Hardware, Software & the Internet of Things
June 23–25, 2015 • San Francisco, CA

Communicating through the language of design

Philippa Mothersill (MIT Media Lab)
1:30pm–5:00pm Tuesday, 06/23/2015
Tutorial, Design
Location: Fleet Room (Bldg D)
Average rating: ***..
(3.71, 17 ratings)

Prerequisite Knowledge

No prior knowledge is required to understand the overall themes in the talk and hands-on part of the workshop, but those with some experience in design may be able to engage with the work at a more detailed level.

Materials or downloads needed in advance



We subconsciously perceive information, meaning, and character in objects through their physical design language, their form, color, materials, and so on. Designers consciously understand this language; their intuition and experience allows them to embody meaning in objects to communicate certain experiences to us in the objects we interact with. But this is harder for people who aren’t consciously conversant in this language; designing meaningful objects is hard.

The research I am doing as part of my PhD at the MIT Media Lab is trying to understand and decode this language, both by understanding how we perceive meaning in objects, and also in how we go about creating physical artifacts. Understanding this language can help to embed this knowledge into new design tools that make it more intuitive for people to consciously express meaning through physical objects, and in this way meaningfully engage with and communicate through the physical world that surrounds us.

This half-day workshop will introduce this theme of the design language of physical artifacts, and, through examples of existing work as well as my own research, discuss how meaning can be embedded through the design attributes of objects. Background research into the academic theory of product semantics and aesthetic perception will be introduced, and frameworks for taxonomies for the perception of meaning in objects presented. Participants will be able to experiment first-hand with some of these ideas in a hands-on design communication experiment – a physical design version of the game Telephone. Participants will endeavor to clearly embody a message in the various forms, colours, textures, and material attributes of a physical sculpture – and discuss the outcomes of their experiment in relation to the frameworks presented. They will brainstorm ideas for how these frameworks of non-verbal communication through objects could be integrated into new design tools, to make the creation process of meaningful objects as intuitive as having a conversation with someone.

Photo of Philippa Mothersill

Philippa Mothersill

MIT Media Lab

Philippa Mothersill is a researcher in the Object-Based Media group at the MIT Media Lab, where she explores the language of design, particularly how objects can communicate information to us through their form. Through research that connects design theory, synesthesia, and linguistics, she investigates computational processes for the design of static and dynamically expressive objects, and explores how the design attributes of physical objects can become a more active medium for communication. Before the Media Lab, Philippa worked for three years as a product designer for Procter & Gamble, where she led the upstream industrial design of new products by bringing together design research, marketing narrative, and functional technology to create the first aesthetically designed functional prototype in a product’s development cycle. She holds a MEng in aeronautical engineering from the University of Bristol, a joint MA/MSc degree in industrial design engineering from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London, and has just completed her S.M. in media arts and sciences at MIT.

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Picture of Kate Benson
Kate Benson
06/28/2015 8:35pm PDT

Hello, would it be possible to receive your slide deck ? Thanks !