Co-designing meaning

 – by Teun van Roessel & Tom Kölker


“Strategic value of Design” is a two-week module given in the master course of Industrial Design at University of Technology Eindhoven. It aims at providing information on how designing for meaning relates to the design discourse (the process of research and participation of a designer).  Providing insight in different theories on the topic.
Using “Design-Driven Innovation” from Roberto Verganti as a starting point, we have been exploring a personal vision on how designing meaning could be implemented in existing companies. Combining lectures given during this module, with literature, personal vision & expert meetings to find a unique design strategy.
This proposed strategy and evidence is at the core of the end deliverable for the module, presented here.
This core is presented in sections beginning with the evolution of the task of a designer, moving to tasks of the future, introducing methods to fit this task and giving insight in the proposed Co-Designing Meaning strategy.

If there are any questions or remarks concerning the information presented below, please do leave a comment!

Past tasks of the designer

In history the tasks of a designer have shifted a great deal (figure 1). Even though the profession of “designer” is relatively young.
In 19th century during & after the Industrial revolution a huge demand for products existed. Therefore designers focused, mainly, on design for production.
Early 20th century this had already changed; as customers became more critical of the products they bought. Therefore designers would focus more on quality & selling instead of purely on quantity.
Late 20th century a shift had taken place to a focus on designing for user satisfaction.
Early 21st century again the task of a designer transforms, but in a more radical way; the designer is no longer a link in a longer chain. A designer is becoming the person to oversee and guide the process of product development. Even more so due to a trend of product development focus on meaning.
A shift from hardcore industrial design tasks to a broader view of a project, which is reinforced by Jeroen Thoolen (VanBerlo) & Jeroen van Erp (Fabrique). Both seeing that a client no longer asks hardcore industrial design skills but also asks for a more overseeing role of a concept.

Throughout these periods, adding an industrial designer to the company could present with differentiation from others (initially by quantity, moving to quality)

historyFigure 1: Shift in task’s attributed to the profession of “designer”.

But in a market shifting toward designing for meaning, differentiation seems to be harder than ever.
Design for meaning seems to be the future and is something a company can keep doing because culture, and therefore meaning, keeps changing. Moreover, Holt (2002) states that in the future, brands will become increasingly more a vessel of culture and will be judged by the consumer on what they contribute in terms of cultural value. Holt even goes further to state that brands will become equal to films, books, television shows or any other form of media regarding the communication of cultural value.
As the cultural model of Grossberg (2006) states, culture changes continuously and communication helps people to confirm these changes. Therefore brands and culture will be intertwined in the future and will keep evolving. Brands will be able to contribute to the culture but will also be influenced by it. This new very dynamic role of the company requires them to be conscious about their role to be able to design for meaning in future society.In the future, companies have to respond to the way the culture develops in terms of what meaning their products will communicate and how this fits the cultural trends. This should be in relation to the vision of the company.

How can a company differentiate itself in this current trend of designing for meaning?

Co-designing meaning

There seem to be two very different approaches to designing for meaning.
On the one hand, Verganti and his “Design Driven Innovation” theory. Stating that radical meaning innovation can only be done by using a network of interpreters and stakeholders (an example he states is his book is Alessi’s range of DDI products). The company gets information by talking to this network and keeping an eye on the market. This might be the right way of working for some companies; meaning those in the lucky position of having visionary Designers. Someone that is able to combine information into successful radical meaning innovation purely on intuition.
On the other hand, radical technology pushed innovation of which the Sony Walkman is an example (figure 2) . The Walkman is the result of combining two of Sony’s technological innovations (earplugs and the Pressman).  After development, the Walkman was put into the market without a clear idea of the target group or meaning of the device .
In this case the users created the meaning for this device. Which influenced the design process of the second version of the Walkman. Resulting in it being more specified towards a target group and meaning it has to users.

ddi vs tech

Figure 2: Alessi’s orange juicer by Philipe Starck & the Sony Walkman.

