Q: What is the difference b/w needs and desires?

The dialogue following Marty’s post raises some questions about why we design, what should the role of the designer be, and how do we value our designs (e.g. is beauty a need? is a particular design “superficial” or “deep”?). One distinction I see get thrown around a lot to describe design is the needs/desires distinction…

…So I’m curious how you use these terms: What distinguishes a need from a desire?

And, if we can or do distinguish between the two, which is more important. For example, what needs or desires are “superficial” and which needs or desires or related to “deep meaning”. Or, if you want to do away with the need/desires distinction, which of the designs you see around would you put in the “superfical” category and which would put in the “deep meaning” category?


  1. jimmypierce

    The thing that I find interesting about the needs/desires distinction is that I find it used –and find myself using it — in very different ways. Such as…

    (i) A need is essential for sustaining life. A desire is not essential for sustaining life.

    (ii) A need is well-defined and well-articulated — it can be verbalized. A desire is not — it’s ineffable.

    (iii) (because a need can be verbalized) you can satisfy it and know when you have done so. A desire can never really be satisfied and you can’t know for sure even it has been satisfied.

    (iv) A need is rational. A desire is irrational.

    (v) Needs allow us to live. Desires are why we live.

    As for my second question about superficiality versus deep meaning, I also find myself switching between different modes…

    if I look only thru lens (i), then ipods, ipod branding, homemade youtube videos, and disposable napkins can all appear quite superficial, especially we taken in mass, as they seem to overlook and overwhelm the satisfaction of basic needs related to sustaining life and promoting justice for current and future generations.

    If we look at them thru lens (ii) and (iii), then I see these products and some of their potential uses as a series of goals — problems and solutions– that allow a designer or user to focus and engage, and in doing so enjoy themselves and add meaning to their lives. In this sense, they are related to deep meaning rather than superficiality.

    If I look at, say, the ipod branding, thru lenses (iv) and (ii), i might view the branding as preying on “irrational desires” ,as something superficial, in that there are more important rational goals that lead to a more enjoyable and productive life… that consciously reflecting on your own goals is a better way to live than consuming the experiences created by others.

    If I look at the same branding thru lenses (iv) and (v), i might say that even though the branding is targeted at our subconscious, irrational desires, that this can have the effect of adding deep meaning to our lives…that the ipod lifestyle allow us to experience our lives more fully…that the distinction between conscious, rational reflection and subconscious, irrational, experience is not so important w.r.t living an enjoyable and meaningful life… and possibly even go as far as to say that there isn’t much of a distinction between designing your own experience and consuming the experiences designed by others.

    As is the case with many things worth doing, being a thoughtful designer is not easy! In many ways, it is a privilege to be able to be thoughtful.

  2. wodom

    ..don’t want to interrupt your introspective discourse, however I felt inclined to point you toward Cziksentmihalyi’s book “The Meaning of Things.” Using both pragmatism and marxism as foundations, throughout the book he revisits the distinction between ‘the necessities of life’ and the ‘ultimate meanings [or goals] in life.’ For me, his distinction ties directly to needs vs. desires, however others will most likely (and are encouraged) to disagree.

  3. jeffreybardzell

    Excellent question. One answer is Maslow’s pyramid, which Tao has brought up a couple of times. The quick and dirty, as usual, can be found on wikipedia.


    UPDATE: No amount of trickery seems to get around WordPress’s stumbling over the single quote, so note that the URL does not actually point to the right page, and you will have to copy and paste manually.


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