Design • June 2016
Conception and creation



This article is a reflection on the different ways of addressing conception, creativity and creation in design and project-related disciplines. To explore these terms related to design and the project-related act, the first part of this article will focus on value and controlling valorisation. The second part will focus on conception, creation and creativity in design and project-related disciplines. The third part of this article will focus on Paolo Deganello, Ikea and Carlo Mollino. These case studies are ideal to answer our theoretical questions relating to conception and creation, as well to identify opportunities for semiotics.

Article's keywords

Semiotics, design, project, conception, creation, creativity, value, valorisation, Deganello, Mollino, Ikea.

Table of Contents


This article is a reflection on the different ways of addressing conception, creativity and creation in design and project-related disciplines. To explore these terms related to design and the project-related act, the first part of this article will focus on value and controlling valorisation. In the second part, I will suggest operational definitions of conception, creation and creativity. The last part of the article will involve the analysis of three modalities representing choices and different strategies in controlling the value in conception and creation within design. Thanks to their conception strategies, the subjects of our analysis – Paolo Deganello, Ikea and Carlo Mollino – are perfect examples both to answer our theoretical questions relating to conception? and creation and to help us identify opportunities, although sometimes interstitial, for semiotics. One must not forget that, from its origins, this discipline was created to investigate the meaning, the management and the construction of value.

Value and valorisation


The concept of value has always been at the heart of semiotics and the theories close to it [ 1 ] . One can understand the notion of value of the linguistic sign using the same approach as Saussure, that is to say “in terms of relative values, determined in relation to one another” [ 2 ] . Or one can understand the meaning of value in narrative terms. In the latter case, each semiotic theory regarding value suggests a necessary distinction between the intrinsic value of an object (belonging to the object) and the attributed value (the value that designers and users give the object). In a narrative logic, this attribution and/or recognition of value legitimizes the reciprocal existence between subjects and objects of value [ 3 ] .

Marketing recognizes both the intrinsic value of an object, and the appropriate strategies aiming at building its valorisation. Obviously, the marketing challenge is to create a bond of trust with its public [ 4 ] by suggesting that sometimes the value is intrinsic to the object, beyond veridicity, for example by insinuating itself between the usage value and the exchange value.

Thus, the valorisation or, in other cases, the erasing of a certain value-related charge, in relation to the specific characteristics and qualities of an object, can be both managed and controlled. For example, glass can be valorised through its transparency and impermeable properties while making one forget its fragility. Nevertheless, since its creation, applied semiotics has aimed at revealing any valorisation strategy allowing it to build the value of an object [ 5 ] . However, beyond the communicative and discursive strategies of valorisation – studied by Barthes and Eco in the late 1950s and 1960s [ 6 ] – for fifteen years, semiotics has begun to question other valorisation methods such as creation in design and project conception (progettazione). Moreover, although it once harnessed the power of the communicative [ 7 ] dimension, the main issue for semiotics is now the management of valorisation. In this process, creation is the result of the management of valorisation during the conception process favouring creativity.

Currently, this reversal of tendency – from the value attributed to the return of the intrinsic value and placed at the basis of the project process – does not only concern design. Among other things, since the Seattle protests [ 8 ] and certain publications produced at the same time and in several fields, the search for an (ontological?) value as the foundation of each project became an increasing priority for more aware and more demanding consumers in this respect [ 9 ] . Moreover, beyond products and brand policies, social design has become topical precisely by taking into consideration the needs that were triggered in the early 2000s. In fact, today there is an awareness of the fact that value coincides with everything that takes a true meaning in the life project of users, consumers, customers and, above all, citizens [ 10 ] .


From a semiotic point of view, the work of several researchers has allowed us to better understand, through the analysis of objects, spaces and business strategies, the underlying mechanisms of both creation and conception in design [ 11 ] . Through analysis, semioticians were able to explain how were presented and perceived the values manifested in the Opinel knife and in a bottle called a flask [ 12 ] . For example, semioticians have been able to reconstruct how the value of comfort and usability of a chair has been produced through the conception of the valorisation of its ability to invite users to sit, to experience the space and encourage others to do the same [ 13 ] . Other semioticians explained how the operational and communicative efficiency of a razor or a toothbrush was constructed. These examples could turn into a long list, starting with the objects mentioned by Barthes (1957) and ending with the cups, mugs and bowls analysed by Beyaert-Geslin (2015).

