The Fantasy Economy

I'm reading The Design of Things to Come a book that advocates design as a competitive differentiator for companies. It came out in 2005 and the authors are from a (slightly) different world, the world of industrial design and business, but they include a chapter on "Design for Desire," and in that chapter, they spend a lot of time on fantasy. The basic framework is about defining aspirational products as embodiment of fantasies:

Fantasies take place on a personal level, in that individuals create fantasy. A product can support or even engender the fantasy, but the fantasy is that of the individual.


We dream of adventure, of independence, of security, of sensuality, of confidence, and of power. To achieve a sense of adventure, products promote excitement and exploration. To achieve the feeling of independence, products provide freedom [or the illusion of --mk] from constraints. For security, products provide a feeling of safety and stability. [etc.]


How is fantasy put into a product? What elements of a product induce users to fantasy? Customers expect a product to enhance and fulfill their lifestyle, not simply to perform a function or even to exhibit a desirable aesthetic. When a product fulfills fantasy, it fulfills a desired lifestyle beyond, and in contrast to, the current reality.

This is a fairly traditional, if succinct, definition of aspirational products, and of our projections of our own self-images onto the things we buy. Postrel's Substance of Style delved into it more thoroughly. What's interesting is where they next go with it.

They treat fantasy more literally than the abstract desire to be better in some way as a leading driver of consumption. They start talking about Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and conclude that "in the fantasy economy, fantasy can be fulfilled in the midst of everyday experiences, for fantasy is just a wish or a desire" and they define good design (as per their book) as "meeting or exceeding the customer's emotional expectation, of form and function fulfilling fantasy."

This chapter is kind of a detour in their argument about design, but it's interesting to see them referencing emotion, fantasy and (implicitly) human irrationality that drives choice. It's a deeply anti-Modernist, anti-functionalist argument, and it's coming from Wharton School Publishing.

I hear Disney is bringing back Tinkerbell as a major character. As a bellweather of design, it's always interesting to see what Disney is thinking. Tinkerbell is one of the least grounded of the Disney pantheon--she only exists because children continue to believe she does--and I wonder if the combination of their desire to revive her, the Wharton folks encouraging the embrace of fantasy, and the popularity of Second Life are all part of a new zeitgeist about detaching from everyday life (through, because this is my filter on the world, technology). Interesting.

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:




A device studio that lives at the intersections of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, industrial design and materials science.

The Smart Furniture Manifesto

Giant poster, suitable for framing! (300K PDF)
Full text and explanation

Recent Photos (from Flickr)

Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

By me!
ISBN: 0123748992
Published in September 2010
Available from Amazon

Observing the User Experience: a practitioner's guide to user research

By me!
ISBN: 1558609237
Published April 2003
Available from Amazon

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Mike Kuniavsky published on April 23, 2007 12:52 PM.

Ambiguating the terminology: Web 4.0 was the previous entry in this blog.

Media vindication (of sorts) is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.