Vision in product design

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Matthijs van Dijk and Paul Hekkert have been working on a design approach, named Vision in Product design (ViP), since 1995. At that time, their main goal was to bring the designer back into the process, thereby enforcing that the final result would be more than just appropriate and fulfilling user needs. They aimed at designs with a soul, authentic products that would reflect the vision and personality of the person responsible for them: the designer. Thanks to the support of many colleagues and students, ViP has grown into a mature approach that has left its traces in the design world and, hopefully, in many designers. Together with Peter Lloyd, they are currently writing a book about this approach and expect it to be published in 2011.

In 2003, an article was published in the Dutch design magazine ITEMS about the design approach Vision in Product design, entitled ‘Dream projects in progress’. Many designers from practice were in this way introduced to the approach for the first time. The response heard most often was “But that’s the way we always work!”. That was a big relief. The goal of ViP has always been to touch the core of designing in a coherent framework and systematic approach in order to pass it on to students of design. Now, after more than ten years of experience with ViP in graduation projects and courses at the Faculty of IDE, as well as in workshops and projects for design firms and the industry, it is clear that ViP appeals to students, designers, and product managers, and fills a need among them to deal with design problems differently.

The basic thought behind ViP is deceptively simple: designing always starts with the selection of a set of starting points or factors, ideas, observations, beliefs, or obsessions, that will finally determine the product-to-be-designed.

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If the design assignment is such that it automatically refers to existing solutions, the first step preceding the new context is one of ‘deconstruction’ (see fig. 1). In this step the designer asks herself/himself why the existing products are as they are, to free herself/himself from preconceived ideas and to unveil the former context. To answer this question a designer needs to distance himself/herself from the world of products and shift from thinking about the what to thinking about the why. The deconstruction phase helps to take a wider view of the world of products in three ways. First, to understand that there are three levels of description (product, interaction, context) to ViP and also the relationships between these levels. Second, to get rid of any preconceptions one might have about products in a certain domain. Third, in finding factors that are obsolete or no longer make sense, a designer can already begin to have a feeling of new opportunities for the design phase that follows. Once a designer has gone through the deconstruction phase a few times he/she will be able to do it quickly, almost without thinking. In fact it is a way of thinking about things.


These starting points must be relevant for the domain for which possibilities are sought. Domain is a deliberately open concept, unconstrained in its type or formulation, provoking an open-minded process. Everything can be a starting point, trends in the behaviour of (groups of) people or social, technological, or cultural developments, principles about human needs, their functioning or thinking, and laws of nature. A systematic discussion of these starting points can be found in the paper ‘Designing from context’ (Hekkert and van Dijk, 2003) in which it is also explained that the context factors must be combined into a unified whole in order to come up with a general statement or opinion that will further function as the goal or ‘leitmotiv’ of the project.

Figure 1: The VIP Process: deconstruction phase (left) and construction phase (design) right) (Hekkert, van Dijk and Lloyd, 2009)

The selection of starting points has big implications for the final design and should therefore be the first step in the design process. Within ViP this step is called the design of a new context (see figure 1). This may not sound very revolutionary: after all, in every design process many starting points play a role. Often, however, this is very implicit. Take for example the deeply rooted, albeit disputable, point of view that people like to do something with a minimum of effort. In many cases, this (implicit) starting point automatically leads to a design goal like ‘ease of use’, whereas the use could also - and easily - be ‘interesting’, ‘fascinating’, or ‘stimulating’. For this to happen, the starting point must be defined differently.

By making the selection of starting points very explicit, the designer is confronted with all kinds of considerations. What starting points are interesting and which ones are relevant? What facts lend support to my context and to what extent do I allow personal motives, interests, or intuition to play a part? Where and how do I involve the mission of my client and/or developments in the market? ViP does not provide answers to these questions, but ensures first and foremost that the designer makes these decisions deliberately, sees what their consequences will be, and makes sure that they are made in freedom and are not enforced by conventions or biased views. Only in this way can designers stand by their product and take full responsibility for it. Given the big impact of products on our society and daily life and well-being, we consider this responsibility to be essential.

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Example 1: Tak Yeon Lee

The assignment of the ViP elective 2004/2005 was to improve the experience of passengers in long-distance KLM flight. This is an exerpt from Tak Yeon Lee's report.


  1. Contrast makes dynamic movements
    If a single drop of ink is dropped into clean water, it makes dynamic shapes for a limited time. This moment represents an exciting moment that people can remember.
  2. Experiences are changed by repetition
    1. Arousal gets lower. A flight experience is very new and exciting at the first flight. But experiencing it again and again, it makes less of an impression than before.
    2. Independence gets higher. Some people who have travelled a lot know how to spend their time. For example, drinking alcohol and sleeping are good for skipping the entire flight experience.
    3. Profound understanding about in-flight situation. Repetitive flight experiences can teach some sensitive passengers about inherent concerns of in-flight services.
  3. Subjective perception of time
    Perception of time in the human brain is very subjective. Speed and length of a certain moment are dependent on what happened at that moment.
    From these three context factors, one statement was established:
    “I want to create afresh contrasts that can influence people’s subjective perception of time.”

Vision of Interaction

  1. Against common sense, rules and reasoning
    Where everything is well-regulated and secure without question, to make afresh contrasts, the interaction radiates something going against common sense, rules, and reasoning.
  2. Arousing Curiosity
    The interaction is characterised by its purposeless. The only purpose is making people curious.
  3. Treasure hunting
    The interaction does not expose itself to the public. It is hidden and there is just a little clue.
  4. Silent sensation
    Like a droplet of ink in clear water, interactions are merely noticeable when they are started. However, subsequently the interaction creates a long-lasting sensation in a person’s mind.