Later, the same studies that represented the beginning of design semiotics allowed us to go beyond the analysis of values and strategies of the valorisation of objects. This article is therefore focused on the course of the conception processes by providing tools to help designers in all project phases and also aims at studying successful projects undertaken with the support of semiotics [ 14 ] . All this while keeping in mind the fact that the question that designers, developers, creators and engineers most often ask theorists concerns the predictive capacity of the proposed methodologies [ 15 ] .

Conception, creation and creativity

Before turning our attention to the analyses of the project-related act undertaken by designers and by the brand that has developed a loyalty strategy by building its reputation on the democratization of design, it is time to suggest some operational definitions.

In this article, the term conception refers to the strategies that precede the realization of a product (object, service, communication) and to phases of adjustments throughout the conception process. It refers to the development of an idea or a project; in other words, of a rational organisation of work, which allows designers to gather intelligence, analyse the usage practices and lifestyles of existing or targeted users and plan the strategies and (conceptual or practical) means to meet the needs of the recipients. The conception phase is also the stage during which designers decide, consciously or not, about their relationship with the recipient through the development of their project [ 16 ] : for example, it is at this moment that designers decide whether to continue the interaction with the user by involving them or to deny or hide their traces, letting the outcome of their project express itself through the user and the intended act, etc. In semiotic terms, conception could be defined as the explanation of the implementation of a strategy of enunciation [ 17 ] dedicated to a practice or lifestyle [ 18 ] . Such a strategy includes the subjects involved, their actions, their ways of acting and perceiving, as well as the consequences of the actions undertaken through a certain object.

Creation is the timely moment of the realization of an idea, involving novelty, uniqueness and innovativeness. In this sense, in the pages that follow, I will emphasize the connotations associated with the originality of creation and its strength, including its ability to change people’s lives.

Creativity is the capacity for invention, the creative power referring more to the durational nature of the process, i.e. its definition already includes the idea of permanence and the attestation of the ability to achieve original results [ 19 ] .

These three definitions, although basic, partial and complementary, will help me identify the three project-related approaches adopted by the subjects of my analysis, who position themselves between conception
and creation, especially in relation to managing value and the valorisation process. The chosen examples are not intended to provide an axiological judgment. The order of presentation follows the logical sequence of the article, which starts from an explanation of the conception process (including the recipient) before focusing on creation (the author’s design). I will first highlight the work of designer Paolo Deganello, who implements a conception process (the project) that incorporates the user and leads, only at the end of this process, to creation (design). I will then look at the example of Ikea by showing the global dimension of a creative marketing project in which design is only a manifestation among the other manifestations conceived by the company [ 20 ] . Carlo Mollino is my last example, as a witness of creation (at least conceived) combining design and art.

After the introduction of a few examples, I will return to the identification of these three project-related approaches in the conclusion.

Conception of value, value of creation

Paolo Deganello: conception of creation

I’ve been interested in the work of Paolo Deganello for many years and for many reasons.
He has notably designed the Tavoli Artifici tables (produced by Cassina in 1985, Fig. 1-4). These are obviously industrial objects promoting craftsmanship, while being valorised as such by Deganello’s project conception. As the catalogue suggests, the base of the Tavoli Artifici table is made of ‘part sand (quartz)’ and polyester, into which are inserted the four wooden feet of the table. For Deganello, this construction design provokes amazement, like a child discovering that sand allows posts to stand. Also in the catalogue, one discovers that the designer, in order to choose the shapes that would characterize his tables, reflected on habitual movements around a table inside a traditional living room, furnished with a sofa and two armchairs. From this hypothesis of the potential sitting or standing movements made in this type of room, Deganello designed a curvilinear and dynamic shape that is as little intrusive as possible. He therefore designed several shapes of table, characterized by a dual surface giving the user the opportunity to insert decorative items, pictures, flowers and any addition of their choice, allowing them to customize their table. This appropriation by the user is also explained in the catalogue where Cassina, following the designer’s intention, suggests that the customer should become an active user, advising them to insert between the two crystal planes the personal decorative items they have chosen or designed according to their taste using the plastic elements provided in a roll by the brand when purchasing the table.

