Extending Product and Service Lifecycles through Emotionally Durable Design principles


Image of B magazine for Punctuate Design article about emotionally durable design
Image of B magazine, photographs by Wooyoung Jung

Our take on Research Driven Design for a change

In our most recent articles, we have tackled design-related subjects and questions from a more hands-on and practical perspective by analyzing case studies.

In this next section, we decided to adopt a more research driven approach where we vulgarize an interesting emerging concept in sustainable and emotional design called the emotional durability of design.

Design discourses have shifted and are paused at sustainability

Across the last few years - and even decades - it is incontestable that questions of preservation and protection of the environment have become the number one priority of many discourses in multiple fields. In fact, the research has shown that “[...] professionals from different fields are at the forefront of proposing alternative innovative solutions within an ecological agenda: [...] sustainability considerations go beyond optimizing technical characteristics of materials to extend their life cycles.

Today, new approaches can operate on different levels in order to satisfy the need for sustainability” (Harb, 2020, P.73). As we all know, the sustainable development movement has been increasingly embraced and adopted by many disciplines and industries (Gidley, 2008), including - and most importantly - design.

DesignTalks 2023 on Design and Global change from article on Punctuate Design
DesignTalks 2023 on Design and Global change, Photo by Aldís Pálsdóttir taken from Dezeen 2023

The psychological obsolescence fueling modern society’s destructive over-consumption model 

Now, it is no secret that today’s modern society follows a buy-use-dump-repeat consumption model where users tend to throw away perfectly functional products. These wasteful behaviors can be specifically observed when a newer version of a product or service is available for example, and users rush to replace their older ones. Some business models even go to the extent of planning and programming malfunctions purposefully so that the customers feel enticed to discard and replace with a newer model. Known as planned obsolescence, this type of unethical business model encourages the production of products that prematurely become obsolete. This phenomenon can also be observed when users get frustrated by products who display superficial signs of wear and tear on their surface (ex. scratches, discolorations, stains), and resolve to throw them away instead of cleaning, fixing, or even accepting them. Lastly, some consumers discard products simply as soon as they are bored of them, as can be seen in the fashion industry with what is known as fast-fashion for example. 

Regardless of how or when it is done, this is a destructive and highly irresponsible consumption model where modern consumerism is directly contributing to the planet’s waste crisis:

It has been estimated that 78% of discarded products still function properly when replaced (Van Nes, 2003), and in some cases this is due to psychological obsolescence (when a product is discarded for reasons such as changes in users’ perceived needs, desire for social status emulation, or new trends in fashion and style)” (Cooper, 2004, 2010 cited in Ceschin & Gaziulusoy, 2016, P.123).
Graphics BUY, USE, DUMP from Punctuate Design
@Graphics from Punctuate Design

Our landfills are already overflowing with garbage and scraps, so why would we consiously want to add perfectly-functional yet slightly worn-out products to the mountains of trash polluting our soil, water, and air?

Towards the emotional-durability of products

In response to the consequences of today’s over-consumption models on a worldwide level, multiple initiatives and strategies have emerged.

Fashion Designer Virgil Abloh’s recycled water bottle for Evian, images from Dezeen 2021
Fashion Designer Virgil Abloh’s recycled water bottle for Evian, images from Dezeen 2021

Furthermore, experts have always agreed that design has the power to increase attachment to products and services. The main purpose of such initiatives, philosophies, and principles is to ultimately extend the product’s lifecycle as consumers are more encouraged, through purposeful design, to preserve them, fix them, maintain them, and pass them on instead of discarding them (Sherwin, 2004; Chapman, 2009; 2015). 

Furniture design studio skram’s heirlooms
Furniture design studio skram’s heirlooms: designed to last for generation using high-quality and natural materials, setting an example to today’s fast-moving, throw-away, consumer culture - image from DesignBoom 2021

Consequently, an emerging new concept issued from emotional design and sustainable practices has come to the forefront of design discourses, offering an innovative approach to regulate our consumption of goods and services. This approach is known as the emotional-durability of design.

