design language practice and theory 

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updated: may  2006

marketing and design

testo in Italiano


In the last chapter we cited the plural level of perception of signs in space time, esp. on the secondary conscious leveling relation to the visual perception of products. Now I will investigate better this conscious level considering on a broader base the users relation to products. The user, or in this case the consumer, establishes a threefold perceptive relation to the category of products he is interested in, namely on:
the functional level
the price level
the aesthetic level
These levels interact but, as always, in order to simplify I separate them. The former chapters were concerned with some aspects of the functional and the aesthetic level. We will now concentrate on the apparently simple level of the price of products. Products come as parts of series, catalogues, sets, that generally cover a range of prices related to their functions and looks. Let's look, for the moment, at the scale of prices of a category of products. When we select a product we will confront its price to that of similar products in the same price segment in order to decide on its convenience. We can easily ascertain that a small difference in price is significant in the low price range whereas the same difference is mostly of no importance for in the higher price segment. This effect is well known to physiologists and Gestalt psychologists as the 'law of Weber-Fechner'. It states that the intensity of a subjective sensation S ( e.g. of noise, weight, temperature, volumes as well as prices) is proportional to the logarithm of the physical stimulator E.
(c is the constant for the subjective experience in a given perceptive channel)

This formula expresses in a very general, and therefore often unrealistic, way that a series of quantities in order to appear 'regular' in our perception will be based on a geometric scale. Our price list is perceived with such a geometric rule in the back of our brain. It is significant that the same formula is at the basis of national and international systems of technologic norms like DIN, ISA etc. e.g. for sizes of paper, dimensions of metal rods, screws, capacities of electrical elements, sensibility of films, etc.

The division of the whole range of products in echelons of lower, medium and higher prices follows the same criteria. The lower price area will be less extended than the other two. The division can be finer e.g. the case of the automobile market where six areas of price levels are commonly applied (from the cheaper cars in the A sector till the G end of very expensive cars) Here the law of Weber-Fechner should be applied in the definition of the extension of the different sectors because what matters is not the absolute price range but its actual perception by the customers (it is not). We can construct easily a ruler or, still better, create a list on the computer to calculate these different segments of the range. This theory was tested succesfully in 1968 under the direction of Augusto Morelloin the sector of department stores
italian version of the ruler

functions versus pricesi
synoptic picture of values in the price range of two brands


A realistic photography of a product range (of a certain factory, in a definite market, in a supermarket, etc.) starts opportunely with the construction of such a geometric price scale on which the single products have their position. Thenceforth we can consider the second parameter of the range: the functionality. Here things become more difficult because the perception of the functionality of products differs often widely in individual users. It is the classical problem of marketing: how to decide which products will be appreciated most? The best way to determine the functional value of a product is probably the panel approach.

The user can generally not judge the functionality of a product on the spot: he has to rely on information that he gathers in different channels including direct visual, and tactile, perception.
Designers know about the importance, especially in the details, of visual, tactile and acoustic expression of the functionality and quality of products. If the qualities of a product are not expressed through its form, color, texture, sound, etc. they will normally not be noted by the potential buyer.

The collectively perceived functionality of the single products in a range can be quantified by a vote e.g. from 0 till 10 and plotted on the price range in a synoptic picture. An example shows the price range and functions range of a gamut of products from two different Brands, A (green marks, 10 products) and B (light blue, 14 products). The prices of these two brands vary from $ 100 to $ 1000. The brands differ however in the distribution on the three price levels: the B brand has f.e. 6 products in the higher price range, whereas the A brand has only 2. This is expressed in the brand profiles that connect the larger colored dots corresponding to the right hand scale of the number of products in each sector.

A normal distribution of functions against prices will show a constant rising curve that tends to bend down in the region of higher prices due to esthetic and prestige factors, sometimes even at the cost of actual functionality. We call this the value curve. Value is actually, in contrast to its popular meaning, the inverse relation of price against functionality: the less we pay for a product the higher its value.

Any deviation from the ideal value curve can be explained: e.g. deficiency of functionality in the particular price area or its contrary, a bargain. But in a less controllable way the third factor, esthetics, influence often strongly the positioning of the product on the value curve.

The synoptic picture, or model, can also be used to visualize the general strategy of an industry in a certain product range or brand and confront it with others. We use the same division of the range in its sectors and count the number of products in that range. We plot that number in the, geometric, center of the different sectors and obtain a 'profile' of the range.

In conclusion we must acknowledge and apologize for the merely theoretic handling of the intricate relation of functions, prices and esthetics of products as perceived through the senses of hypothetic users. Actually the limits of the application of scientific models has been subject of post-structuralist debate since at least two decades, e.g. the American philosopher Richard Rorty, a pragmatist and polemical in this respect of Charles Peirce, one of the founders of pragmatism. (note 3).

The synoptic model has actually been experimented with positive results in my design practice and has shown its usefulness for students in their approach to product design exercises. As often, an experimental model is better than none: it helps at least to provisory understand, interpret and eventually verify some aspects of 'reality'. Perhaps the most evident single defect of our synoptic model is that it limits its subject to an imaginary anonymous general user, whereas society is composed of many different, not necessarily geographically determined, clusters. The identification and investigation of these, ever changing, clusters is one main objective of progressive marketing.

Beside consideration about price and functions in products and groups of products the user perceives, as has been said, very strongly its esthetic aspects. Here comes of course the traditional role of designers in the foreground. It actually will be the core of our design theory as you can see in the following pages

note 1 Peirce in 1878 coined in this context the term of 'pragmatic maxim' meaning that a proposition is never timelessly and undeniable 'true': it constitutes at most a method for arriving at meaning, a semiosis. He gives us the following advice:
*Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object"*(C.P.5.402)
see also: Floyd Merrell, $Peirce, Signs and Meaning*, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1997, pp. 49, 100, 343
note 2 Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, Band I-1, p.208
note 3 From the 778637 matches (!) that I found in Internet (Excite) on behalf of 'Rorty' I quote just this one by Richard Fyffe from his: *Conversational Constraints: Richard Rorty and Contemporary Critical Theory* from 1996:

Rorty introduces the notion of solidarity, associating this move with the American pragmatist tradition of Dewey and James. *Pragmatists would like to replace the desire for objectivity with the desire for solidarity* ... , he says, *the desire for as much inter subjective agreement as possible, the desire to extend the reference of 'us' as far as we can* ... Rorty's model interpretive community is marked by *the habits of relying on persuasion rather than force, of respect for the opinions of colleagues, of curiosity and eagerness for new data and ideas* (Science as Solidarity, 39).

The next page introduces semiotics 

italian version

info andries van onck