Poetic Approaches to Design

Designed objects in everyday life are capable of being newly or differently perceived, and in turn, regarded as speculative objects that make one stop and think twice about its design. By applying various poetic approaches to design, specifically considering notions such as norms, metaphors, and affects, designers are empowered to see beyond the typical, and to develop deeper understandings of everyday objects that consequently influence how their designs are received. As outlined below, the value of such perspectives is widely recognised and demonstrated across numerous contexts within the design world.

Norms categorise typical actions and ideas that are triggered without thought. When incorporated with design, norms enlighten designers on the restrictions that apply to their knowledge, and challenge one to create a speculative object that is defiant of norms. In his book, Designing Design, Kenya Hara rhetorically asks, “at what point does a ‘glass’ turn into a ‘dish’?” (Hara 2007), inspiring designers to question how norms associated with everyday objects are conceived. Referring to the theory of exformation, which is the recognition of the limited knowledge one has, Hara encourages designers to rethink their assumptions of pre-existent norms, as only when one has fully comprehended the norms associated with a product, are they able to design an item that makes the viewer or user stop and reconsider it in a new light — as a speculative object. Furthermore, Hara puts forward that “…making the known unknown” (Hara 2007) is an act of art, for once a person fully grasps the subject of both an action and the environment, are we then able to allow for new perceptions and understandings, to design an object that sparks contemplative thought.

Kaoru MENDE | Anniversary Matches

Architectural lighting designer, Kaoru Mende uses norms in design to confront and challenge responders, to urge them to reconsider what they know to be of standard. His 2007 product, Anniversary Matches is a matchbox of uniquely hand-designed matches that, as its name suggests, can be gifted or used on special occasions. It deliberately embraces typical perceptions of matches as small wooden sticks of generic shape, made of thin, clean cut wood that has been sliced narrowly, with one end of the stick, the head, dipped in a (usually red) chemical to enable it to be easily ignited. Mende also clings to the assumption that matches are used to light up a flame, and have connotations of warmth, fire, candles and nature as they are often for smoking or celebrations such as birthdays and weddings. He achieves this through his design as each match is originally handcrafted, making it unique to both the designer and the user. As described by Hara, Mende’s redesign of matches represents a form of understanding and creativity, a means to alter society’s commonly seen and recognised objects. Mende subverts the prevalent norms as a method to uncover the purpose of matches, to spark reflection and profound understanding of the simplistic everyday object, and its significance.

Another poetic approach to design is one that interprets produced designs as metaphors that are constructed to give responders insight into unfamiliar concepts and ideas. In his online essay, See Through Words, author, journalist and linguist, Michael Erard establishes metaphors to be pseudo-mistakes, the linking of an object to a new object, which takes place by breaking down an idea or design into its components, then relating it to another notion that has no implications to its previous perception. Erard also asserts that metaphors “help people understand the unfamiliar” (Erard 2015). By applying these principles to design, it is possible to form a view that designers do not and should not intend to simply create designs that are aesthetically pleasing. Rather, if their designs are indeed perceived to be metaphors, designers can and should develop designs that have the ability to shape perceptions and understandings of the unknown.

Shuhei HASADO | Geta

Extending Erard’s theory of the ‘metaphor room’ to the context of design, it may be said that in creating and designing innovatively, a designer must use their design’s “windows and doors…to provide another way of looking at reality” (Erard 2015). Master plasterer, Shuhei Hasado’s 2004 masterpiece, Geta, which was created for an exhibition, Haptic, is a geta — shoes with a platform deliberately raised from the ground to emphasise sensory blockage, textured to appear as soil and grass. Symbolically, shoes are representative of journeys and travelling, with the saying that ‘a good pair of shoes can take you to great places’ being most commonly known. These norms have clearly been incorporated to embody a creation that acts as both a visual and interactive metaphor that introduces the idea that we as a society are gradually distancing ourselves from nature due to our heavy reliance on technology. The distinct linkages to nature are evident in its composition of differing textures, and directly contrast to the traditional plain designs that are seen in Japan. As a designer, Hasado metaphorically inspires the audience to seek a better quality of life by reminding them to appreciate the natural environment.

Consideration can also be given to how design can trigger reflection of everyday objects and consequently compel responders to understand the attitudes and emotions evoked by a design. This poetic approach to design refers to perceiving a design’s affects, as mentioned by Christopher Gaul in his exhibition, The Art of Everyday Things from Sydney Design. Describing the thought processes behind his musical rendition of a library card, Gaul states that “rather than thinking of aesthetic experiences as separate to daily life…we can find harmony, balance and pleasure in the experience of modest everyday objects” (Gaul 2010). In order to design a speculative object, Gaul suggests practising mindfulness, as by stopping to disassociate from typical behaviour, observing to give consideration without assumptions, and by returning when distracted from observing, designers are able to develop a clear concept of their design by questioning themselves on what affects they wish to impart on the audiences. Much like Mende and Erard, Gaul’s notions challenge designers to suspend what is known, and he justifies this with a reiteration of Bertold Brecht’s words, “…we must give up assuming that the object in question needs no explanation” (Gaul 2010).

Saboro SAKATA | Blank, 2011

On the designer’s part, thoughtfulness of their design’s affects can yield results that are “both useful and meaningful” (Gaul 2010) to not only the designer, but also the user. Saburo Sakata’s design, Blank, 2011 embodies a number of different affects in that the familiar drift bottle that is reminiscent of elements both past and present, and implies that a message in a bottle can be addressed to anyone. Its miniature and cute design also conveys a sense of curiousness and restrictiveness as the USB component is contained within a glass bottle. Sakata could have designed the USB storage device as a sleek, plain design that confirms to the everyday context, but his design reflects a consciousness of particular affects and can also be regarded as a metaphor that gives an impression of individuality and preciousness as the design itself has implicit importance to something of the past or distance, but functionally, the product is an item of technology. Nature connotations are also apparent as the movement of plugging in the USB is evocative of the cork being plugged into the bottle, encouraging responders to pause and contemplate the seemingly inadvertent connection.

Adopting various poetic approaches to design allows one to better interpret and make sense of how designers can provoke contemplation and influence or inspire genuine understandings and clear perceptions of their designs of everyday objects and life itself. This is particularly the case when considering notions of norms, metaphors and affects and how they apply in the context of design, shaping behaviours of designers and perceptions of responders accordingly.


Erard, M. 2016, How to build a metaphor to change people’s minds — Michael Erard | Aeon Essays, viewed 23 November 2016, <https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-build-a-metaphor-to-change-people-s-minds>.

Gaul, C. 2010, The Art of Everyday Things: Creating moments of mindfulness in everyday life, Honours thesis, University of Technology, Sydney.

Hara, K. 2007, Designing design, 1st ed. Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers.

Hasado, S. 2004, Geta, Hara Institute Design, viewed 23 November 2016, <http://www.ndc.co.jp/hara/en/works/2014/08/haptic.html>.

Mende, K. c.2007, Anniversary Matches, Designboom, viewed 23 November 2016, <http://www.designboom.com/design/kenya-hara-designing-design/>.

Sakata, S. 2011, Blank, 2011, Saboro Sakata, viewed 23 November 2016, <http://www.saburosakata.info/projects/289/>.