I would also like to emphasize that this appropriation of the table by the user is obviously designed to evolve over time through periodic changes of the decoration, transforming the table into a dynamic object. This table is thus able to express the personality of its owner or their mood at a certain moment in time. Such interaction with Deganello’s table is supposed to provoke in users a growing affection resulting from their interaction with the object, as well as the time and imagination they devote to it. Users can then transform the look of the Tavoli Artifici tables, as well as the signified they want to attribute to them as objects representing their own personality. The combinations of the signified attributed to the object are infinite but most importantly, in a semiotic perspective, it is the modalities in which the object manages to acquire its own personality or to represent the personality of its owner. This observation could seem trivial as it is often the case with objects [ 21 ] , as sociology has long shown us.
Also noteworthy here is the unequivocal suggestion carefully planned by Deganello that causes the emotional relationship with the object and usage practices (as a table, as a personal table, as a memory or demonstration object, etc.).

Moreover, Deganello’s work has always been characterized by this style of poetics and each of his projects aims at addressing users and transforming them into active users, in a constant dialogue with the designer. Deganello does not impose an object or fixed practices of use, however he offers the user the opportunity of appropriating it through constant and repeated interaction with his project materialized as a table.

Once again, the object is a semiotic system constituted by the interaction between the designer and the model user, one being supposed to construct it, the other to interpret it [ 22 ] . There is a real project-related dialogue between user and designer. Of course it is also up to users, if they wish, to accept and activate, according to different degrees of participation, the designer’s idea delivered through formal, material and modular choices. In short, the mutual trust relationship offered by the designer occurs thanks to and through the object [ 23 ] .

The Tavoli Artifici table thus represents, in an unequivocal way, an exemplary design modality in relation to the issues I have chosen to address. This conception plans in advance the value that must be attributed to the object, knowing that this value does not simply depend on the visible and fixed signified once the product is completed, but also that this value will be strengthened over time. The duration planned by the designer must be evaluated in relation to the attention that the user gives his object. The case of the Tavoli Artifici table is remarkable in the way it suggests to us a first answer regarding the primary role of the value between conception and creation: Deganello has obviously planned the way of valorising his table through the practices suggested to users (care, time, iterative practices of the user) by controlling this value while discovering a different modality of value creation.

Without going into detail about other work by Deganello, it is important to underline the fact that the valorisation of the dialogue between designer and user is a characteristic of most of his designs, whatever their type. In fact, Deganello has completed projects using the homes and objects of clients, valorising them in relation to his project idea (fig. 5, 6). He has demonstrated that the purpose of a designer can also “coincide with the valorisation of the bad taste of clients, who have the right to have their own emotional reasons towards their domestic objects” [ 24 ] . It is the same for the Libreria Caminiti (2014, fig. 7, 8) [ 25 ] , a self-produced shelf for sale on eBay: by e-mail and in direct contact with the designer, users can choose the materials and colours. Once produced, they receive their shelf, install it and can then access their personal library, allowing them to find books through the Internet of Things.

In my opinion, what differentiates the artisanal character of the project from Deganello’s approach is once again the fact that the conception of the added value is taken on board in all its details (usage, dialogue with the environment, etc.) and totally controlled by the designer.

Deganello’s approach regarding the current role of the designer follows a similar path [ 26 ] . He defines the designer as a project professional affected by the economic crisis and by new self-production technology, having to adapt to the rules of production of design companies. In this regard, Deganello proposes to valorise the designer’s approach to professional conception, in direct contact with users through ‘fab labs.’ In this case, users have the opportunity to actively participate in the creative process, in direct contact with the designer (see Fig. 9). A contemporary designer who knows how to leverage conception into creation thanks to his expertise: depending on the project, users can create their finished object using a 3D printer or have it made in specialist workshops run by professionals under the supervision of the designer who has overseen the whole process.

To conclude this first part about Paolo Deganello on conception and creation through value management, one must underline that the pertinence of his work lies precisely in an ambiguity that is only apparent. In fact, Paolo Deganello is a designer whose creative project is the final result that emerges through a very strong conception idea (progettazione). Deganello does not impose his project on the user, he offers a dialogue, inviting the user to complement it and participate in the realization of the project. This conception process, which valorises users and their experience, strongly brings out the designer’s creation by reaffirming his role that had been apparently denied.

Ikea: creative conception (valorisation at all levels)

In 2002, Maria Elena Normanni published an article entitled Percorsi dell’abitare: pratica oggettuale e definizione dell’intimità [ 27 ] in which she offered an analysis of the concept of inhabiting, pondering the modalities used by Ikea to valorise the feeling of privacy, while paradoxically being a brand working on the standardization of privacy. In her analysis, Normanni also examined all the dimensions of the client’s actions conceived by Ikea as a brand: receiving the catalogue, flicking through it with friends or relatives, exploring the shop, going through the buying process, renting a vehicle to bring the furniture home, building the furniture with the help of a manual, arranging the home with the items bought, using these objects and the feeling of privacy obtained, as well as the feeling of personalisation and ownership associated with these objects.

