It’s not strange to attach human characteristics to objects. This process of anthropomorphism is a basic mechanism to develop relationship with our environment and to facilitate communication about it.
It might seem childish to define objects in human terms but for a designer it can be a valuable tool as it allows the designer to focus on what he or she is trying to communicate with a product.
That’s how defining a design as “friendly”, “serious”, “formal”, “fun”, and the like can provide the designer with valuable information about how to manage form factors, usability, social standing and even productive processes.
The most important part of the process is to identify which elements can be associated to each character. For example if we choose to make something “happy” we will have to avoid using dull and desaturated colours.
The identification process can be developed taking as reference different objects, selecting those that at a first glance seem to belong within the selected character. Then it is possible to sort them and break apart which elements produce the correct association. Detecting patterns between the selected objects is critical to understand each attribute.
Elements can be sorted by type and used to generate a map of attributes.
It’s up to consideration if the design needs to cover all the attributes or if it’s possible to create a strong association to the character by using just a few. This is probably going to be dependant on the character and the product that’s being designed.
Obviously, attaching human characteristics to a product doesn’t mean to draw on it a face with the corresponding character. We’re talking about the use of much more subtle approaches that communicate indirectly the idea behind the character.
I’ve seen the phrase “objects with personality” used as a slogan to describe some star designer made objects. In this case it’s usually used as a way to grab attention and not necessary as a reflection of a design philosophy. It’s a way to say that those objects are different or unique and may or may not share the approach I’m describing.
It should be noted that depending on the character, this approach can influence every aspect of the design (form factor, aesthetics, use, function, technology and production) and not only in its semiotic considerations. This comes from the notion that the ways a product symbolic values are not only rooted on the visual aspect but in all of its components.
The idea behind anthropomorphising an object its but a cognitive tool that helps the designer to understand how the object should relate to the context it will be situated on and to focus the design in the areas that highlight the message the designer wants to communicate.