Design and Psychoanalysis


This article is about Psychoanalysis and design, empathy, shopping to recapture your lost mum, Google as your mythical dad and Volvo as your mummy’s womb.
Design and Psychoanalysis – like brother and sister.
Psychoanalysis is a very interesting prism through which to view Design. The two seemingly disparate disciplines connect and unite in many different ways.

Design is all about putting yourself in the shoes of the subject i.e. consumer/user/viewer. If you design without your customer in mind then you are creating art, or bad design. If you design a chair that cannot be sat on, it is no longer a ‘chair’ in the functional sense. It is a ‘chair’ only in an archetypical sense i.e its recognisable form based on our previous experiences of a functional chair. Therefore it is art because it is through the very fact of its lack of function that it makes its statement/analysis of the solution to the problem to which a chair is the answer.

Design is a method of communication between designer and user/experiencer – subject-object-subject. A designer who does not want to communicate or has no care for his subject, only care for the object, is not a designer. A designer hopes to understand and be understood as originally as possible. Or just beautifully.


What distinguishes design from marketing, accountancy, lorry driving, bricklaying etc is feeling. For design to work there must be a feeling communicated from one human to another. Design is a human endeavour. Design is the ultimate mass non-verbal communication tool.

One of the key concepts in Psychoanalysis is Empathy. That is, the feeling of being understood (the analyst is able to be in the client’s shoes). The analyst has an ‘unconditional positive regard’ for his client. For psychoanalysis to work on any level the client must feel heard, cared for and accepted for what he/she is, whatever he/she tells the analyst.
The analyst and client form an understanding of each other based only on what they need to achieve in the consulting room. Or, put another way, they form a pact in relation to the function of the analysis. Similarly, if we take the example of the chair above – the designer and the user form a pact of understanding in relation to the function of the chair i.e. it will hold the user’s weight and not damage the user’s body when he sits on it.
Another key concept relevant to design in Psychoanalysis is Transference. This is the concept of how the  client will begin to treat the analyst in a way which relates closely to his relationship with his mother or father. In ‘opposition’  to that the analyst provides a safe unconditional ‘holding’ non-judgemental environment much like that which a mother provides her baby. Therefore analysis for the client can in some way be related to the need for a loving mother or father figure (in order to compensate for the lack of such a figure in the past.) The aim is therefore for the client to work through that ‘lack‘ (as Lacan called it) with the analyst.
However, the ‘lack’ is an inherent part of all human beings and not just a result of bad parenting. It is the loss of the original omnipotent immortality of a new born baby who believes she has created the world and everything in it. It is the Fall, the original sin, as the Bible calls it.

Consumerism and the buying of objects can be said to be an attempt to recapture the lost mother we had as baby (the perfect mother we created)  and shopping could thus be defined as a non-psychoanalytical way of working through the ‘lack’.
Therefore buying a new Mac is not just a thirst for new technology, or a need to read your email on a 24 inch screen – it is in fact a satisfaction of a deep internal need to recapture that loving beautiful object (i.e our mother) which was lost when we grew up. Similarly, taking things into the body such as tobacco smoke, alcohol, drugs and food can be seen as a way to fill the hole (however temporarily) left by the ‘loss’ of the original all loving mother.


What this means in relation to design is that products and services can be branded in accordance to what parental function they perform and what particular ‘lack’ they fulfil in us. Some brands and their products aim exclusively at the ‘primary mother replacement’ (PMR) market (consumers who are looking for holding, unconditional love and security from their brands). Some aim at the ‘primary father replacement’ (PFR) market (consumers who are looking for logical adventurous all conquering freedom from their brands). Some consumers will mix and match brands but generally there type of ‘lack’ will determine their brand choices.  Below I detail some top brands and where they sit:

PMR Brands
PMR brands are brands that promise above all else safety, security and honesty. They perform a holding function for those who need it. Surrogate Mother brands.

Waitrose – the most obviously PMR brand out there. Sometimes called the ‘third parent’,  the shopping experience, branding and general after care service all aim at making their customer’s feel loved, secure, and listened too. Waitrose fulfills the role of a loving mum who has bubbly baths, hot tea and sweet cakes ready for us after a day playing in the mud. Waitrose represents a surrogate breast – all feeding, all loving.

