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Product Semantics

"The theory and practice of product semantics which caught the attention of designer community in the eighties is an attempt to find a new theoretical foundation for design after the recent break-down of faith in functionalism. Since the 1920s the effort of functionalists concentrated on bringing about what they thought of as objective design, i.e. forms independent of the the aesthetic preferences of customers as well as those of their own.

The functionalist designers meant they were entrusted with a historic mission to meet, after decades of historicisms and ecclecticisms, the new epoch's need for an authentic aesthetic - amidst customers hankering after revival styles. The functionalist program proved so appealing to architects and designers mainly because in its theory it replaced the traditional duty of catering for customers' tastes, with a much more exciting, though fanciful, responsibility for the alleged aesthetic needs of one's own epoch.

The fancy vision of an epoch aching after its own artistic expression gave the designer right, and freedom, to turn his back on the customer. This freedom, until then granted only to artists, led in its consequences to creation of a sophisticated but highly exclusive modernist aesthetic. Product semantics, no doubt inspired by similar efforts in architecture a decade or two ago, is attempting now to bring the customer back into the theory. It makes use of the conceptual framework of the difficult science of semantics, which studies meanings as expressed in language, in order to create a more inclusive, meaning-centered design theory, and aesthetic". geocities.com/Athens/2360/jm-eng.prodsem-helsinki.html

"Any product and any design can be analyzed from a semiotic point of view. In other words: design language exists. Languages have a lexicon, a grammar and a semantics and design language is no exception, the big difference though is that each product, or group of similar products, seems to have its own language. All languages use signs to realize actual, pragmatic, communication and the analysis of these signs, or semiotics, becomes more and more the focus of the philosophy of language." geocities.com/msslkc/theory.html

"The present article examines some aspects of the relationship between form and meaning in artefacts. Exactly how do objects of art and design express ideas through their appearance, shape and use? The category of object fetishism is defined and analysed as a key to understanding such processes of signification. This category is subsequently applied to existing debates on product semantics, suggesting that many usual assumptions about form and meaning need to be re-examined in light of new conceptions of product life cycle and post-use". Rafael Cardoso, waspress.co.uk/journals/artontheline/journal_20041/articles/pdf/20041_02.pdf

An excerpt from “Nice Work: A Novel” by David Hodge:

"A typical instance of this was the furious argument they had about the Silk Cut advertisement... Every few miles, it seemed, they passed the same huge poster on roadside hoardings, a photographic depiction of a rippling expanse of purple silk in which there was a single slit, as if the material had been slashed with a razor. There were no words in the advertisement, except for the Government Health Warning about smoking. This ubiquitous image, flashing past at regular intervals, both irritated and intrigued Robyn, and she began to do her semiotic stuff on the deep structure hidden beneath its bland surface". Download longer excerpt as Word Doc (75kb)

"Relationships form the basis of almost all semiotic communication. These can be:
  • Relationships to external objects (i.e., The texturing on a grip might reference the hand thereby indicating how the product should be held),
  • Relationships to cultural precedents (i.e., The shape resembles a handle thereby expressing a place for the hand). Here the cultural precedent becomes a symbol (i.e., a sign referring to something other than itself)
  • A relationship to the surrounding environment (e.g., the chair-legs express their relationship to the floor, thereby making the chair more chair-like, communicating stability, cueing orientation)
  • Relationships between different parts of the product (i.e. A clear mating relationship between a device and its charging stand obviates their functional connection) These relationships could also be hierarchical (e.g., buttons on a blender)
  • Relationships to actions of its use – How the form illustrates the dynamic aspects of the product, how it moves (i.e. Apple PowerBook). This type of relationship expresses more than just about mechanical logic, the form must also express and inspire the gesture of its use
  • Relationship between the button and the result. Showing how the user’s physical manipulations affect the product’s internal state (on/off switches, volume control, etc.)
  • Relationships to other objects (these can be metaphoric, symbolic, or iconographic), or
  • Relationships to periods or styles.
The user’s mental model of a product is a dynamically binding and associative set of relationships. These relationships are:

Definitions: from dictionary.com

semiotics also se·mei·ot·ics ( P ) Pronunciation Key (sm-tks, sm-, sm-) n. (used with a sing. verb)

  • The theory and study of signs and symbols, especially as elements of language or other systems of communication, and comprising semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics.

semantics ( P ) Pronunciation Key (s-mntks) n. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)

  • Linguistics. The study or science of meaning in language.
  • Linguistics. The study of relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent. Also called semasiology.
  • The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form: We're basically agreed; let's not quibble over semantics.

Note: I'm not going to be too fussed if you confuse the two terms. Let's not quibble over semantics - or semiotics either ;)

Biomorphic and Biodesign

From Da Vinci's flying machines to Gaudi's catherdral buttresses based on human tendons, designers have long looked to nature for inspiration. In the 1990's, as a backlash against the genericism of Modernism and it's emphasis on clean, stark lines, a new emphasis on organic forms developed.

Luigi Colani

The 1990's marked an era of usability, honesty and environmental concern; consumers were becoming more technologically sophisticated. Capitalizing on these occurrences is what is known as 'biodesign', fore fronted by designer Luigi Colani and the Canon Camera. Biodesign's rounded, more organic shapes and stylings lent itself to greater usability, less resistance and greater harmony with nature. Biodesign can be seen in everything from vacuum cleaners to iMacs". people.bu.edu/burbank/pdf_downloads/PrdDsgn_Sample.pdf

"Nature is the starting point. This is the central concept in Prof. Luigi Colani`s philosophy of bio-dynamics. Colani, who gains much of his inspiration from nature, stresses that his designs consist of shapes based on the creations of nature: "I do not more than imitate the truths revealed to me by nature!" colani.ch/english.htm

More about Luigi Colani:


Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)

"Isamu Noguchi sought to make sculpture useful in everyday life, and his furniture and interior designs are an important part of this project. Noguchi most actively worked in this field during the 1940s, creating furniture and interiors that displayed the biomorphic imagery of his contemporary sculpture. After the Second World War Noguchi traveled to Japan, where in 1951 he created the first paper and bamboo Akari lamps. Noguchi continued to design new Akari models for the rest of his career." www.noguchi.org

Ross Lovegrove

His official site is very postmodern. Or perhaps it's modernist minimalism? www.rosslovegrove.com

For better or worse, he'll probably always be known as the iMac Man, although other designers such as Jonathan Ive were also responsible for that project.

Other suggested links for biomorphic design and architecture:


retrokat.com quite nice sites

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