outcome of the object. Participants in the study acknowledged the possibilities
of this design strategy by discussing the product example in the following way: “The user
has significant influence on how the object ends up looking or behaving. The product
wouldn’t function without input. It’s Do It Yourself” (DRP03). “Unfinished product
enables or supports your own creation. It enables expression. It has the goal of motivating
a user to be more creative” (DRP01).
Figure 12 The Meaning of Time by Bomi Kim (see online version for colours)
Note: Reprinted with permission.
4.6.2 Allow self-expression
The design direction ‘allow self-expression’ can be put in use by providing a tangible
platform to wear, share or display personally significant ideas. Products have been
recognised as important vessels of construction and communication of personal identity
(e.g., Belk, 1988; Ledgerwood et al., 2007; Wicklund and Gollwitzer, 1981), facilitating
the creation of coherent self-narratives (Ahuvia, 2005). A product that can display and
communicate changing ideas is able to adapt to the evolution of the self and remain
relevant. Furthermore, the dynamic communication of those ideas, for example in a
wearable and/or sharable platform, has the potential to strengthen the product’s relevance
as a means for self-expression. A product that facilitates the expression of personally
Objects with symbolic meaning 273
significant ideas can potentially gain a meaning related to self-acceptance, thereby
contributing to subjective well-being. Self-expression is an important aspect of
individuality, because its result can be perceived as an extension of the self. When a
person expresses himself or herself, the result of that expression teaches them about his
or her abilities, which contributes to self-knowledge and can help with the acceptance of
strengths and shortcomings. Furthermore, products can have a strong influence on our
own sense of who we are (Ahuvia, 2005).
An example of a product that allows self-expression through a wearable and shareable
platform is tshirtOS by CuteCircuit. This product is a programmable t-shirt that, among
other features, can play songs and display social media information and both moving and
static pictures (see http://cutecircuit.com/tshirtos). It is controlled by a mobile
application, and includes hardware such as a built-in camera, a microphone and speakers.
Participants in the study discussed the potential of the inferred design strategy of tshirtOS
in the following way: “It’s a wearable platform to express yourself” (DRP01). “It’s a
product for self-expression that can work as an ice-breaker or conversation starter”
5 General discussion
Previous research has postulated that attributing symbolic value to products is a way to
support subjective well-being (Pohlmeyer, 2012). This type of value does not come from
ownership, but from what products enable and represent to people (Pohlmeyer and
Desmet, 2017): for example, the significance of a product can relate to shared values and
the contribution to something bigger than the self (Donnelly et al., 2016; Escobar-Tello,
2016), to meaningful life events (Goodman et al., 2016), and to happy experiences (Yang
et al., 2017) and thus the product contributes to subjective well-being. In our research, we
have taken on the challenge of developing design directions that aim to inspire designs
that are likely candidates for symbolic meaning attribution.
Products can gain symbolic meaning and become symbolic representations if people
associate them with specific experiences, memories or ideas. An initial exploration of that
potential has identified well-being related symbolic meanings in products (Casais et al.,
2016). Nevertheless, an operationalisation of that knowledge can make it more useful as a
direct source of inspiration in design processes, because symbolic meaning can be
somewhat abstract and designers can benefit from having clear and specific directions for
how to achieve this in practice. In this paper we have reported a study that explored and
analysed existing products, and, based on the perspectives of designers and design
researchers, inferred meaning-driven design directions. We focus on the potential
universality of design for well-being, trying to produce general principles that provide a
systematic way to work, and from there address individual concerns of specific users and
contexts. The study resulted in 16 design directions that aim to trigger six symbolic
meanings. Two design directions support ‘positive relations with others’: ‘support
meaningful affiliations’ and ‘embody characteristics of a group’. Four of the design
directions support ‘personal growth’: ‘support active personal development’, ‘embody
personal growth’, ‘support acceptance and growth from past experiences’, and ‘enhance
memories’. Three design directions relate to ‘purpose in life’: ‘encourage positive
change’, ‘provide a sense of control’, and ‘keep track of progress. Two design directions
concern ‘environmental mastery’: ‘support multi-sensorial communication’ and ‘provide
274 M. Casais et al.
a context for meaningful interaction’. Three design directions support ‘autonomy’:
‘destigmatise’, ‘design for mindfulness’, and ‘redirect the user’s attention’. Finally, two
design directions relate to ‘self-acceptance’: ‘allow shared transformation’ and ‘allow
self-expression’ (for an overview and further details see Table 4).
