Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Types of Embodiment in Design: The Embodied Foundations of Meaning and Affect in Product Design

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Types of Embodiment in Design: The Embodied Foundations of Meaning and Affect in Product Design

Article excerpt


In the past three decades, it has become increasingly common in scholarly literature to explain human language use, evaluations of stimuli and behaviors in terms of their embodied origins. For instance, a linguistic utterance such as 'we're close friends' may be said to originate in the embodied, intimate experience of being physically close to another person (Bargh & Shalev, 2012; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Perceiving an elongated vase as impressive is embodied in as much as connotations of height are grounded in everyday bodily interactions, for example, climbing stairs and finding that this takes bodily strength (Van Rompay, Hekkert, Saakes, & Russo, 2005b). Such a perception is embodied in as much as it is grounded in intuitions that heavy objects are more important or serious than lightweight ones given that 'traditionally' important objects have had great size or weight and require more bodily strength to handle (Jostmann, Lakens, & Schubert, 2009). One may remember being critical or surprised to find electronic products such as mobile phones and USB sticks continually shrinking in size and weight, wondering 'Can we really trust these tiny, fragile devices with our personal memories and valuable documents?'

The rise of the embodied cognition framework within linguistics and the cognitive sciences has afforded this topic widespread attention (Barsalou, 1999; Gibbs, 1994; Johnson, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), but the writings of John Dewey (1934) and Rudolf Arnheim (1977) clearly articulated the embodied bases of experiences in architecture and the arts. For instance, in Art as experience, Dewey (1934) wrote:

...different lines and different relations of lines have become subconsciously charged with all the values that result from what they have done in our experience in our every contact with the world about us. The expressiveness of lines and space relations in painting cannot be understood upon any other basis. (p. 101)

Similarly, stressing the grounding of the symbolic in concrete bodily experience, Arnheim (1977) argued that:

...the symbolic endowment of architectural shape is compelling only because the humble daily experience of climbing stairs reverberates with the connotations of overcoming the weight of gravity and rising victoriously toward the heights. (p. 210)

Such accounts seek to explain the meanings that people perceive in their environments and objects therein in terms of everyday bodily interactions and the experiential qualities that they bring.

The foregoing indicates that embodiment has been used in relation to a wide diversity of phenomena, giving rise to more or less controversial claims (Wilson, 2002). For example, at the most general level, various authors have used the term embodiment to emphasize that knowledge emerges from being in a world that is inseparable from our bodies and body-world interactions (Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991). Most accounts of embodied cognition converge on the assumption that for an abstract concept (i.e., a symbolic meaning) to be embodied entails that the physical or bodily experience is part of the representation of that concept (e.g., Zhang & Li, 2012). At a more domain specific level, embodiment has been used to emphasize that specific meaning attributions, for example, perceiving an elongated pitcher as proud, can be traced to specific types of embodied interactions (i.e., interactions with objects or people in which relative height is a key feature; Van Rompay, de Vries, Bontekoe, & Tanja-Dijkstra, 2012). Next to these types, additional embodiment variants have been conceptualized (e.g., organismoid embodiment in Artificial Intelligence research; Sharkey & Ziemke, 2001).

Moving into the field of product design, embodiment triggers conceptualizations that are both generic and domain-specific. At the most generic level, for instance, products are material objects that we physically interact with and these interactions are constrained by our sensory and bodily characteristics. …

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