To define one’s identity is not an easy task. A great deal of self-reflection is needed to get to know ourselves. But it can’t be argued that knowledge is very important for each person. Identity is what defines us and communicates outward. It’s an interesting exercise to see if the same can be done for a designed object.
There are several mistakes that people tend to fall into when asked about who they are, and the same pitfalls can happen when talking about a product’s identity. The most immediate answer to “who you are” could be “A knife” or “a table”, but that’s the same as a person answering “a human being”. We’re talking about what it is, not who.
Another answer could be about attributes like “a wooden handle” or “leather cover”. But once again we’re not answering correctly, we’re talking about things it has or physical characteristics. Those can inform certain aspects of the identity but they’re not the defining elements. A person that’s defined by his or her possessions is defined as shallow or superficial. Defining an object with that criteria is not going to tell us much about its identity.
What defines one’s identity are values, beliefs, tradition, heritage and ideology. An identity is built on emotions, self knowledge and one’s attitude towards others and the world. This is obviously impossible to define in an object as that’s devoid of emotions, but it can reflect, to a certain extent, characteristics of the identity of its designer or even characteristics that the designer intentionally puts there by the use of symbols.
So, how can we define an object’s identity? Well, let’s see what identity characteristics can we find in them
To start with we can talk about a cultural identity, which probably is the easiest to identify through the product’s semiotics. We have to detect which cultural background does it’s signs and signifiers come from. Buenos Aires doesn’t have the same cultural codes as New York or London. That’s why we can talk about the “italianness” of a product or an object being “Germanic”. Those characteristics doesn’t come just from a rigid set of aesthetic values but they’re also defined by mores, traditions, behaviour and all sorts of cultural characteristics, that are also in constant flux.
An object’s social identity is a little bit more complicated to define but we can search for clues in the market. Is it a social undertaking? Is it a fashion product? Does it show a true commitment to a social issue (like sustainability for example) or its commitment is a fake one? It’s just to detect which values are underneath the product. It’s price can probably tell us much about it’s social compromise.
A product’s identity helps us understand its place in society and the context where it’s placed, or should be placed.
At the same time it can help us identify values or prejudices that were placed unintentionally and should either be removed or enhanced.
This can tells us much about the product and the designer (or design team / company) but should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the amount of variables, agents and considerations that come into play in the design process can distort a message by a significant margin. Even changing a product’s context can produce adverse effects in its communication.
The general idea is that a product’s identity is composed of cultural, ideological and social values and the important thing is how it affects the product’s perception by different members of society and how a product’s message is influenced by it.