Design with Symbolic Meaning: Introducing well-being related symbolic meaning in design

Research output: ThesisDissertation (TU Delft)

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This doctoral thesis focuses on the positive design strategy of designing with symbolic meaning as a way to support people’s well-being. It investigates the concept of wellbeing related symbolic meaning, and proposes design directions to inspire and inform designers to introduce it in the design process. This concept of well-being related symbolic meaning is defined as the intangible quality products have that links to and affects people’s psychological well-being (their mental fortitude, their sense of self-worth and belonging, their sense of purposefulness, etc.) and, in turn, affects their subjective well-being (their perception of how happy they are). It originates in representations of personally significant things (memories, people, places, ideals, achievements, goals, etc.) and in meaningful interactions (rituals, mediation of relationships, etc.) and subsequent representation of these interactions, linked to determinants of well-being – purpose in life, personal growth, self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, and environmental mastery. This meaning implies a process of cultivation and can evoke different types of emotions, often complex.
Positive design aims to develop design that is pleasurable, virtuous, and personally significant, having explored different strategic paths to achieve that: design as a direct source of well-being, as a facilitator of experiences and activities that are well-being conducive, as an indirect cue or nudge towards well-being, focusing on experiences, focusing on emotions, etc. Our approach contributes to that goal by investigating design as a symbol of well-being. Consequently, design with well-being related symbolic meaning – i.e., design with the deliberate intention to represent, anticipate, preserve, or revisit significant aspects of life linked to people’s well-being – can be a strategy to develop products that support people’s well-being, and that are potentially relevant and emotionally durable, have continued value and appreciation, and that stimulate deeper and longer-lasting person-product relationships.
This research fulfils three goals: to understand, to translate, and to communicate. The first goal refers to understanding the phenomenon of well-being related symbolic meaning in material possessions. We addressed it by investigating ‘lived’ products with personal meaning, in people’s homes. The second goal concerns the translation of knowledge about well-being related symbolic meaning into actionable design directions that are understandable and usable by designers. The third goal is about communicating the design directions in an engaging and usable format for designers.
Chapter 1 explains the concept of well-being and describes its link to products and to design, specifying our approach within the field of positive design. Chapter 2 reviews literature to present types of product meaning, and to characterize and differentiate symbolic product meaning. Chapter 3 reports a study that looks at determinants of psychological well-being in cherished material possessions, resulting in six well-being related symbolic meanings that can be designed for. Chapter 4 reports a study that resulted in sixteen design direction from the six symbolic meanings, as a way to design for well-being. Chapter 5 explores a means to communicate the developed design directions through an iterative process and proposes a toolkit for designers (i.e., the SIM toolkit). Chapter 6 reports the application of the developed toolkit in workshops and in industry cases, and results in insights about its use, format, and impact. Chapter 7 summarizes the main insights and respective implications of this thesis, discussing them and presents limitations and possible future avenues for research.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Desmet, P.M.A., Supervisor
  • Mugge, R., Supervisor
Award date13 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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