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Designing Products That Make Sense

Sara Ilstedt Hjelm
Department of Computer Science
Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Sweden
June 2002


The material world around us, like buildings, cars and products, are becoming increasingly complex. In fact, there is much to suggest that our material world creates stress and irritation instead of fulfilling our needs. In my research, I have studied general health problems and how these are related to product design. I have developed design concepts that can help us become more physically active, aid relaxation and facilitate social communication.

My research is in the cross-discipline between design-theory and human-machine interaction. Coming from an industrial design background, I am interested in why things look like they do and the role of aesthetics and design in the development of new products.

The things around us are not only formed by us, but do in turn form our lives. They facilitate certain behaviours and restrict others. To travel freely on the London underground system with a baby stroller is almost impossible, yet to communicate by telephone wherever you are is becoming increasingly easy. Objects and technology materialise and naturalise values and meanings that are inherent in the culture and convey them back to society. However, we have a tendency to regard the world as objective, self-evident and "natural," and overlook that it is really the result of subjective choices. Design is simply seen as a process to give form to a function and the designer as a tool in this process. I believe that design is a far more complex and important activity and that, through design, values and power structures are materialized and given a physical form. We need to be more critical and reflective in the design process and remind ourselves that objects are always made by someone and for someone.

Since the beginning of industrialisation in the 18th century, design has been used to make us accept new products and technology. Design has made new products look old, using traditional ornaments and material, or the opposite, making an old product look new and modern. Designers often use concepts like health, speed, femininity and masculinity to align products with a cluster of attractive attributes.

Design is a powerful tool and I suggest that we use it to uncover and reveal underlying structures and values-not to hide them. The focus of my empirical work is on health issues and the use of information technology in domestic environments. Since I am interested in the relationship between the personal and the public, I'm looking into common diseases and how they reflect the current state of society.

In studying health issues, two great syndromes turn up that are closely related. One is having too much mental activity, which causes stress, burnout, insomnia, high blood pressure and depression. The other is too little physical activity, which in turn causes back trouble, stroke, old age diabetes, and types of cancer. Both mental stress and physical inactivity cause several of these diseases.

I have developed design concepts that can help us become more physically active, aid relaxation and facilitate social communication. One of these concepts, the "photo answerer," has been developed into functioning prototypes. The photo answerer is a combination of a wall-based photo album and an answering machine. The main idea is that products should be used to facilitate communication and emotions. This product makes it easier to telephone, answer and organize calls, and at the same time displays pictures of your nearest family and friends. The prototypes will be installed in homes and tested by the elderly as well as by ordinary families.

Working with products from a health and stress perspective, I have been very inspired by concepts from psychology. Issues that are important for mental well-being and in the treatment of depression are equally useful in the area of design. For example, it is crucial that we find our life coherent and manageable. For products this means that we understand how they work and how we should use them. But the most important criteria in life is meaning. If we find our life meaningful we can go through almost anything without becoming stressed. What does this mean for product design? To what extent do we experience objects as meaningful?

I hope that my work will provide designers and researchers with tools to actively criticise the conventions in product development. I wish to inspire other designers to work with and reflect on unconventional and innovative ways of design and use real social issues as starting points for product development. I also hope that my work will show the importance of critical design in the aesthetic and cultural realm.