Product vision

  1. Subtle Absurdity
    The product creates a little bit of an absurd atmosphere, not a distinctly humorous atmosphere in the airplane.
  2. Almost Hidden
    Based on the interaction visions, ‘Treasure hunting’ and ‘Arousing curiosity’, the product is almost hidden.
  3. Double twisting
    Twisting a certain situation can be funny, but it is too prominent. By twisting the joke again it becomes more obscure and intriguing.


The product is a toolkit that can be used by the steward(ess). It contains dozens of small gadgets, performance instructions, video contents, and so on. When the stewardess needs to create a subtly absurd situation, she can use any of them.


A distinctive characteristic of ViP is that this context is not directly translated into product features which the new product has to embody, but that this transition goes via the interaction between user and product. Products are just a means of accomplishing appropriate actions, interactions, and relationships. In interaction with people, products obtain their meaning. This is why ViP is interaction-centred. Without knowing what they are going to design, designers have to conceptualise a vision of the interaction, an image of the way the product is going to be viewed, used, understood, and experienced. This interaction must, of course, follow from the starting points or, stated differently, fit into the context.


Conceptualising an interaction is not an easy task. Here ViP makes a strong appeal to a designer’s skill of conceptual and abstract thinking, sometimes looking like word games. They are not. The designer must feel what interaction is possible and reflect on whether this is ‘right’; the designer argues what interaction fits and is sensitive to its consequences. On the basis of the vision on the interaction between user and product, the designer defines the product’s meaning, i.e. the qualitative characteristics that the product has to embody.

The context - interaction- and product vision do not fully define a product concept, but well-defined visions almost automatically lead to such a concept. Although many concept ideas can be tried and tested, designers quickly feel whether an idea fits and is worth pursuing. This prevents them from working out a range of concepts that must finally be eliminated. When all steps are taken adequately, the properties of the final design can be perfectly traced back to selected factors at the context level. The degree to which the final product is a reflection of the vision, however, depends on constraints or requirements that are also taken into account (as late as possible), such as price, standardisation, available production techniques, etc.

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Example 2: Team Tape

The theme of the 2004 Microsoft Research Design Expo contest was “people to people” and the teams had to design “something to do with communication”. Eliza Noordhoek, Femke de Boer, Marjolijn Weeda and Tuur van Balen used the ViP approach to find a focus within the broadness of this assignment.


Looking at today’s communication, it occurred to us that ways of communication and communication in general grow exponentially but their accuracy decreases tragically. What is the value of an e-mail or an SMS in a world where we receive hundreds of them a week? The second factor in our context is the development that it seems to be harder for people to deal with unpredictability in this over-regulated society. The next factor is a principle we called “the joy of giving”. It says that giving a present not only pleases the receiver but also gives joy to the giver. The last factor is the principle of “collecting memories”. People tend to look after material representations for their memories, for example that particular stone found on a vacation with your best friend.

In this context Team Tape wanted to design a product which changes the way people communicate from fast and practical to personal and valuable.


Vision of Interaction & Product Vision

We described the interaction as “Souvenirs of timeless communication”, characterised by intimacy, excitement, creativity and limited control. The product therefore must be surprising, reliable and lo-fi.



Yuri allows you to create short photo-sequences with sound/voice. Afterwards you leave these “souvenirs” behind, for your friend to find. While dropping it in the air you can set the radius of the “souvenir-area”. For instance leaving it in your favourite bar by the table where you and your friend always drink your Friday night beer. Knowing you left some kind of gift behind for your friend, gives you a feeling of excitement and joy. When your friend passes through that area his Yuri sends out a heartbeat by sound and pulse. Your friend is pleasantly surprised when he sees and hears your message. After watching it in his Yuri, he saves it.

Both sender and receiver have limited control over the time it takes for the message to arrive. Therefore this communication becomes timeless. This reflects on the content of the messages: the communication shifts from practical and fast to personal and valuable. “Souvenirs of a timeless communication” are unpredictable gifts that elicit joy in both sender and receiver.


The designer in ViP is driven by possibilities and not by constraints. This can lead to innovative and surprising products, but this is not imperative and certainly not a goal as such. A good ViP-based product is clearly interaction-oriented and in all respects reflects the starting points as defined by the designer. Examples of ViP projects can be found in two papers, describing the design of a photocopier for Océ (Hekkert, Mostert and Stompff, 2003) and a hand-held device for Siemens Mobile (Belzer and Hekkert, 2005). Most of all, these projects show the diversity and, hopefully, authenticity this approach has to offer.

References and Further Reading

  • Belzer, R. and Hekkert, P.P.M. (2005) “The Third Eye”: Increasing Awareness with Extended Communication. Unpublished manuscript.
  • Hekkert, P.P.M., Mostert, M. and Stomff, G. (2003) ‘Dancing with a machine: A case of experience-driven design’, DPPI conference Pittsburgh.
  • Hekkert, P.P.M. and van Dijk, M.B. (2003) ‘Designing from context: Foundations and Applications of the ViP approach’, In: Lloyd, P. and Christiaans, H. (eds.), Designing in Context: Proceedings of Design Thinking Research Symposium 5. Delft: DUP Science.
  • Hekkert, P.P.M., van Dijk, M.B. and Lloyd, P. (2011) Vision in Product Design: Handbook for Innovators, BIS publishers, in press.


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