Designing Meaning

Maximillian Philip Burton
4 min readApr 8, 2021

As technology becomes all-pervasive, the need for good design is growing. And by good design, I am talking about more than improving usability to remove friction from an interaction. In the same way that quality and function were once table stakes for products, so too will be aesthetics and usability. Good design — the process of connecting products to the larger contexts of our lives — is about making meaning.

As we can see from the proliferation of new things in our lives, bringing products to market is easy. Creating meaningful products — ones that embody empathy toward people — defines the higher challenge for designers. To do this, we must step out of our studios and into the world to study what drives people. At first glance, we will see a host of functional needs. But by digging deeper for universal human needs — the desire for control, the longing for connection, the hunger for experience, the freedom of self-expression — we discover ways to infuse products with meaning.

“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.”
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Meaningful products are the ones that stick. They stay in our lives longer because they build emotional connections. With them, we can live closer to our values, our purpose, and our joy. They bring music into our lives, help us focus on our life’s work, deliver moments of peace and comfort, or empower us to create in new and powerful ways. They address our practical needs — but in ways that bring more of our true selves to the surface. These products can slow down the drive of over-consumption because we stop searching for something better. We can feel the meaning.

Designing for meaning requires that we expand our vocabulary of design to include a fourth essential dimension:

1. Functionality: a product’s ability to perform a task on a repeated basis
2. Aesthetics: a product’s appearance that semantically communicates its purpose and function
3. Usability: a product’s intuitive interfaces and that create ease and value
4. Meaning: a product’s ability to address fundamental human needs

There are compelling reasons for companies to embrace the idea of designing with meaning. While functional, attractive, and usable products will achieve some degree of success in the market, products that carry meaning will always supersede them. Meaningful products command higher price points. They also generate brand loyalty. A product that changes the shape of culture (like the original iPod putting a thousand songs in your pocket) can create a halo for everything else a brand does.

Digital technology offers us new ways to create meaning. It has opened the door to experience design — where people’s relationships with products have evolved from performing singular tasks to long-term relationships. This allows for an enduring and impactful connection between product and user. These relationships enable products to participate in the emotional story arc of a person’s life.

When Nike+ put a sensor in a running shoe, it did more than offer a better way to track our runs. It demonstrated empathy for running enthusiasts that deepened the connection between company and consumer. It created connections between runners that spawned new communities. It motivated people to run a little farther or faster than they had the day before. In doing this, it brought new meaning — and new rituals — to the act of running.

The idea of ritual is essential to designing with meaning. It combats the fast-paced nature of our technology-filled lives. While technology gives us the ability to do more — packing our days with activities and distractions — ritual helps us slow down and creates space for meaning to blossom.

The home is an excellent place to build deeper connections to rituals. The spaces we inhabit reflect who we are, what we value, our history, and our aspirations. As more technology enters the home, we need to reconsider how we design these products. The technology-based products emerging from the Bay Area feel cold — created by designers who work exclusively with technology rather than across a spectrum that includes housewares and furniture.

We can use digital technology to bring meaning to our spaces by understanding the entirety of the home experience. How do we transform our relationship to the water running through a faucet, the heat beneath a pan, or the air passing through ducts? How can our homes know us as well as we know them? We can use technology — not to do more — but to elevate daily tasks to rituals filled with connection and meaning. And as we change the way we live in our homes; we also change culture. New ways to gather, celebrate, connect, and recharge in our homes quickly spread through neighborhoods, cities, and societies.

Ritual, human connection, and culture are necessary considerations in design projects today. Designs that make products more personal, deepen human-to-human connection, and contribute to culture will propel the world forward. These products will become icons — not in and of themselves, but in the change they inspire.

The design world has become divided between designers who specialize in industrial design versus interaction design, and non-technology versus technology products. At Industrial Craft, we argue this specialization is not good for designing products capable of elevating our lives. We focus on meaning as the highest purpose of a product, which reinforces our commitment to human-centered design. We explore how technology can complement existing rituals and culture rather than strip away and replace them. It’s not just about what technology can do; it’s about what value that technology brings to people’s lives.