by Vicki Leach

We are surrounded by objects, but what do they mean to us?

By now are all familiar with our planets plummeting resources and mass waste, yet without much changed in half a century, it's clear to see that many of our objects don't mean enough to our society or ourselves. Therefore we need a shift in tact.

Objects define who we are, socially, culturally, religiously and how we want others to see us. The same goes for individuals, groups of people and businesses.

John Smith who is in the top 5% of earners may buy a fast car and travel alot. Things Limited consider themselves fun rule breakers and have a ball pit and beer on tap in their office. Mrs Jones goes to Zumba and enjoys inviting friends over for tea and cakes on mismatching china. 

All of these sets of people have individual tastes and veer towards certain products because of clues within the object which reflects themselves and represents their values. These clues create meaning.

Today, we've perfected production of physically durable products. The trick for our generation is to now make today's production models continue to mean something to the user over the course of years to come and delay or even stop the outcome of being sent to landfill. 

Desire is always evolving and never fully satisfied and therefore unfortunately, many of these items are replaced or thrown away as their meaning becomes extinct to the user. The drive to buy or replace new items stems from a continual evolution of ones own desires for individualism - the constant striving for the perfection of self and ultimately, happiness.

What defines happiness is what makes us all different. Happiness can be driven by many things and everyone has their own unique formula - status, love, achievements, companionship, comfort, excitement etc.

If we stimulate these senses over longer periods of time, it is less likely we will look for something to refresh and excite those desires.

Studies by Paul Dolan, an economist and happiness expert, has found that happiness is a balance of pleasure and purpose over time. 

It's obvious that pleasurable experiences bring us feelings of happiness, but for many of us doing something purposeful also makes us happy in the fact that we achieve goals and do uncomfortable things which actually help our lives.

Pleasurable experiences Purposeful experiences
  • Listening to music
  • Reading
  • Going to the beach
  • Dinner with Friends
  • Watching TV
  • Moving House
  • Getting a promotion
  • Finishing a piece of work
  • Losing Weight
  • Helping Others


That said, if we experience to much or too little of one side of pleasure or purpose, this can leave us feeling unhappy and unbalanced. If we combine a good amount of both types of experiences over an extended period of time, our feelings of contentment are much more prominent.

So when we relate this to objects around us, our needs must be met on both levels of function and meaning.

Function (Purpose) Meaning (Pleasure)
  • The process of use
  • The end result of use
  • Style
  • Knowledge
  • Responds to a need or desire 
  • Reminds us
  • Generates emotion
  • Allows us to empathise
  • Gives us an experience
  • Stands out

Therefore creating an object that fulfills both of these experiences of pleasure and purpose subconsciously speaks to the user, creates a connection and prolongs the life of the object.


The objects around us reflect what period of our lives we are in.

If the products around us represent us and meet our layers of needs, then we are happy and they get to stay. We could keep a stone not because it does something, but because it has a layer of meaning from that time you went walking in the mountains and picked it up as a memento. Imbuing objects with layers of meaning is key, and when creating my own designs, I try to write a storyline into products so they fit in with everyday lives.

The aim is to create a product that is as relevant today, as it is in 20, 30, 50+ years time, to the person or group of people who it belongs to or is used by. We can do this by reflecting on history, good times, memorable associations or even just improving the experience of every day objects.


An object with a story has hidden layers for the viewer to unravel. It's these layers that create emotion - nostalgia, mystery and excitement which create an experience that is more than just skin deep. It is important that these layers of interest remain meaningful and relevant to the user over time, otherwise they will fall by the wayside. "[t]he point of sale is the beginning of the story, not the end." - Jonathan Chapman, Emotionally Durable Design.

Objects with stories create lasting experiences that bring harmony to the user. Nothing grabs peoples attention better, whether instantly or subconsciously, than stories people can relate to. Herein lies an emotional connection and this is the beginning of a friendship between user and object. Just as the story becomes part of the person(s), the person(s) becomes part of the object.




Creating products in this way creates new patterns of consumer behaviour and essentially reduces the amount we waste and as a result becomes a more sustainable practice of consumption. This approach also gains trust with your brand as a sustainability pioneer and increases your chances of standing out in a crowded marketplace not just for the one product but for repeat business. 

This is of course one approach to creating longevity in consumer behaviour and a balance of sustainable methods are needed to help. The key aim is to improve standards of sustainability and create products that people will cherish.


Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy by Jonathan Chapman

Happiness By Design by Paul Dolan