Designing for Expression and Development of Identity


This may be quite a broad topic, but I am interested in new ways in which people can express and develop their identities through wearable products, especially in combination with interactive technology embedded into these products.
I see a lot of opportunity here since the development of an identity is a very important part of human development in various stages of life. Whenever we encounter a new living environment, such as the family, the school, the workplace, or the global community, we will start an exploration process until we are ‘settled’ in our identity. Each identity comprises a unique personality as well as knowledge, skills, values, and world view. We see today that virtual life worlds are greatly being used to express and develop personal identities, but when the virtual and the physical would come together in wearable products, a whole new realm of possibilities emerges.

I am wondering whether anyone knows of interesting projects in this area. And if not, maybe we can come up with ideas ourselves. Or just start a discussion around the topic.


While a broad selection of wearable tech is inevitable, I think tech combined with clothes will be a difficult market to figure out. Let’s use this jacket as an example. The consumer is forced to buy two items in one - is it a GPS device? Or is it a jacket? What happens if they want the GPS function, but don’t like how it looks? What happens if they like how the jacket looks but they don’t want the clunky-ness or extra cost of the GPS? Fashion is very subjective, and what people want in fashion are lots of options.

I think to successfully navigate the tech-clothes-fashion market, the tech needs to be independent of the clothing in order to allow selection, while seamlessly integrating so it doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb or make the wearer look like a science experiment. Both goals are very opposite, making it a challenge to achieve.

As far as wearable tech that specifically focuses on virtual identity I’m not aware of anything specific. One could argue the plethora of fitness watches that broadcast workouts to friends is a form of identity development (“hey I’m fit!”).

I think that’s true. Being able to share, or a device sharing for you, your level of activity can be a strong social statement, lifting up your identity from something mostly passive or conformist to a group to someone who is individually active and wants to join the community of active, more independent people.

I agree with your other statement as well, insofar that it may be an issue to have electronics inseparably integrated into clothing. Designers should probably heavily explore the amount of separability, the amount of options and personalization. I can see that people would like to buy the garment without the tech just for the looks of it, although the tech could be seen as an inherent part of the brand identity and as such should perhaps always be part of the product. I can also see that for business reasons companies would not want to sell their garments without the technology. These products will probably be elite high-end products in the beginning anyway, so why not get people to put down that extra money. But I agree that in many cases you would want the technology to be separable and interchangeable. Also because in the early years of interactive clothing, as you may call it (we’re not so much talking about wearables as a whole which also includes smartwatches and other more gadgetlike devices), an interactive piece will only be a special piece in one’s wardrobe, and probably worn a lot. Then, the clothes will wear out and the electronics will outlast them by as much as 5-10 times. So you will want to be able to buy more garments for the same piece of technology. Or, it becomes a profitable business model by that way forcing people to upgrade to the next device, in which case good recycling programs should be set up.

I do see electronics to become seamlessly interwoven with clothing though, especially since at our department we’re already exploring ways to incorporate responsive and interactive elements in the clothing during the production phase, such as machine-weaving or -knitting them into the fabric. There will just probably be this phase - we’re entering it right now- where electronics become more like stuck-on modules to clothing, separable for washability. It will be a great challenge to make it all look fashionable. We’re seeing it with smartwatches right now - people in the first place want to have a watch that they get complimented on by others, even if they don’t know that it has extra functionality and are only judging on looks and fit to the wearer’s identity. People don’t want a watch by which people can tell it’s an item of technology. It’s just not desirable for most people to look like a showpiece for tech feats, they just want good looking products. I predict that the next successful wave of smartwatches will look more like traditional watches, also borrowing from the many years of craftmanship present in that industry. We’re seeing now the Pebble Steel as an early example of that. It will probably go towards a round watchface sometime as well. But that as a tangent.

Besides reflecting on wearables, I would like to use this topic just to discuss some developments in this field, and share all the examples we know of. A lot is going on but we don’t get to see everything. What do other people think of things like jackets with integrated vibration motors to indicate direction? Maybe they could serve to augment entertainment experiences like watching movies, direct attention at work or at school, provide psychological comfort? What should innovation be targeted at, what are the design challenges? I hope people are interested in these things :slight_smile: