Emotional Longevity

Reading Pieter Desmet’s paper; ‘A Multilayered Model of Product Emotions‘, I was stuck by one passage:

A well established psychological principle is that people are ‘intrinsically’ motivated to seek and maintain an optimal level of arousal. A shift away from this optimal level is unpleasant. Since low arousal levels seem to be disliked, we appear to have a ‘stimulus hunger’. Products that are appraised as not holding a challenge and a promise will elicit emotions like boredom…Products that are appraised as stimulating because they bring about some question or because they require further exploration will elicit emotions like fascination and inspiration.

Now this is not a new idea, but it is well written and expresses the concept well. Of course this idea has many ramifications, particularly with regards to sustainability and useful product lifetime and many designers have explored this area. The current consensus thinking seems to be one of a counter movement: as the thrill of the newly purchased product evaporates (often even as we leave the shop) the user must place other qualities on the product. Of course the first attribute is usefulness – which is ostensibly the reason for the original purchase – and has a range of values such as functionality, size, aesthetics and is usually context specific. After time, the product loses it’s fascination and becomes just another part of the visual landscape that the user inhabits until, eventually, the product becomes part of the emotion landscape.

Indeed at this point it is no longer a product – one of many – but an object; the user’s own. The object has come to have an emotional patina, and assuming that it is well built, contextually stable and functional, has become sustainable in that it will perform its role in the user’s life, generally until a sudden change of context. This can take many forms – a new residence or technical revolution for example. If the product is well designed and functional – including Desmet’s concept of stimulus – then it should be able to be repositioned in a new context, perhaps with a new owner, however the object may take different and augmented forms of stimulus from the original design intent, such as historical narrative. An example might be a Rococo table that although at times desperately unfashionable among contemporaneous design trends, has always served as a wonderful place to put a glass of wine. As users have placed their respective glasses of wine upon it’s intricate top plane they are able to admire or cringe at the ornate vernis Martin japanning and raise conjecture at who else has stood in front of the table, and where and when have they done it?

Thus we are able to observe several strands that should be present if a product is to become a truly sustainable product, assuming it is not meant to be disposable in nature:

The product must have a level of functionality
The product must be well built; so as to survive
The product must stimulate us at time of purchase
The product must be able to stimulate us over time

The first two qualities are common design constraints – although the second quality, quality, is often absent in modern design. Much has been written about the third strand, and designers are seemingly always obsessed with the new, many times at the expense of functionality and quality. But perhaps it is the fourth strand – that of designed emotional longevity – that we should be as practitioners looking to investigate, perhaps codify, and imbue our designed objects with?

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