Volvo – the safety and security of Volvo cars are directly related to the security and warmth of the womb. Sitting in your warm Volvo on a cold rainy day drinking warm tea from a flask is as close as you can get to kicking about in your mums amniotic fluid filled womb.


Apple – all of Apple’s products are based around one key sales concept – design beauty. We replace perfectly working Apple products bought less than year ago with new Apple products because we feel an internal need for more beauty. And what is the need for beauty? It is the need for a replacement for the first object of beauty we ever see – our mother’s face. So when you are sitting staring into that iMac 24 inch screen and you catch your own reflection looking back at you – there in your own eyes you will see what you have been searching for all along. Your mummy.


Marlboro – smoking is in many ways about filling holes. Physically it is about filling the holes in the brain made by the nicotine. Psychologically it is about filling holes made by the past (and future) losses. Filling ourselves with smoke via the mouth is in some way very similar to filling our stomach with our mothers breast milk. The cigarette is a replacement for the lost breast (and therefore the lost mother). Malboro’s ads show strong men sitting in the wilderness on their own, having a cigarette (or now just having had one as legislation prohibits them showing the man actually smoking). What the ad is in fact saying is that you can be out in the middle of nowhere far from your mum and still be ok because you have your breast replacements – your cigarettes. Smoke two every hour and you won’t miss her too much!


IKEA – our homes are our castles, our little boxes of song. IKEA are continually pushing the message that our homes are the most important place on earth and they fill their brochures with warm loving living rooms.  This is  because our homes are in many ways a good representation of what’s going on in our heads. We spend countless hours moving furniture around, changing this and that, trying to find some perfect relationship between the walls, the objects and our internal feeling of serenity and calm. Our homes are like our mother’s arms when we fall over – a place of safety and soothingness.


PFR Brands
PFR brands are brands that promise freedom, adventure, strength in the face of adversity, and encouragement when life gets tough. These are brands that function as surrogate believers in our abilities and freedom of man to go forth. Mythical Father brands.

Nike – Nike is all about acting, doing, pushing, getting internal stuff out, from the subject to the object. Nike is like a competitive father urging you on, shouting encouragement from the sidelines. Nike is the coolest dad – strong and handsome, with a good sense of right and wrong, a master of his own universe and a strong supporter of other’s universes. He is tough and loving in equal measure, and never hides the difficulties of life but in equal measure always celebrates its greatness and wonder. Nike is about leaving the warm nest and flying off into the wilderness with hope in your heart.


Google – A father, the logical/rational one. Their is always an answer to everything if you do enough  thinking. Google is our logical father. ‘Dad – who scored the most goals in the 1982 World Cup?’…’Google – how do I fix a lawn mower engine?’. Google has the answers the elders once had. Google has made old men defunct. Google is our new universal father.

Porsche – the cliche of why a certain type of man is attracted to certain type of car is that it is all about the penis. I would say it is more about precision. Precise instruments, curves, corners, engineering. Like watching your dad saw a piece of wood, or hammer nails into walls. A Porsche is hundreds of precise dad’s hands melted down into one beaming object. A Porsche is what that mythical dad would have built in his shed had he had the tools and the materials and the time. A Porsche represents exactly the internal need for a mythical father.


UPS – from a to b. From here to there. Bang bang. Done. Logistics, lorries, fuel. UPS represents the doers, the movers and shakers. Out on the road, getting stuff to the people who need it. Doing what a man has to do. Badabim. Your dad says he will be there at 8pm. Bang – there he is. Your dad says he will take you  to football practice. Boom – he  takes you there. UPS is what your dad should have been – on time, on the phone, always available, always moving heaven and earth to get you what you need when you need it.


What is very clear from this psychoanalytical view of design is that our upbringings and the unavoidable disappointments inherent in them can be directly related to our shopping behaviour and our alignment with certain brands. We consume creatively, and those creative decisions are influenced by the feelings we search for, and the feelings we search for are created by that ‘lack’ we experienced in our childhoods. And therefore design’s ultimate job is to fill and brand that lack with products and services. It is pure manipulation. But a manipulation we all desperate want and look for.

Next Blog – design on the web (part 1)


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