In a discussion back in 2016 with two family members (who are now also my business partners) we came to the conclusion that many have forgotten the value of meaningful products. From that moment on I became obsessed with the concept of product value. How could I as a designer create something that has real value? I am not talking about financial value or business potential but about emotional value; earnest value.
From that moment on I became obsessed with the concept of product value.
Of course, the notion of value is a very personal one. Not everyone values the same thing in the same exact way, but there are factors that increase the capability of a product to have personal meaning. We all have certain objects that we like more than others: whether it be your favorite mug, your phone, laptop or your favourite piece of clothing. The value of a smartphone or laptop is easily found. It mostly comes down to functionality, aesthetics and price. However, I believe that these factors are not necessarily the most important in determining the value of a product. Because if it was, then why do you like your favorite mug, bathrobe or slippers so much?
Rituals increase our perception of value¹. I could give an anecdote about how I value my bathrobe more because it is part of comfortably waking up but that would already overcomplicate things. If you want to see an example of how a ritual can increase the perceived value of a product, check out this video:
Immortalization of a memory
But there are more factors that increase the capability of products to bear meaning. Let’s for example consider something very different: a souvenir. People value souvenirs far more than their monetary cost, but the average souvenir is very unlikely to be part of any routine. In fact, most people buy them and barely ever think about them again. Still, they are very capable of bearing emotional value. This is because they are intended as a relic of sorts. A memory of another time and another place. People largely forget about their souvenirs, until one day they find them, look at them and remember the moment when you bought them. This is the value of souvenirs: they let you relive a moment.
While a souvenir reminds someone of a particular place and moment in time, other objects can represent things far bigger. They can embody someone’s values, principles or emotion. Examples are the Christian cross or a yin yang necklace. Another is the wedding ring, of which the value is mostly found in the symbolisation of a couple’s relationship. The list of examples is endless because the power of symbolism is immense, but there are more factors that can increase product value.
The next factor that can bring value is personalisation. Some people add a touch of personalisation to their wedding ring by engraving a personal message on the inside. The message will be close to their heart and it will increase the personal value of the ring. But engraving is not the only way to personalise a product. Some people put a picture of their loved ones in their wallet. Sure, they might want to brag about their kids or wife sometimes, but trust me that the main reason people do this is for themselves. Personalisation is a way of increasing the self-expressive value of a product. The effort invested on personalising a product has effect on the strength of the emotional bond with the product². Simply put: more personalisation = more product value.
Now imagine a mug that says: “greatest dad ever”. The personal message on these mugs made them popular to a point of cliche. Aside from the personalisation, it is a gift (pity the people that buy these mugs for themselves). A gift in itself brings unique value. Part of this value comes from the ‘souvenir’ effect, that reminds the recipient of the moment when they got the object. The other part is because the gift also reminds the recipient of the thoughtfulness of the person that gave it. It is a personal connection between the recipient and the person that gave it to him. Again, the more personal the gift, the more value. For example, my little brother has a zippo that was given to him by friends years ago. To me, it is just a zippo. For him, it is of great value because he appreciates the thoughtfulness that went into the gift and its engraving.
A zippo has another factor that increases its value to the owner. It is one of the rare products nowadays that is still made with the intention to last. They are practically unbreakable and even come with a lifetime warrantee. They are designed and produced with Dieter Ram’s 7th principle of good design in mind: durability. Virtually any product of personal value becomes more meaningful the longer it is in one’s possession. The longer he has his zippo, the more valuable it will become to him. Sure, over time it has gotten a number of scratches on it. But there is a story behind every one of them. Which to him gives them a certain beauty. A beauty that is maybe best understood by examining the old Japanese tradition of Kintsugi.
The legend goes that a shogun once broke one of his favorite bowls. He had had it for a long time and had become attached to it. Thus, he assembled the best Japanese craftsmen to repair it. They found that the most aesthetically pleasing way to do this was fixing the broken pottery with a sort of lacquer mixed with gold. The result was not only more beautiful than before the repair, but also more meaningful. The shogun, who was thrilled with joy, understood something that many companies don’t: a product’s personal value increases over time.
As most people do not have the money or Japanese craftsmen to repair their products with gold, products should be made to stand the test of time. Sadly, companies nowadays have forgotten the value of durability – mainly because they can’t make money of off it. In fact, the longer it takes before a product breaks, the less repeat business a company will have. Therefore, products are intentionally made to break after a specific time frame – which should offend any consumer (see for example the lightbulb conspiracy by the Phoebus cartel).
What if you combine all these factors?
There are very few products that have true and earnest value to me. However I do have one product that has most of the these factors. If my building would burn down I would be carrying this outside before anything else. My dad’s old record player. He gave it to me when I moved out as he bought it when he got his own place. Ever since, I have used it on a daily basis to play his records.
To me there is a certain beauty in the underlying personal values products can have. As a designer I am fascinated by this concept of value, which seems to elevate a product to another level. Designing a product that allows for all these factors of value is a challenge for any designer. Think about it. What do you value above anything else? and why?
I have over the past months worked as part of Coda with an extreme focus on product value. Curious about the results of our search for earnest value? Sign up for the Launch List to receive an email when we launch our Kickstarter (signup form is in the sidebar). If you want to follow our story more closely you can follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Linkedin!
- Vohs, K. D., Wang, Y., Gino, F., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Rituals Enhance Consumption. http://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613478949
- Mugge, R., Schoormans, J. P. L., Schifferstein, H. N. J., Mugge, R., Schoormans, J. P. L., & Schifferstein, H. N. J. (2017). Emotional bonding with personalised products, 4828(February). http://doi.org/10.1080/09544820802698550