If you look back in time, you'll notice that the objects of an era tended to reflect the values of the day.
The Arts and Crafts movement, popular in America in the early 1900s, was defined by natural materials, warmth and durability. Homes and furniture, lamps and tea sets all spoke to a certain honesty and simplicity, inspired by nature.
By the 1930s, America was entrenched in the Art Deco style, characterized by sleek streamlined finishes and synthetic materials. Clocks and radios featured shapes that revealed our fascination with growing technology and a Buck Rogers view of outer space.
So if we look around us now and take a long, hard look at the things we buy, what values and desires do we see?
Daniel Jasper, an associate professor of design at the University of Minnesota, says today we're all about emotion.
"We want our products to be friendly, we want to have relationships with them," he says. "You don't look askance at your friends if they tell you how they love their coffeemaker, car, TV set ... we nod our head in agreement and say 'Yeah, I love mine too.'"
On a Friday night at an Apple store in Rosedale shopping center, Ashley Burch of Brooklyn Center admits she loves Apple computers, and she doesn't even have one yet.
"I'm here buying one today," she says. "My friend Nick here has one, and all my friends have one, and I want one. I use theirs and I love them, I'm attached to them. And I don't have one yet."
Burch says she's been looking forward to this day for weeks and she's very excited that she's finally getting her Apple. Designers have been quick to pick up on this potential excitement and emotional attachment to products, and work it to their advantage.
In the popular Mac TV commercials, two different computers are actually represented by people. One's a nerdy uptight guy in a coat and tie who doesn't seem to have much of a life. The other is young and cute, comfortably rumpled in his jeans and shirt, and looks both sweet and laid back. So which one do you want to invite into your home?
Professor Jasper says designers are increasingly looking for ways to build emotional content into products.
"If you look at an iPod, it has this very friendly personality to it. And it's no mistake that the iPod is reminiscent of the redesign of the Volkswagen Beetle," says Jasper. "Both of these things have this idea of emotional content built into the contours and design of the object. I think it's safe to say that both the Volkswagen and iPod had an eye on women as consumers, as potential purchasers of those products."
Jasper says it was a smart move. Historically, stereos and cars were marketed to men. What company wouldn't want to double its potential market?
Jasper says all consumers, male and female, are responding more to how products look and feel, and how they make us feel. He says in many cases, emotional content is becoming as important as how well things work.
There's no doubt that Target Corp. is trading on emotion.
"While you may not think you're in a relationship with Target, Target very much believes it's in a relationship with you," says Minda Gralnek, Target's vice president and creative director.
"We're lucky in that we sell things from babies on up for all times of your life," says Gralnek. "So we're in your life quite a bit if you choose us to be there with you, and it definitely is a very emotional relationship."
Target is an example of a company that takes its design very seriously. Back in 1999, designer and architect Michael Graves told Target he was interested in designing products for the home, products that everyone could afford. The new line of products was a hit, and now Target works with 10 different designers on everything from clothing to toasters to pill dispensers.
Minda Gralnek says it's all about providing customers with a choice.
"You can buy a toilet brush at Target for a great price that cleans your toilet. And you can buy a Michael Graves one for a few dollars more, that you might pick because you just think it looks pretty. It looks good in your bathroom and it makes your morning a little more exciting," says Gralnek. "And that's that aesthetic value added to a product that people are searching for."
Gralnek says she had a revelation in 2004 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where she was attending an exhibit on design entitled Humble Masterpieces.
"In that show, there were over 90 things that we carry in a Target store," says Gralnek. "Post-it Notes, paper clips, Mag Lights, compact discs, Band-aids, on and on, white t-shirts," says Gralnek. "That's when I was like, 'Wow, we are curators of great design. People just don't know that we're a museum!'"
Target's focus on design has paid off. Target's same-store sales have outpaced those of Wal-Mart in 12 of the past 15 quarters.
Analyst Stephanie Hoff says while there have been other factors at work, design played a key role, and it's become a crucial factor in the success of retail businesses.
"Consumers have any number of places they can shop, and price used to be a really big issue," says Hoff. "But I think today, design is becoming a big issue. So I think if retailers can't demonstrate the ability to have the right product, consumers are going to find it somewhere else. It's not just about price anymore."
This growing importance of design has led Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, to declare that we are now living in a "design economy." And he thinks that's a good thing.
Martin predicts we will continue to see more creative and effectively designed products as consumers get more and more design savvy.
"As users gain sophistication in the use of things," says Martin, "they will become more sensitive to little differences that they might not have been sensitive to before, which allows producers to say, 'Aha! These users actually care. So if we make it better in this little way, then they'll pay more for it and so we can afford to do it. And they'll like us more so they'll be better customers.' And you ratchet it up."
Martin says he thinks ultimately we'll see a lot fewer useless features and unfulfilling products on store shelves.
"Right now with lots of things you use or buy, the producer puts something in there that you just couldn't care at all about, and [yet] spend money on it," he says. "I would think that when they figure out what the user really wants and needs, they will stop spending stupid amounts of money in stupid ways doing stupid things you don't want, and give you what you want and only what you want."
Rogers says that could result in a lot less environmental waste.
Still, University of Minnesota design professor Daniel Jasper worries that as a society we've become a little too dependent on other people's designs.
"If we look to brands to communicate identity, if we look to objects to communicate something about ourselves, that's fine on the one hand," says Jasper.
"But on the other hand, we're establishing a relationship with an entity outside of ourselves, to communicate very personal and intimate things about ourselves," Jasper says. "For me it is sort of problematic that there's that much emphasis on things and the way they look, and this sort of slavish devotion to brands."
Jasper wonders -- If we're letting companies speak for us, convince us of what we need and, once we buy it, reward us with emotional fulfillment, who's really in control of our lives?