*Sarah JS Wilner, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada
Salvatore Zingale, POLIMI, Italy
Aysar Ghassan, Coventry University, UK
David Wood, Northumbria University, UK
Dominika Noworolska, Nowo & Associates, UK
Felipe Domingues, State University of Minas Gerais, Brazil
Erik Bohemia, Loughborough University, UK
*contact: swilner@wlu.ca

Design research is no stranger to considerations of interpretation; product semantics (Kripendorff 1989, Verganti 2008), design semiotics (Vihma 2010) and associated fields of study have long motivated inquiry into the social construction of meaning across design disciplines.

Yet the current moment—one marked by polarizing tensions between affiliation and estrangement; protectionism and access; and technology that both enables and limits our social, political and economic lives—provides renewed impetus to examine design’s influence on meaning. How does what is design (and how) factor into the negotiation of its meaning—for designers, consumers and society?

Submissions to this track might explore questions such as:

  • How can design suggest new meanings for otherwise stigmatized products and services?

e.g. How will the development of new products triggered by the legalization of recreational cannabis across North America shift the substance’s acceptance and use? For example, what changes when the product is a topical cream or energy drink rather than something to be smoked?

  • How might designers or brands respond to the ways consumers transform artefacts?

e.g.  by hacking, upcycling, upscaling or otherwise customizing existing products

  • “Intentional misdirection”: how does design constitute or contest the “real”?

e.g. classic visual techniques such as trompe l’oeil, but also the use of technology-enabled tools such as photoshop or AR apps, or the deliberate dissemination of disinformation (“fake news”).

  • Issues of politics or pareidolia (seeing patterns where none exist): how do designers signal their ideologies (or not) through their choice of design projects?

e.g. universal design, luxury/limited editions, design for sustainability, fast fashion.

  • How does the “construction” of the user and designer(s) in the design process transform the product, service or space and its meaning and vice versa?

e.g. design related to gender, from the selection of product colours to the signage and design of public toilets.

  • What is the role of design in shifting stereotypes or transforming existing norms?

e.g. the recent movement in the U.S. to redesign the “handicapped” icon to represent the user in a more active posture. 

  • Does co-design/participatory design muddle meaning or mutate it?
  • How are the non-traditional research methods (e.g. commercial semiotics) changing our understanding of product design and value creation?


This track acts as a reminder that design can never exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is always shaped by the context in which it functions and, in turn, has the power to create new social reality. We look forward to a forum that explores these issues.

Indicative References

Evans, M. & Thomas, P. (2011). Products that tell stories: The use of semantics in the development and understanding of future products. Proceedings of the International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education, 13, 678–683.

Hudders, L., Pandelaere, M. & Vyncke, P. (2013), Consumer meaning making: The meaning of luxury brands in a democratised luxury world. International Journal of Market Research, 55(3), 69–90. doi: 10.2501/IJMR-2013-000

Moalosi, R., Popovic, V., & Hickling-Hudson, A. (2010). Culture-orientated product design. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 20(2), 175–190. doi:10.1007/s10798-008-9069-1

Steen, M., Manschot, M., & De Koning, N. (2011). Benefits of co-design in service design projects. International Journal of Design, 5(2), 53–60.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Introducing Social Semiotics. Routledge: Abingdon, Oxon.

Verganti, R. (2008). Design, meanings, and radical innovation: A metamodel and a research agenda. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 25(5), 436–456. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5885.2008.00313.x

Vihma, S. (2010). On design semiotics. Objects & communication. MEI, 30–31.