Designing gifts

  • Vicki Thomas (Author)

Activity: Academic Talks or PresentationsOral presentationResearch


‘Designing Gifts’ will look at some current research and design projects to try to understand the nature of the gift exchange and its commercialization for the global market today and consider how previous research and analytical approaches can help us understand the process better. Creating and designing the things that we give to others is different from designing products for other uses. They are expected to convey far more. We all know when we have baked the perfect cake, but more commonly we rely on others to create that something special for us, to present to our loved one. We turn to bakers, florists, jewelers, illustrators, packaging designers, the surface pattern designers, the ceramic sculptors and the firms that employ them to create a present that we can buy. The presents we give are a form of communication. They express our emotions and represent in three-dimensional form how we understand the relationship between us. This conference provides an opportunity to look afresh at semiotics and the insights it can provide, as well as the social anthropological theories, in order to review their significance and value in the light of commercial experience. Vicki Thomas Associates is unusual as a specialist design consultancy that has created designs for the gift industries since 1984. It is made up of a team of some fifty specialists. Designers and illustrators are not trained as gift designers. Many of the products, offered to the consumer are considered kitsch by design critics but valued by the recipients, treasured and passed on to another generation. According to Marcel Mauss (1925) gift exchange is a social process that occurs in all cultures and gifts in their very nature contain an obligation, to be returned or passed on. For Arnold van Gennep (1960) gift exchange is one of the rites of passage and gifts are designed today for all those occasions, when we move our geographical or social locations. Gifts are designed as souvenirs or as wedding gifts; they are given when we are born and to mark our death. When studying the commercial gift market in the Victorian era and the mid-twentieth century Britain (Thomas, 1984), it became clear that products designed as gifts share some common attributes; they are designed to price points, they use symbols and semiotics can be used to interpret them, they are presented, they are portable, their size is relevant, whether they are useful or purely decorative must be apparent, they contain characters and personalities, they refer to a golden past, or predict a bold new future, they make us laugh and create surprise, they can be intrinsically valuable and treasured or be consumed in moment. They are something special. Lewis W. Hyde (1983) argued that creative talent is also a gift in Marcel Mauss’ terms that should be shared. We give of our time and talents. The gift exchange process generates trade and encourages commercialization. In the last decade the MP3 player has encouraged the sharing of music, the e-book is making it is easier to share the skill of the writer and the on-line greeting card firms have added a new dimension to the role of the illustrator. How do we create something special now? How will creative designers recompensed for the design work they do for the consumers on-line? Has the message changed and has the way it is communicated altered?
Period25 Nov 2011
Event title1st International Conference on Semiotics and Visual Communication: from Theory to Practice
Event typeConference
LocationLimassol, CyprusShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Design
  • Art
  • Designing gifts