Design Professor Chapman’s research (2015) shows that emotionally durable design (EDD) has risen as a new branch of sustainable development studying mainly product attachment and user engagement, more particularly from a circular economy point of view. According to the research, emotionally-durable and sustainable design initiatives, principles, and practices have the ability to embody value in artifacts in both subtle and durable ways, making the consumer want to preserve instead of losing interest, fix instead of discard, and pass-down instead of throwing away.

Graphics from Punctuate Design on emotionally durable design from Punctuate Design
@Graphics from Punctuate Design

Used products = Better products

Chapman, along with other scholars, observe that in today’s technocentric society, “products whose key value lies in the degree of newness are vulnerable to the glare of decay” (Chapman, 2015, P.131).

Our research shows that aging and wearing properties of a material can be further exploited through design to create new types of experiences with characteristics that evolve freely through time - adding personality and value to the artifacts.

Studio nir meiri in collaboration with  designer vaiehi thakkar’s red cabbage lighting collection
Studio nir meiri in collaboration with  designer vaiehi thakkar’s red cabbage lighting collection, image from DesignBoom 2023

When products go through the first cycle of use, they are purchased, unboxed, manipulated, used, transported, cleaned, forgotten, reused, borrowed, dropped, damaged, etc. This means that the user lives with their product, thus inflicting on the superficial surfaces scratches, stains, bumps, dents, discolorations, cracks, etc. Most of the time, these signs of wear and tear are not compromising the products’ performance from a functional standpoint. These are ‘signs of life’ and ‘clues of use’ that show the embodiment of the subject within the object (Chapman, 2015). This indication of the artifact’s secret life is seen to greatly influence the user experience by adding value - as opposed to repulsing the user - through the discovery and appreciation of the superficial scars of use.

Therefore, EDD can be seen as a strategic approach to sustainable design, impacting the user-object relationship by “embedding less transient and more enduring values within products”  (Chapman, 2015, P.27). As a result, the user-object relationship becomes stronger and more deeply-rooted in the consumer’s lifestyle and habits as the product becomes an irreplaceable part of the user’s life. Of course, this relationship can be further sustained with the passage of time as products who can proudly, intentionally, and gracefully bear signs of use can be seen as unique, special, and one-of-a-kind. This approach aims to “reduce the consumption and waste of natural resources by increasing the resilience of relationships established between consumers and products” (Chapman, 2009, P.142). 

“Emotionally durable design therefore provides a useful language to describe the contemporary relevance of designing responsible, well-made, tactile products that the user can get to know and assign value to in the long term” (Lacey, 2009, P.142).

Designers Damir Krdžović and Rebecca Norberg’s ‘broken chair’
Designers Damir Krdžović and Rebecca Norberg’s ‘broken chair’ is still perfectly functional despite being imperfect - image from DesignBoom 2017

This emotional-driven approach encourages a sustainable narrative when it comes to product and material experiences. This is achieved through the creation of more time-enduring user-artifact relationships that promote the selection of evolving materials and products bearing the signs of time as opposed to inert and sterile ones (Chapman, 2015).

 Designer Tongqi Lu’s imperfectly and naturally textured glassware collection from Tickle Quo
 Designer Tongqi Lu’s imperfectly and naturally textured glassware collection from Tickle Quo - image from Dezeen 2023

Inspired from ancient eastern philosophies

As we all know, the concept of embracing imperfections and finding beauty in signs of use is not a recent one. Contrary to the predominant current Western view which is focused on the immaculate perfection of the material world that surrounds us, Eastern cultures find appeal and value in used material surfaces. In fact, Japanese culture has always revolved around the acceptance of transience through the aesthetic principles associated with the philosophical and ritualistic transition of Zen. Although much research can be found on the principles related to Zen aesthetics, we have provided an abbreviated and simplified list enumeration of the elements most relevant to design. These were based on the findings of Purser (2013), Hisamatsu (1971), Lomas et al. (2017), Suzuki (1959/2019), Keulemans (2016), and Parkers et al. (2018).

Fukinsei: which means ‘asymmetry’, refers to the ‘perfection of imperfection’, and draws our attention to the natural world’s inherent irregularity. 

Koko: translated as ‘austere sublimity’ and is manifested through the beauty found in aged or seasoned elements. 

Shizen: translating to naturalness or the avoidance of pretense or premeditation.

