How Do Materials Obtain Their Meanings?

Karana, Elvin
Product designers are expected to create products transferring certain ‘meanings’. Materials of products are used for supporting the intended meanings in product design; one material may convey luxury, another material can be associated with a particular culture. Designers who aim to select a material that will contribute to the meaning they intend to convey in a product are confronted with the difficulty that the materials universe is immense. Moreover, traditional sayings such as ‘wood is cozy’, ‘metal is aloof’ or ‘plastic is cheap’ are less relevant and strict in today’s design practice. Without a doubt, having insights into the role of materials for creating particular meanings has become more and more relevant in the domain of design. It is to be expected that materials are attributed different meanings in different products and contexts, affected by certain key variables. How do we experience materials around us? When do we think that a certain material is modern, elegant, sexy, feminine, or professional? This paper focuses on the main findings and implications of a Ph.D. research on ‘meanings of materials’. In this paper, the following two questions are addressed: (i) can a meaning be embedded in a material? and (ii) what are the key variables affecting the attribution of meanings to materials? In answering these questions, results from a literature review and a study conducted with 32 Dutch and Chinese participants are discussed. The paper ends with a discussion on existing materials selection sources and materials education in design.


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Citation Formats
E. Karana, “How Do Materials Obtain Their Meanings?,” ODTÜ Mimarlık Fakültesi Dergisi, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 271–285, 2010, Accessed: 00, 2020. [Online]. Available: