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The Role of Product Design as a Mechanism for Moral Legitimacy

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Sarah J.S. WILNER and Aimee Dinnin HUFF


The socio-cultural meanings of products have been well documented, but
these interpretations are not fixed; technological, environmental and social
shifts conspire to disrupt the configurations of extant codes, values and
relationships that constitute meaning. These cultural reconfigurations can be
signified via the product designs that activate, reflect or accelerate them. Our
study investigates product design as an important mechanism in the
legitimization of a specific category of stigmatized consumption: sex toys. We
examine the devices’ changing meanings as they are reflected in North
American popular media, conducting a Greimasian semiotic analysis of
selected mass media texts from 1990 to present. Tracing the growing
legitimation of this morally-charged product category, we provide an analysis
of the fundamental tensions that characterize discourse related to sex toys.
We find that design-based developments have been an important force in
reconciling the binary oppositions that infuse the product category with
stigma and tension, and provide evidence that design-related factors are an
important means by which such products have gradually moved from
culturally-contested to cautiously conventional.


PUBLISHED: Proceedings from the The 19th DMI: Academic Design Management Conference, 2014


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