5.1 Reflection on the findings
The current paper contributes to positive design with an initial exploration of what design
directions can support designers in attempts to design for six well-being related symbolic
meanings. Symbolic meaning is constructed by unique personal narratives. As such, a
common denominator in the presented design directions is the agency of the owner in the
construction of meaning. Since meaning is attributed by the individual, it may differ
between people and may be unexpected or unintended by the designer. We therefore
consider our study results to be directions to design with symbolic meaning (for symbolic
meaning attribution), rather than designing for symbolic meaning, i.e., designing
prescriptively for a specific symbolic meaning. In doing so, we recognise the person’s
agency in the construction of the product’s meaning. This co-construction of meaning
(between the designer and the user) can be exemplified with a product that is
intentionally designed to be incomplete, with the aim of having the owner finish it,
therefore allowing a personal narrative to be inscribed and the corresponding meaning to
be created. Rather than designing meaning, the designer develops products that are likely
candidates for symbolic meaning attribution by asking for the person’s attention, care,
functional and aesthetic input. Eventually, the person’s narratives are the key elements
that bring these design interventions to life, build their symbolic meanings, and make
them support well-being. While it has not been tested, products that invite their owners to
ascribe meaning to them seek to overcome or minimise the difficulties of design with
symbolic meaning, and its person- and context-dependency.
Even though each proposed design direction emerges from one symbolic meaning
and is presented in that category, it is possible to recognise that several directions fit
multiple symbolic meanings.
5.2 Limitations and opportunities for future research
In the current study, we sought to infer what strategies the actual designers of the used
product examples employed when developing the selected product examples, referring
back to a framework of symbolic meaning. Future research can interview the designers of
the selected products about their actual intentions, which might disclose other or
additional possibilities (see also the work of Da Silva et al., 2015). Furthermore, we have
yet to test how usable these design directions are in a design context. Presenting design
directions to design professionals is valuable both in practice (for novice and expert
designers, see Daalhuizen and Badke-Schaub, 2011) and in education (Lim et al., 2011).
Design directions can make complex processes easier, such as switching between design
solutions (Daalhuizen and Badke-Schaub, 2011), and sensitise designers about a certain
topic or theory. Further research can be conducted to apply our findings and extend the
existing knowledge about the role of design in well-being. Specifically, ways to
effectively communicate the results of this research to designers can be explored. A quick
exercise in a design class with about 30 novice designers indicated that the design
directions were clear and not difficult to use; however, future research can look at how
Objects with symbolic meaning 275
novice and expert designers perceive and use the design directions to determine whether
these would need to be presented differently.
Our aim is that the products developed with the design directions can help people
become more aspirational, anticipate experiences and then experience them, and recall
and share them with others. In such a way, the design direction can support subjective
well-being, which could then be assessed. The assumptions that guided the interpretation
of results about the effect of the design directions on end-users are based on the informed
opinions and predictions of design experts, supported by existing literature. To
complement and strengthen our results, future research can consider observing these
effects in real situations. On a more general level, future research on positive design
could focus on tools for assessing the effect of the designed interventions on people’s
A potential pitfall of this general strategy of using symbolic meaning in products is
that the associations people make may appear positive in the short term (for example,
associating personally significant goals with certain products), but conducive to ill-being
in the long term: such is the case with conspicuous consumption, in which the meanings
associated with products reflect an aspirational reality (such as being richer or better) and
may remind the person of their lack of accomplishment or the ‘fake’ reality they attempt
to portray through material possessions (Friese, 2000). In order to ensure that designers
consider the person- and context-dependency of meaning, and its potential positive and
negative effects, thought-provoking questions can be added to the design directions, with
the purpose of making the designers reflect more deeply on the specific user group and
context for which they are designing.
In this study we used durable consumer goods, such as household items, as a
reference to construct the design directions. We focused on consumer durables because
people often interact with these products. Nevertheless, future research can explore other
typologies of products or domains of intervention, such as spaces or buildings. Other
applications, such as intangible goods or services, may also benefit from the design for
well-being directions, as these can provide pathways for designers to develop better
experiences for different users, for example in online environments, in mobile
applications and in a retail context.
In our study, we enabled the participants to familiarise themselves with the 50
product designs for three days before the study by sending them cards with the designs.
