ASU Center for Organization Research and Design

Switch the Channel: Using Cultural Codes for Designing and Positioning Sustainable Products and Services for Mainstream Audiences

by Laura Santamaria; Carolina Escobar-Tello; Tracy Ross

Jun 1, 2016

An important step towards achieving sustainability is to encourage a wide uptake of more resource-efficient consumption practices by the mainstream of society. However, consumption practices are complexly interlinked with cultural values, social status, identity and other symbolic aspects of socio-economic paradigms. Historically, design has played an important role in changing well-established cultural practices by leveraging the introduction of new technologies, or legitimising values, beliefs and social practices through its representations. In this paper, it is argued that focussing on the elaboration of meanings – or symbolic features – during the design process of sustainable innovations can enhance their wider appeal, especially by positioning them as aspirational choices that contribute to the well-being and happiness of potential users. But, in order to strategically elaborate such meanings, it becomes necessary to identify the favourable social conventions at play in a given context – i.e. the best cultural codes upon which to successfully build an innovation's relevance and desirability. Semiotic and cultural analysis methods pose great potential for supporting design in this task. In this paper, an initial methodological framework for the incorporation of these methods in the design process is proposed. The theoretical proposition is explored in the context of sustainable Product Service Systems (sustainable PSS), given the opportunities they pose for systemic disruption as radical innovations and the cultural barriers for their mainstream adoption. This contribution, thus, not only offers a new theoretical perspective for considering the symbolic aspects of sustainable consumption as social signifier; but also provides a practical framework that incorporates a socio-cultural lens to user research in design practice. It also highlights the strategic opportunities that this field of enquiry opens for sustainable design to have a wider influence in societal transformation.

Switch the Channel: Using Cultural Codes for Designing and Positioning Sustainable Products and Services for Mainstream Audiences