Paula Zuccotti: today’s objects and future archeology

The objects we touch are more than just possessions or tools; they’re a narrative of our lives. And they’re a path to understanding customer needs in a deeper way than marketing segments.

Paula Zuccotti is a London-based designer, ethnographer, trends forecaster and visual artist. She is a leading expert in global consumption and a respected authority in consumer behaviour and product interaction – past, present, and future.

Watch the complete keynote

Zuccotti has spent years doing ethnographic research for giant companies globally. That means immersing yourself in the lives of others to understand how they live; making sense of how others make sense of life. Clients no longer ask about product design – they want to know about the future of their industry. And the hidden meaning of that is that they don’t really understand the present. How do you solve that?

A decade ago, she set out on a personal project, to understand people and life untouched and unfiltered. So, she gathered every single thing a person touched in a day, and put it on a canvas in order. It reads like a book.

What would people learn about you from the objects you touch – and what would they not deduce? She wanted to use this process to escape the normal marketing segments. What inspires people? What makes people feel powerful?

Future archeology

She realised that what she was actually doing was “future archeology”: archeologists make sense of the past through objects. Can we understand individuals through the objects they touch today? Can we understand the complexity of everyday living?

Some objects from the start of her project are now passing into history. Her Mum had an alarm clock and two different radios, for example. For many of us, the phone has replaced them. Do you still use physical money? Her mum did. She also used a fixed telephone line.

And then there are CDs, and multiple remotes, and other objects transitioning into our past. A puppeteer she photographed had an object set, completely made in China. But a graphic artist from the self-described “new China” had brands from all over the world.

The complex narratives of daily life

The narrative element highlights different phases of people’s day. A cowboy’s last objects were all about unwinding, from feed for the horse to whisky to unwind. A special effects artist with champagne, over chips and a joint…

A toddler in Tokyo touched the most objects – driven by pleasure and curiosity. But the colours that define her life are really clear: bright, colourful. Another person’s photo makes it clear she feels no tension between competitor sportswear brands. She happily wears all of them. But the highlight of her day had nothing to do with these high-end brands, was eating Cheetos in the car with her friend.

A friend from LA, who was always stylish, turned out to be just as curated in her home life, with the colours of everyday objects carefully chosen. Some things are obvious in the photos, like the transitional world of a 13-year-old girl, who is both an adult and a child. But some things make less obvious sense: a tattoo artist who rejects the stereotype with natural, health-focused, organic products in her life.

Our perceptions can shape our reality. By really looking at people, we can learn new things.