Daisuzoku: or freedom from habits, routine, and the conventional.

Sei-jaku: which can be translated as stillness, purity and tranquility.

Kanso: referring to beauty in elegant simplicity.

Yu-gen: often described as the most challenging to translate,but  which can be understood as profound grace all while carrying mysterious depth and obscurity.

Emotionally design cards from Punctuate Design

Wabi-sabi: one of the 3 main perceptual-emotional moods evoked by Zen, is a worl-view inspired from a compassionate and empathetic perspective on life, and refers to the quest for unique and unconventional beauty in impermanence, transience, and imperfections.

Kintsugi: an ancient Japanese ceramic repair technique issued from the aesthetics found in koko and wabi-sabi where broken ceramics are reassembled together by highlighting the breakage - using usually gold - instead of concealing it.

Emotionally design cards, imperfection and value in signs of wear from Punctuate Design

All these principles and considerations can be intentionally integrated into the design process to be used as guidelines or inspiration to create more emotionally-durable products and services.

Kintsugi by Magda Wojciechowska
Image from Behance - Kintsugi by Magda Wojciechowska

Embracing imperfections and shifting the attention of the user from the new and shiny to the used and familiar

Based on all of this, we continue to ask ourselves more interesting questions. For example, we question why the formation of patina on copper, bronze, wood and leather products for example is usually perceived as a natural and even an intentionally-graceful aging behavior? Whilst other materials such as plastics, concrete, and textiles seem to be on the receiving end of a deceitful, harsh, and unnecessarily judgmental perception? Why are some worn-out articles considered antiques (as opposed to waste) and are desired and pursued by collectors? We even point out that some consumers - or even designers - go to the extent of artificially recreating fake signs of wear and tear (e.g., discoloration, scratches, fading, etc.) onto the surfaces of some products to give them a ‘vintage’ look which is seen to add to their value (e.g., aged denim).

One thing is certain, there is a growing interest in embracing imperfections and straying away from the standard consumption model which is focused on ‘perfect’ mass-produced artifacts.

Designer Piet Hein Eek collaborating with IKEA
Designer Piet Hein Eek collaborating with IKEA to create a range of furniture and homeware that showcases imperfections, Image from Dezeen 2018

In fact, industrial design practices have been further pursuing this interest in imperfection as a response to the redundant monotony resulting from mass production (Ramarkers, 2002). In fact, qualities such as personalisation, customisation, uniqueness, craftsmanship, and diversity are being considered in contemporary design to better represent people’s individuality and to promote emotional attachment (¡Viva la diferencia!, 2018).

Long story short: 

The world is evolving, modern society's perception of perfection is shifting towards more sustainable views, and emerging initiatives and philosophies - such as the emotional-durability of design - are encouraging beauty, value, and attachment to be found in used products in order to extend their lifecycle beyond the limits.

Everything - even the most innovative initiatives - has limitations

And yet, it is important to mention the limits of EDD principles to remind ourselves that there are always disadvantages to be considered. For example, as meanings are context-sensitive, they can vary greatly between different users, which makes it challenging for the designer to guarantee the development product attachment. Additionally, the level of attachment can vary depending on the product category, and not all products necessarily benefit from an extended longevity. And finally, the extended emotional durability of some products may clash with the economic expectations of some merchants whose main goal is to increase sales, making them reluctant to develop and sell them. Therefore, there should be a nuance in the expectations when it comes to privately acquired artifacts as opposed to publicly owned ones for example.

In conclusion, emotionally-durable design is of critical importance in the creation of sustainable products and services that meet the needs of today's consumers all while respecting the boundaries and limits of the environment. By considering the emotional connection that people have with their possessions, industrial designers can create products and services that will stand the test of time, both in terms of durability, but also in appeal. Such design ensures that products are not only functional and aesthetically pleasing but also capable of fostering long-term emotional connections with users, reducing waste, and improving overall product longevity. 

As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of their consumption patterns, the role of emotionally-durable design will become even more critical in shaping a more sustainable future for the next generations. 

Thus, it is important for businesses - and their designers - to prioritize the incorporation of emotionally-durable design principles into their overall design, production, and marketing processes.

Tara Harb
Project and Design manager