The question asked by Normanni concerns the methods of valorisation implemented by the Swedish brand to give customers the impression of appropriating private and personal objects [ 28 ] . Without summarizing her article, I would like to explain why I have chosen to briefly focus on it in my reflection on conception and creation, notably on the value expressed between these two terms. We all know Ikea’s innovative and carefully controlled marketing strategies, particularly when the brand started out.

Yet Normanni has analysed in detail how the valorisation strategy is gradually triggered during all the stages of the Ikea customer experience when clients progressively appropriate their object(s). Several modalities can lead to this appropriation: the personalisation of the reception of the catalogue when it comes through the letterbox; flicking through, often with the family, the catalogue showing the objects in action and the usage practices of the subjects photographed; then the visit to the shop with the family, a long and tiring journey allowing customers to try the proposed lifestyles customized for everyone but with a ‘just for me’ strategy
(like the discursive configurations of horoscopes [ 29 ] ); the moment of choice; the customers’ involvement in collecting their purchases, the physical engagement in bringing the items home, understanding the manual and, finally, building the furniture. In the end, this is a long and complex process involving gradual but significant involvement on the part of the customer, who, despite cognitive and physical fatigue, appropriates the object. Although this same object can be found in all the apartments in town, clients desired it, transported it, built it and interpreted it by choosing the role of this object in the space of their apartment and all this through a slow but effective process of guided valorisation.

But this is obviously a large-scale conception and marketing strategy, quite different from the direct, much more personal and one-to-one dialogue that Paolo Deganello offers his users. However, this conception strategy, whose efficiency is due to controlling the construction of a subjective value-related charge at all levels, transforms the object by valorising it: the object is perceived as the creation of a Nordic-style designer but somehow also as the own creation of customer, who has learned to take ownership of it during the extensive processes described by Normanni (2002).

Carlo Mollino: conceived creation

The last example provided here concerns the work of Carlo Mollino, architect, designer, photographer, racing car driver, aviation pilot and aircraft designer [ 30 ] . During his career, Mollino produced industrial objects, unique items, limited series (tables, chairs, etc., Fig. 10-18). His projects were also based on construction techniques typical of craftsmanship, on experimentation with materials and manufacturing technology. Mollino’s designs are ‘masterpieces’ in terms of engineering, extravagance and beauty [ 31 ] . When his work reaches the level of an artist, he is a true designer and this is evident by his obsessive attention to detail, allowing him to obtain perfect harmony in composition. Looking at his photographs, notably his nudes, one finds the same fastidiousness of composition as in his architecture and design projects. For Mollino, photography is a passion undertaken with methodical commitment, comparable to that required by projects and by conception. As a photographer, Mollino selected, prepared and decorated apartments or houses, transforming them into sets adapted to his imaginary but precise scenarios, complementing them by carefully chosen clothing and jewellery for his female models. His photographic work notably aimed at constructing and representing a particular woman.

Moreover, as a photographer, Mollino obviously worked with a solid project, never taking his photographs in a state of wonder or aesthetic emotion. It is quite the contrary, since he constructed and transposed in the image what he had previously conceived and created through imagination. He used the method and awareness of a designer to obtain the result specific to artistic creation. For these reasons, the reflection on the modality of Mollino’s work allows me to question the relationship between the methodology of conception and creative- artistic work [ 32 ] . Indeed, both his photography and his design objects show the possibility of achieving a creative result from a project conception conducted with rigor and rationality, since Mollino perfectly embodies both project control and creativity.

That is why looking at Mollino’s work gives me the opportunity to study one last example of the combination between conception and creation, an example where the construction of value is no longer a means by which one can go from conception to creation. In Mollino’s work, value is both the origin and the end point. The origin stemming from intuition (the first creation phase) and, thanks to an obsessive quest for perfection and harmony (the concept phase), the end point, since in many cases his projects and his works have the status of ‘masterpieces’ thanks to the values of uniqueness and originality reached during creation. This creation was stabilized through the creativity of the professional designer he also was.

To synthesize:

  • Conception of creation: Paolo Deganello

– From the finalized valorisation strategies to the construction of a unique value for the recipient. – Co-design between designer and user.

– Deganello takes usage practices into account; the client acknowledges the attributed values.

  • Creative conception: Ikea

– From the finalized valorisation strategies to client’s engagement.

– The client internalizes the brand’s values.

