Verganti’s “Meanings”, Cultural and Technological Innovation

I’ve been reading some of Roberto Verganti’s academic work. Like his recent book, they’re based strongly on his formulation of “product meanings”. It took me a while to find Verganti’s definition of “meanings” but it’s in his 2008 Journal of Product Innovation Management article, “Design, meanings and radical innovation: A meta-model and a research agenda.” (paywalled, here’s a pre-print)

Here’s Verganti on “meanings”:

Following the approach of many design theorists, our approach is that design deals with the meanings that people give to products, and with the messages and product languages that one can devise to convey that meaning. (emphasis in original)

and also:

Apart from styling, what matters to the user, in addition to the functionality of a product, is its emotional and symbolic value, i.e. its meaning.

Which is basically a semiotic argument. In Verganti’s words, a “meaning” is something that “people give to products” which can be conveyed by “messages and product languages”.

But, in the J Prod Inov Mgmt paper and elsewhere, Verganti argues against the idea that people, or users specifically, can give “radically innovative” meanings to products. The point of Verganti’s design driven innovation is that (only?) designers have a special position in a distributed network of actors which allows them to create radical innovations.

designers exploit their network position to move languages (and the meaning and values attached by people) across industries and socio-cultural worlds.

Building on the work, and terminology of others, Verganti says that designers are brokers, with special ability to move product languages across industries. [p35, jpim paper]

So, people (users, too) give products meanings. And designers can use product languages to create messages. The specific connection between messages and meanings is not clear (to me) in Verganti but that’s OK, I don’t expect him to have all the answers.

Verganti says that radical innovation comes from moving a language from one context to another, for example using the engineering of pipes and pressure to fix a congenitally defective aorta. Wait. Perhaps that’s a technological innovation, rather than a socio-cultural one. How can you tell? For me, this is where there’s a gap in Verganti’s thinking — the idea that there are clear and distinctive differences between a technical and a cultural innovation.

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One thought on “Verganti’s “Meanings”, Cultural and Technological Innovation

  1. I’ve been thinking a little about this post. I think that the distinction between a technological and a cultural innovation is relatively inconsequential, if not futile. Just as discourse is slippery (where meanings change across contexts and remain largely unfixed) and semiosis keeps the dialogue between subjects, objects and referents fluid, the investiture of meaning upon a designed offering and the assumption of meaning claimed by the audience (or user, take your pick) have both predictable and spurious outcomes. The mélange of dialogic exchanges that create and enhance the mythology of designed offerings really can’t be quantified into two eventualities such as “technological” or “cultural”.

    Perhaps Buchanan’s ideas on “placements” better approximate the outcomes of meaning innovation? Maybe it’s about meaning management? (Whatever “meaning” actually is.)

    And finally, maybe (and again I use the term) it is the dialogue between designed meanings and serendipitous ones that designers should maintain. Verganti’s “proposals” (a la Alessi et al) are monologous, insisting compliance with a closed loop of invested meaning (“take it or leave it, baby”) and form but one voice in a whole conversation of meaning, where innovation is an agreed, opportunistic and fluid space, ephemeral, elusive and joyous, if only until the discourse moves on.

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