Francis Smets, Limburg



There is indeed a general shift in society. People are leaning more and more to experiences.
A real, even feverish or adrifted drive to experiences can be stated. The German sociologist Gerhard Schulze already diagnosed this symptom in 1992 in "Die Erlebnisgesellschaft". In the last resort, these experiences are always concerned with happiness.
More recently, influential American economists such as Joseph Pine and James Gilmore from the Harvard Business School state that one can make good money out of this trade of experiences. According to them, happiness constitutes an economic good by its own and is even the key to every economic growth in the future.
Companies must become suppliers of happiness. Product designers are no longer engineers, but must become imagineers of happiness. Not the material benefit of the thing matters, but the communication. The message has relieved the function.
This calls upon a reflection about happiness (or unhappiness), more precisely a profound consideration of the relationship between product design and happiness. The radical changes in design ("its mobility") are not detached from the human quest for happiness. The deep-human dream of happiness might well be the hidden motor that propels the actual and future trend in product development.
In his book "An der Zeitmauer" (1959) Ernst Jünger warned already: to the extent that the West develops its methods and products, "the happiness takes leave" (Das Glück nimmt Abschied). The more product designers will interfere with our experience of happiness, the more happiness will take leave. Development of products is directly proportional to the increase of unhappiness. The more, the unhappier.
On a fundamental level product development shifts from function to dream, from need to desire, from the material to the immaterial. (Letís certainly not forget the radical distinction between need and desire!). The move to the production of dreams has been thoroughly analysed by the Danish trend watcher Rolf Jensen in his book "The Dream Society" (1999).

Humanity now enters a new era. A fifth type of society announces itself. There were already hunting, agriculture and industry. We have just had the information society, and it is already out of date and replaced by the next in the row: the dream society. Yet, it was only in 1982 that another famous trend watcher, John Naisbitt, in his book "Megatrends" stated the shift from the "industrial society" to the "information society". If we have to believe Jensen, from now on and for a long time we will live in the dream society. By "dream society", Jensen means that the story, that is woven around the product, will supplant the product. The "dream market" will gradually exceed the reality market. Stories, experiences, dreams, in short the immaterial aspect of the product will supplant the material properties.

Product development shifts from function to dream, from need to desire, from the material to the immaterial.

Let me elucidate this for the actual or just passed situation, by means of structural semantics or semiotics, and with an example. There exists a universal semantic model, that is applicable (or can be made suitable) to all sorts of meanings. It is called the semiotic square.

The semiotic square consists of four terms with three mutual relations.

Or A, B, Not-A and Not-B.

Horizontally the terms are connected by contrariety, a complex relationship based on identity and difference. Diagonally by contradiction, each others negation. Vertically by complementarity, completing each other.

Letís now try to fill this in concretely, for instance for cars (very material things!). The basis is formed by the contrariety between A, utilitarian values, and B, existential values. We can translate these in respectively a practical and a utopian valorisation. For a car the utilitarian values (A) are for instance the operating guarantee, the performativity, the steerage etc. The existential values (B) rather concern identity, quality of life, personality. The negation of the practical valorisation (Not-A) is the playful: unnecessary, for fun. The critical valorisation responds to the negation of the existential values (Not-B): for instance paying above all attention to the price-quality ratio.

(From: Jean-Marie Floch, "Sémiotique, marketing et communication", 1990)

The shift from function to dream, from need to desire, from the material to the immaterial corresponds in the semiotic square with a general move from the left side (A and Not-B) to the right side (B and Not-A). As well, the existential as the playful values are concerned with happiness. They represent experiences of happiness. "Life" means a "good life". And play is an "oasis of happiness", as the German philosopher Eugen Fink describes it so beautifully ("Oase des Glücks", 1957).

Perspicacious producers take this up. Even BMW, the type of the performing car (practical valorisation) advertises nowadays with slogans like "The more detours, the better" (playful valorisation) or even literally: "technique is senseless if it doesn't make you happier" (existential valorisation).

Very material engines promise something very immaterial. The immaterial qualities, related to happiness, are emphasised. Thatís why products become/became high-semiotic. Itís this promise that matters today, with the consumer in feverish quest for happiness. Of course, BMW doesnít sell happiness in a box, or detours, for instance, cruises on the Lüneburger Heide. But who then can sell cruises on the Lüneburger Heide? This brings me to the second part of my exposure.


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Design Management
VIZO Workshop

“Design makes the Difference”
Brussels, Belgium - 29/30 November 2002

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