This procedure allowed us to use a large pool of stimuli, that is, more designs than we
could have included if we would have confronted the participants with the designs at the
start of the session. This procedure may have influenced the results; participants may
have had other ideas and responses in a first encounter with the designs. Future research
can consider such first impressions. In addition, due to practical reasons, we had to rely
on pictures of the products, which is a limited representation of the designs. Ideally,
future studies will include real products rather than, or in addition to, stimuli cards with
pictures and descriptions. The instruction-based strategy that was used in the study to
produce design directions might also have had consequences such as fixation on certain
solutions or being too leading. Follow-up studies can be conducted to minimise this
Another opportunity for future research concerns the consequences for sustainable
behaviour of using products or living and operating in environments that support well-
being. Based on previous research (e.g., Trudel et al., 2016) products with such value are
expected to be used and disposed of in a more sustainable way, and such environments
276 M. Casais et al.
can be expected to stimulate and encourage sustainable ways of living (Escobar-Tello and
Bhamra, 2013; Escobar-Tello, 2016). Future research can explore further the
consequences for sustainable behaviour of products and environments that are designed
with a focus on well-being through symbolic meaning.
This research was supported by the FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia
(Foundation for Science and Technology), an organization within the Ministry of
Education and Science of Portugal (grant number SFRH/BD/77337/2011). We would like
to acknowledge all the willing participants for their availability and contributions.
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Objects with symbolic meaning 281
Table A1 Keywords and descriptors used to conduct online search of product examples
Symbolic meaning related (*) Well-being related symbolic meanings (**) and related words Products and product interaction (*) Product typologies (*)
Symbolic meaning: som ething
sign ifican t in te rms of what is being
represented or implied
Autonomy: being self-determining and independent; being able to resist
social pressures to think and act in certain ways; regu lating behaviour
from within; evaluating self by personal standards
Cherished possessions: so methin g
owned or possessed that is held dear
Heirloom: a valuable object that has belonged
to a fami ly for several gen erations
Symbolism: the use of symbols to
represent ideas or q ualities;
Environ mental mastery: having sense of mastery and competence in
managing the environment; controlling complex array of external
activities; making effective use of surrounding opportunities; being able
to choose o r create contexts suitable to personal need s and values
Meaningful interactions: reciprocal
action or influence (between people
and their environment) which has
sign ifican ce
Souvenir/memento : a thing that is kept as a
reminder of a person, place, or event
Sentimental value: the value of an
object deriving from personal or
emotional associations rat her than
Personal growth: having fee ling of continued development; seeing self
as growing and expanding; being open to new experiences; having sense
of realizing his or her potential; seeing improvement in self and
behaviour over time; changing in ways that reflect more
self-knowledge and eff ectiveness
Treasure: a ve ry valu able o bject Memorabilia: objects kep t or collected
because of their asso ciations with memo rable
people or events (e.g. , an era)
affect ion, fondness, or sympathy for
Positive relations with other people: having warm, satisfying, trusting
relat ionships with others; being concerned about the welfare of others;
being capable of strong empathy, affection, and intimacy; understanding
give-and-take of human relationships
Precious: of great value; not to be
wasted or treated carelessly
Token: a thing serving as a vis ible or tangib le
representation o f a fact , q uality, feeling, etc.
Memories/memory: som ething
rememb ered from th e past
Purpose in life: having goals in life and a sense of directedness; feeling
there is meaning to present and past life; holding beliefs that give life
purpose; having aims and objectives for living
Expression: the action of making
known or embodying one’s thoughts
Relic: an object surviving from an earlier
time, especially one of historical interest
Heritage: valued objects and
qu alit ies (e. g., cult ural t radit ions)
that have been passed down from
Self-acceptance: having a positive attitude toward self; acknowledging
and accepting mu ltip le as pects of self, including good and bad qualities;
feeling positive about past life
Reminder: a thing that causes
someone to remember something
Artefact: an object made by a human being,
typically one of cultural or historical interest
Gift: a thing given willingly to
someone without payment; a present.
Keepsake: a sm all item kept in mem ory of the
person who gave it or originally owned it
Culture: the arts and other
manifestations of human intellectual
achievement regarded c ollectively.
Identity (*): the characteristics determining who or what a person is
Motivation (*): desire or w illingness
to do something; enthusiasm.
Lucky charm : an object that is th ought to
bring good luck.
Note: (*) De finitions ad apted from the English Oxfo rd Dictionary, (* *) Definitions fro m Ryff (1995).