Significant Objects is a project by Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker. In 2009 Glenn and Walker bought a number of objects from thrift stores and garage sales (never costing more than a few dollars), and paired them with writers. All writers were asked to invent a story around the object they were given. Glenn and Walker then listed all objects, including their made up stories with a short biography of its writer, on eBay. They did this to test their hypothesis that people will add more value to things that tell a story, even when they are aware the story is made up. The difference between the initial price of the objects and what the winning bidders paid, was donated to the writers and some creative writing schools. Glenn and Walker sold “$128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51”.
It turns out that people are willing to pay money for things that tell a story. Not very surprising I guess, for we all buy into stories as consumers. But in this case it is very clearly stated that all the stories are made up, something big corporations usually try to avoid while selling us their products through all sorts of advertisements. Also, the objects’ low monetary value was not downplayed. Still, people were willing to pay $125 for something that was purchased for only $1.49.
So, what does this experiment tell us? That we really do love a good story. And: things that are not necessarily beautiful or of great quality become desirable when given a story. Granted, Significant Objects only deals with the purchasing of things and leaves the using part out of it. We do not know if those who bought something from Glenn and Walker in fact kept their purchase. Buying something does not automatically lead to emotional attachment.
Still, I believe that designers can use the results of this experiment as a tool. Not to sell more things and make a bigger profit, but to get people attracted to designs that have to compete with other things that are shinier, cheaper and maybe not such good environmental choices. Make sure your design tells a story, and we will be interested. Design us a story.