A Something Relationship

This article was written by Tijs van der Horst, Octalysis Prime member. 

Design of Things

From birth we are continuously taking in sensory information. When processed, we remember complex shapes that can virtually be placed anywhere. These experiences are combined, categorized, valued and filtered, creating a database of do’s and don’ts so we can use our memory to reflect and make decisions. Successful decision making will result in a satisfying feeling and taking in information is a continuing search for better decision making, or rather, satisfaction — up to the point where we are so eased-in with the current situation that taking in new information almost always feels more of a pain-in-the-ass than sticking with the old. Reflections on our decisions and the outcome of those are again associated with the complex shape, creating a relationship with the something.

A relationship between a subject (i.e. something conscious, like a person, animal or artificial intelligence) and ‘something’ is what I call a something relationship. Like any real-world scenario, such a relationship is unknowingly complex: The relationship between you and your favorite chair may be shaped by tons of small experiences, personal history, environmental influences and seemingly unrelated feelings in the moment; but trying to understand maybe allows us to analyze behavior and prepare for design decisions. In the end, anything we create will again be something of a new relationship.

About Something

Product, object, artefact, thing … are all thingy, too material. We can also ‘be in thought’, relate to an idea or feel just as much protected by a policy as we would by a shield. A relationship can be formed between two people, a person and an object, or even a person and an imagination. Simply, a relationship with something.

Something to Subject

A something relationship is, however, centered around the subject. Let’s say you are the subject and a fancy looking propeller hat is the something. We could analyze the objective aspects of the propeller hat, its colors or the motion of the propeller, but the relationship between you and the hat is only defined by what is experienced by you. The propeller may be deftly rotating in the wind, but if you don’t feel, hear or see this happening, it might as well be standing still. Knowing that the propeller is able to turn can cause quite the opposite situation where you walk around with that big smile of yours, imagining the propeller is proudly rotating while it is in fact standing still. Unless you figure this out, you will likely remember yourself walking around with a rotating propeller hat. Of course, environmental clues, like people pointing and laughing and making rotating gestures, will most likely provide you with a more complex image. Such context may influence your relationship with the hat. If people around you make clear you look silly in the hat and this bothers you, the relationship between you and the hat may be formed by negative feelings. Instead, if culture dictates that bright colors and motion are a sign of strength and fertility, it is far more likely such a propeller hat is the result of happy feelings and a positive relationship — and a good chance you will be wearing that hat again.

Understanding Something

Before we scurry off designing propeller hats, I would like to make a case for the analysis. I mentioned before that trying to understand something relationships maybe allows us to analyze behavior and prepare for design decisions. We could look for examples — the good and the bad — to gain general information about relationships. Stokke’s Tripp Trapp chair is able to adapt to a child as it grows, being functionally durable, but also allows for many touch-points to build a relationship. Google search is praised for its simplicity, speed and accuracy, and shows that experience doesn’t have to be exhilarating to satisfy. Examples can be found in many places and design books will probably have one or more included. Of course, simply asking around about people’s favorite something is easy, fun and insightful.

But understanding isn’t just about general knowledge, design quests require specific information. Analyzing existing design relationships may be a relatively easy way of finding undesirable, unused or maybe latent experiences for improvement in your current design. On a side note: if you find experiences in your current design that satisfy, don’t skip them, take a moment to enjoy, great work! Not all design quests are based on improvement and relationships with (for example) competing products could hold valuable information as well.

Please try to understand why something works (or doesn’t) instead of what works. Copying parts that seem to work well in a specific scenario is usually a bad idea; your own design likely deals with far different influences.

Something of an Influence

In one of my favorite books ‘Emotionally Durable Design’, Jonathan Chapman writes “Products shape experience, and designers influence the character of these experiences in powerful ways”. Additionally, according to the online Cambridge Dictionary ‘design’ is to make or draw plans for something. Of course we should realize that all that we can do is influence, that design is just a plan. So we probably shouldn’t be too nitpicky about it. At the same time the something will touch lives, it will mean something. I feel the least we can do is consider what this will be.

Influence goes both ways, I’ve mentioned before that a something relationship is centered around the subject; analysis doesn’t need to have focus on something when creating a (new) design. Besides, the shape of the design may be heavily influenced by the relationship we want to achieve, so being able to determine the desired relationship may help in the design process. In research, a user’s daily routine may show us how s/he and the design may meet for the first time, personal history can give us clues to recognizable shapes, culture for reflection, (basic) desires for positive feelings and so on. All such information can be combined to create a plan that expresses the design in place, shape and time: a something relationship.

Something’s up

There’s another case where analysis of the subject may turn out to be useful. Trying to measure satisfaction — of which I will ignore the complexity for a bit — may give us insight on situations where current choices are unable to satisfy. A group of people may feel repulsed by an existing design, even though it is functionally what they desire; an activity may be so complex that the person gets frustrated; or perhaps it is simply a lack in bonding opportunities that prevents a good relationship. In such a gap, providing new choices may be a good outcome for both the subject and a business venture.

Some relationship things

A something relationship may falsely give the assumption that having a deep and positive relationship is the goal; this is not the case, there is no goal, relationships simply are what they are. My relationship with the central heating system in my home is quite distant … and you know, warm, but physically. I’m perfectly fine like that, better yet, that could be the best relationship I have with this particular something, because I don’t want to think about or be bothered by this system. The whole idea of being (averagely) warm is that I can do my things without being distracted by the cold.

However, knowing what kind of relationship you want subjects to have with your design may be useful. A deep positive relationship would require a completely different design than a one-touch emotional spike. The latter may not require any durable materials if expectancy is the something being thrown away after single use; saves us from some bumpy relationships down the life-cycle road. Just saying.

Speaking of life-cycle. Creating design that only focuses on end-user relationships is somewhat unfair towards the something itself and all other subjects it will touch. I believe life-cycle or circular design is really important and should not be neglected at the mention of creating great experiences. Where one something relationship ends, a new one will start.

Something’s got to go

When going into more detail, a something relationship may help find business models, create satisfying designs or simply understand needs, experiences and this incredible world around us. But for now, I hope I have been able to peak your interest or make you wonder. And even if this sounds silly, take a moment to look around – or maybe in your mind – and think about a relationship with something close to you. When did you first meet? What do you do together? And how much time do you spend? How well do you know the something?


The way I look at it, is that we create to increase the quality of life. To feel healthy, strong, safe, loved, happy and satisfied. Understanding the world around us may help increase the wealth of experience we design. This isn’t easy; personalities, cultures, environments, needs and tastes differ, but that’s the challenge I get excited about. In this complexity I look for solutions, am curious towards improvement and romantic to possibilities.

My name is Tijs. I love to be inspired. To brainstorm and run through ideas. Including my study ‘industrial design’ I have been increasingly interested in the broad sense of design: its process, concepts and its influence on us as consumers. I’m hoping I can use my experience and knowledge to create designs that are compelling, meaningful and enjoyable, and maybe even in itself inspirable again.

Tijs van der Horst

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