These two examples illustrate how successful products came on the market using two very different ways of meaning creating.
However, not all companies will put their trust and money in either of these strategies. Design Driven Innovation requires visionary designers that function, as integrators of information and development experts. Although there are several success stories about this way of design, repetitive evidence of the success of this strategy does not exist. Therefore it is highly unlikely for most companies to put their trust and money in this rather vague process of development.
On the other hand the Walkman example. Sony was in a privileged position; as they already had their different strands of development in this area. Means most companies do not have and/or are not capable to create.
These companies, not having this amount of means, want some form of proof that products developed will speak to the market before initiating development.
We are proposing a strategy, Co-Designing Meaning, which incorporates users research not only before but during the design discourse. Being a new form of the designing for meaning process. Which will make design for meaning more attainable for companies finding themselves in between the two given examples (figure 3/4).

DDI vs Co VS techFigure 3: Positioning of Co-Designing Meaning between Design Driven Innovation & Technology Push (Walkman example).

grafiekFigure 4: Verganti’s graph of innovation. Design Driven Innovation on the right focussing on radical meaning innovation, technology push (Walkman Example) at the top focussing on radical technological innovation, Market Pull (User Centered) resulting in incremental innovation bottom left & Co-Designing meaning in between them.


We use different tools that allow us to find a fitting way to use the Co-Design of Meaning within your company (figure 5) . These tools are highly flexible and thus adjustable to a unique design process (figure 6).

Design Thinking
Being TU/e students, we are trained to use design thinking in every step we take. This means we can switch between perspectives, have the right attitude towards users, work within a vision and keep an awareness of current society and its values. Design thinking (Lawson, 1980) is a technique required in the methods described below, for example, co-reflection techniques but can also be applied to processes that do not directly relate to the design process.

We research your company’s vision with a fresh view and see in what directions a company wants to develop. The vision of a company is very important to guide innovation & differentiate from the competition. We help to bring this vision into the practice and build it by means of new product development.

We analyze your network and see what the value of creating new innovative products is. When trying to accomplish radical innovation it is important to use your network. We prevent your company from getting in the way of partners, but make sure they contribute to the innovation at hand.


These are the methods used in Co-Designing Meaning, they are developed by the University of Technology Eindhoven and upcoming in  the field of innovation. They are presented with pros and cons as they do not all have to be used but are fitted into a process where needed and very flexible in nature.

Cultural probing is an approach of research into new technologies from the traditions of an artist-designer rather than the more typical science- and engineering-based approaches. This approach is openly subjective, only partially guided by any “objective” problem statement (Gaver, 1999).

“Probes are a projection technique, they functions as a Rorschach drawing, there is nothing to see so the brain of the user must come up with something. This gives insights in the user’s life and the values they think are important.” – dr. Jacques Terken – TU/e – User Centered Design

– Outcomes of the test are very abstract and therefore can include values and meaning
– Unbiased user insights
– Vision of a company can be implemented on an abstract level

– Time consuming
– Outcomes might be too vague to be able to be useful
– Due to abstract outcomes, it is most useful only in the beginning of the project

Sessions of co-reflection use techniques from psychology to get the user, as expert of his/her context, in the right mind set and think with the designer about future situations. It consists out of three phases; exploration, ideation & confrontation. Varying in abstractness from a general conversation to interaction with a premature model/concept. This is where the value in this technique is. It s not only to develop insights but also lends itself to test concepts.

“Proposing a co-reflective process for user involvement, which starts by getting acquainted with the current societal context in order to envision a new reality. This new reality comprises the motivational aspects of users’ vision of the now, making them able to establish a comparison with the designers’ transformative vision.” – Tomico (2009)

– Not very time consuming
– Can be implemented in different stages of the development of a concept
– Repetition of elements of the theory will strengthen your design
– Can be done with different stakeholders instead of users, or a combination of both groups

“They (co-reflective tools) can increase the level of detail of information that is obtained in the measure that the design process requires it” – Tomico (2009)

– The confronting part of the method means the concept has to be at least partially developed
– Outcome might be too subjective when not executed in the right way
– Requires a large amount of flexibility through the design process

Experiential Design Landscapes
The experiential design landscape is characterized by a near-life environment (the ‘outside”), in which designers (can be inspired to) create design proposals. Inviting users to interact with these new concepts through working prototypes, products and/or services for longer periods of time (Gent, 2011). This lets the user create meaning of the device by being able to experience it as if it was really on the market (like the Walkman only less risky). Also focussing on follow up research done with the tested product.

