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The expansion of the design object: from materials to experiences

The object of design was once easy to grasp. If we look at the first Bauhaus curriculum, we see the prominent role the building materials played in the designer’s formation. The aspiring designer was supposed to master these materials and tranform them into aesthetical compositions. At this time, the materials were the design object: concrete, plastic and wood.


A little later, the design object expanded to complex entities such as products, buildings, and cities. The question of materials became secondary when facing the challenge of mastering large amounts of information coming from many sources: governmental policies, factories, research institutes, users and others. The designer was supposed to take into account all the information available, problematize, and provide a coherent solution.

In the 1950s, the Brazilian government had a lot of problems that could perhaps be solved by building a new capital in the middle of the land. The city of Brasilia was built from scratch following the master plan of Lucio Costa in the shape of an airplane. Everything in this city was carefully designed to instils the modernization of the country.

The times of material honesty and big master plans are long gone. Currently, design is all about interactions, services, and experiences. The complex entities are now secondary and the materials irrelevant. The design object cut across different products, buildings, and cities. It is it very difficult to nail it down since there is no physical bound for the design object; it can be anywhere, anytime. However, designers have found an anchor to it: the user. The designer and the design object are supposed to follow the user wherever he or she is, understanding and reacting on the specific context.

The iconic representation comes from Lego: an experience wheel that depicts the perfect flight to New York City from the perspective of the user. The activity is broken down into steps, laid down in a cycle (since a person might take this flight many times), and evaluated according to emotional state. The wheel is just an example how Lego finds opportunities to please the user, to keep him in the flow, and to provide relevant information.


The expansion of the design object is a historical current I’m following in my thesis on expansive design. It raises an important question: if the design object is expanding away from complex entities and materials, how designers can get hold of it? This will be the topic of my next post about the contraction of design representations.

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