– Ikea offers lifestyles; the client integrates and interprets them through practices (purchase, installation, usage, etc.).

  • Conceived creation: Carlo Mollino

– Value in intuition, finalized valorisation strategies to reveal creation.

– Originality of an artist’s object.

– Mollino favours his intuition offering an intrinsic value; the client adheres to it.

Conclusion: conception and creation

It is now time to conclude this paper on the value of conception and the value of creation.

One may once again be faced with the paradox of the chicken and the egg if one seeks to establish an order of priority here, yet it is exactly in this interstice that semiotics has the opportunity to play a role in design and project-related disciplines. Semiotics has the methodological tools to become involved in the design process: on one hand, preventing this process to be diminished by falling under the spell of absolute value in the act of creation; on the other hand, favouring the success of the final creation. This dual modality of action in the project could be aimed at both the transcendent value, typical of the romantic act of creation, and the need for control, i.e. an immanent value resulting from the conception process. This immanent value can be built through dialogue with the recipient and by adapting to his/her usage practices and lifestyle.

Semiotics plays a role in the conception phases as it considers that, both in design and project-related disciplines, creation is certainly the result to be achieved: the final result but a result built through the control and management of each value. Once one has understood which way the designer intends to implement the value-related charge of his project, this process can be put into action.

It is indeed in this interstice, in this mediation space, that we can identify opportunities for our discipline.

Notes de bas de page   [ + ]

1. See the ‘value’ entry in Greimas & Courtés, 1979.
2. On value, see Greimas 1970, 1983; Greimas & Courtés 1979; Greimas & Courtés (ed.) 1986.
3. In fact, “values are only axiologized (…) when they are inserted into the frameworks, which are reserved for them within the narrative structures, ” ‘value’ entry in Greimas & Courtés 1979.
4. I use the term public in the way Semprini does (2005): the public comprises of existing and potential customers and, in general, of the reception centre (competing brand users, critical consumers, etc.).
5. On this, see Barthes 1957.
6. Eco 1962, 1968, and Barthes 1957, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1970.
7. One can notably refer to design and fashion between the 1980s and 1990s, when the quality and actual value of a product were too often forgotten in favour of communication, which attested to qualities and values that were difficult to grasp.
8. I refer here to the anti-globalization protests in Seattle on 29th and 30th November 1999, at a summit of the World Trade Organization.
9. On this subject, see Klein 1999 and Semprini 2005.
10. See Semprini 2005.
11. See notably the work of Beyaert-Geslin 2012, 2015; Darras & Belkhamsa, (ed.) 2010; Deni 2001, 2002, 2008, 2010, 2011a; Floch 1990 and 1995; Fontanille 2001a, 2001b; Fontanille & Zinna (ed.) 2005; Landowski & Marrone (ed.) 2001; Marsciani 1999a, 1999b, 2002, 2007; Normanni 2002; Semprini 1995 and Semprini (ed.) 1999; Zinna 2004, 2005.
12. See Floch 1995 and Fontanille 1995.
13. See Beyaert-Geslin 2012.
14. See Deni & Proni (ed.) 2008; Deni & Trabalza 2010 and Deni 2015.
15. Design Thinking is now one of the most popular approaches.
16. For a definition of metaproject and project, see Deni 2008 and 2010.
17. On this subject, see Deni 2008.
18. See Fontanille 2008.
19. On this subject, also see Garrone 2010.
20. See the semiotic model ‘projet-manifestations’ (Semprini 2005).
21. See Baudrillard 1968.
22. See Deni 2002a et 2005.
23. On this subject, see Milano 2009.
24. See private e-mail exchange with P. Deganello (09.01.15), referring to projects undertakent in clients’ homes, as well as to projects exhibited at the Triennale in Milan.
25. LIBRERIA «Internet of Things,» self-produced object by Paolo Deganello with Falegnameria Camisasca and Riccardo Canducci.
26. In a lecture given by Deganello at the So Critical. So fashion. Nuova produzione e nuova progettazione nel design e nella moda conference at the University of Bologna (at Rimini). Speakers at the seminar: Francesca Bianchi, Paolo Deganello, Michela Deni, Giampaolo Proni, 27/01/12.
27. See Normanni 2002.
28. On this subject, see also Baudrillard 1968.
29. See Deni 2002b.
30. See Deni 2011b.
31. See Ferrari & Ferrari 2006.
32. Issue addressed for the first time in Deni 2011b.


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To quote this article

, Conception and creation, published 17 June 2016


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