– Lets the user interact with the device as they would in a (close to) normal situation
– Extract value/meaning from the user through observation and interviews afterwards

– Original method is developed for generating technology based user information
– Can be very time consuming and a big facility is needed

toolsetFigure 5: The Co-Designing Meaning-toolset.

flexibleFigure 6: Illustration of how the Co-Desiging Meaning-toolset can be adjusted  to a case at hand.


Design bugs out in hospitals, using tools described above.
This project was done by the Design For All Institute of India in 2010. The goal was very functional, to make a better to clean chair, however, the designers took a different approach which included a more first person perspective (figure 7). It illustrates  how this different approach generated more useful insights which led to the eventual design. The design was nominated for the BRIT Insurance Best Design of the Year award and was exhibited at the Design Museum in London, it is in production for Scandinavian hospitals.

“The most dynamic communication was a workshop simulated hospital situations at Brunel University, which allowed the designers to engage with hospital equipment, patients, nurses and occupational therapists, and participate in role-play of use scenarios.” – Bhatia (2010)

The result was a chair that was much easier to handle and used by the patients, increasing the overall hospital experience.

“The benefits of the new model of commode go far beyond the practical concerns of cleanliness and comfort (…)The ergonomic design of the new model makes it easier and more comfortable, increasing patients’ sense of dignity during their hospital stay and providing them with a more pleasant experience.” – Bhatia (2010)


Figure 7: A hospital chair developed by Design For All Institute of India in 2010 by means of innovative integration of users in a design process.

The Value of Co-Designing Meaning

We, as TU/e trained Industrial Designers, are experts in gaining useful user information for developing new concepts and thereby enabling a company to radically innovate (Hummels et. al 2008).
At the centre of this approach is a unique and innovative user focussed toolset developed to be adjustable to a highly dynamic design process.

“Since users have no frame of reference it is often not possible to ask them, using traditional market research techniques, for the requirements of these future products.” – Brombacher et al. (2011)

“The vision of the TU/e is that users can be of significant value in the design process. However, the user is not trained to think about future settings, therefore we as designers need to help them imagine in order to make them able to help us.” – dr. Jacques Terken – TU/e – User Centered Design 

The methods in the toolset will enable us to integrate data from user, in a non-conventional way, into the design discourse. Providing users with a fitting platform for data generation.
We as trained Industrial Designers ourselves are trained in both the “object as design” and “design as a process” as defined by Valencia (2011). We can help concretize (parts of) the product or brand being developed (object), moreover so we excel in an abstract way of design thinking.  This way of thinking lies at the hart of our educational model at TU/e.
The Co-Designing Meaning-toolset and design thinking on the process level are done within your vision and network. We take them as starting point to build upon and strengthen your position in the professional surrounding of your company.

Design thinking on a process level, a strong vision, innovative implementation of user insights & professional network will differentiate your process & product from the competition, giving you an edge on the market.

Special thanks to:

Dr. Dirk Snelders – TU/e, TUD

Giulia Calabretta – TUD

Dr. Jacques Terken – TU/e – User Centered Design

Jeroen Thoolen – van Berlo

Jeroen van Erp – Fabrique


Verganti, R., Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, USA, (2009.)

Holt, D.B. (2002) Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding. Journal of Consumer Research, Inc. Vol. 29

Grossberg, L. (2006) MediaMaking: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Sage Publications.

Bhatia, S. (2010) Design for All, A Publication of Design For All Institute of India.

Lawson, B., How Designers Think: The Design Process Demystified (first published 1980; fourth edition 2005)

Gaver, B., Dunne, T., Pacenti, E. (1999). Design: Cultural probes.

Tomico, O., Frens, J., Overbeeke, K. (2009). Co-Reflection: User Involvement for highly dynamic design processes.

Tomico, O. (2009). Co-reflection. User involvement aimed at societal transformation.

Van Gent, S.H., Megens, C.J.P.G., Peeters, M.M.R., Hummels, C.C.M., Brombacher, A.C. (2011). Experiential Design Landscapes as a Design Tool for Market Research of Disruptive Intelligent Systems.

Hummels, C. & Frens, J. Designing for the unknown. In Proc. Of EPDE conference, (2008).

Valencia, A., Person, O., Snelders, D. (2011). How Do Managers Of A Business-To-Business Company Look To Industrial Design?

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