Theory of a design goal:

Message of a Product

  1. Early Theories of Message (on a separate page)
  2. Product as Statement
  3. Product as Allusion
  4. Product as Component of Message
  5. Research Methods
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It has been known since antiquity that products sometimes transmit messages, see Early Theories of Message, and lately some researchers have followed this idea into extremes, by publishing impressive books with titles such as "The Language of [product x]". The truth is that products, even at their best, have much less capacity of expression than any natural language has, but despite this they certainly can say something quite distinctly. What it is, will be discussed below in the chapter Product as Statement.

Of course, we do not need to restrict our study of languages to explicit statements. A language can also be used to convey more or less elusive hints. As a matter of fact, many people - notably the visitors of art galleries - seem to enjoy finding hidden messages in artifacts just for the fun of deciphering an enigma, and they sometimes find messages that the creator of the artifact had not thought of. This characteristics of artifacts and the psychology behind it is the theme of the chapter Product as Allusion.

While the capabilities of the language of a product is restricted, it however often happens in practice that the designers, producers or marketers of a product would want to communicate much more than the language of the product is able to express, to the customers and users of the product. The normal method in such a situation is to resort to the natural language to support the required message. This is the theme in the chapter Product as Component of Message.

Product as Statement

Communication where a message gets transferred from a person to another with minimal changes and errors is possible when both parties of the communication agree on the words used and their meaning, and on the syntax which defines the relations of words and their meaning. This is how the normal language operates inside of a community which has existed for some time. Its members have learned the spoken language in their childhood. Similarly they have also learned many symbols and meanings that relate to products, and as far as these symbols are used, the communication can in the best case become almost unequivocal. It is this type of messages where theories of language (such as Saussure's) and of communication (such as Shannon's) can be used as starting points of research and application.

Unequivocal statement-type meaning of a product can be created in two ways: either there is an obvious physical reason for the relation between the physical property of the object and its meaning (in which case we often speak of an index) or there is no such justification and the meaning is simply learned in the community. The latter case concerns symbols. Both these concepts were first defined by C.S. Peirce in his theory of semiology.

Indices have real and dynamic connections with their objects. These are often physically connected, e.g. a machine may have a handle or a pointing arrow which serves as an index of possible operation of the machine. The archetype of an index is the pointing hand or finger, which today reappears in various forms of pointing and directional arrows.

Standard symbols Symbols are conventional signs which are used and learned in society. Some are perhaps "archetypal", either inborn to humans, or at least they are learned already during the first years of life. Many of these conventions are age-old and the modern researcher can only guess their immemorial origin (e.g. religious signs). In some cases there has originally been a practical and functional connection to the signified object, which connection has later vanished and the connection has stayed on as a symbolic one. Examples are money and entrance tickets. Some symbols are recent, e.g. international standards defining the sign of emergency exit, and a private company's trademarks and brand names of products.

The product as an indicator of a social role. Living in human society brings us in daily contact with people who expect a reaction from our part, despite the fact that we do not quite well know who the person is that we are meeting. Quite often we are expected to react differently depending of what type of person we are dealing with. For example, if we see a man in the street waving at us, we would want to respond differently to a policeman than to a drunkard. Or, when entering a crowded shop, we will need to identify the staff among the customers. In other words, there are often situations where we urgently need clues to help us finding out the role that an unfamiliar person is playing in respect to us. We have learned to seek such clues in the personal belongings of people, such as their clothing.

Clothes, the personal office room, the seat of the room's occupant, his or her car or house, all these function as shells or second skins of their owners. Every adult member of the community has learned to understand that the shell is meant to indicate how the person wants others to see him or her. In other words, it indicates which role the person wants to play in society. In the book Understanding Fashion Elizabeth Rouse (1989, pp. 20...) explains several social structures that are expressed by clothing, at least in some societies:

Uniforms and other clothing which conform strictly to a customary archetype can give a definite statement-type message: "I belong to this group." There is also the alternative of wearing the customary costume and adding an unusual variation to it, hereby giving a hint that the person's affiliation to this group is not total. The art of hinting with symbols will be discussed below, under the title Contra-standard properties as allusions.

Uniforms and most other garments that are intended to give a statement-type message are normally long preserved unchanged, once established. There is an interesting deviation from this rule: the latest, expensive high fashion. Like uniforms, it is intended to indicate that the wearer belongs to a certain social group, in this case to the group of the wealthy, but peculiar of fashion is that this emblem of the superior class must be renewed once in a while, otherwise it loses its value in a few months. The purpose of this is to prevent imitators from a lower social class to transmit the signal of wealth, thus reserving the signal to be used only by the genuine members of high society. This intriguing type of message was first (1923) described by Simmel, and Bourdieu (1984 a) has later examined it in detail in the book The Distinction.

Signs in User Interfaces

A growing number of products necessitate transmission of information across language barriers. For example, traffic signs along the roads must be instantly explicit for people coming from any country, likewise the guiding placards in buildings which indicate elevators, exits, toilets, etc. Moreover, global intelligibility is desirable in those products that the manufacturer wishes to sell all over the world with as little variation as possible.

Another incentive to the increasing use of symbols instead of written text comes from the evolution of technology. Many modern machines have several alternative modes of work, which necessitates a detailed user interface. At the same time many portable instruments like telephones, cameras and computers have diminished in size so much that there is not enough space for written labels on the displays nor on the operating buttons. Signs must be used instead.

The problem is focused at the user interface of the product, consisting often of keys, knobs and levers. There can also be a channel for reports and/or instructions to the human user which can include indicator lamps, pointers or other moving parts and today very often a display for symbols or text which transmits not only internal feedback from the appliance itself but sometimes also external information from a suitable network.

It is self-evident that already security (not to mention the facility) of operation requires using intelligible symbols in user interfaces. Some instruments are today so common all over the world that most people have learned the symbols for their manipulation, for example the controls of a tape recorder which come near to global intelligibility today. The number of such widely understood symbols is steadily growing as a result of more and more people using them, and there is, too, some standardization of symbols going on. Nevertheless, new machines are created all the time, and with them comes the need for new symbols.

A number of signs can be learned in the schools all over the world, but as the need for new signs seems endless it seems beneficial to develop them on the basis of research. In this way we can hope that new signs will be designed so that they are more easily understandable for all people.

Note that symbols can include even other than visually perceived signs. There are situations when the user must be able to control the instrument and receive feedback from it even when the user cannot see the instrument:

You can cater for such situations by designing the operation knobs so that some of them give a specific feeling when you touch them. For example, some keys (F and J) of the modern computer keyboard have a special surface profile which can be sensed by touching. As to the displays, they can be enhanced by auditive signals. Some auditive signs are already in general use, like the air-raid alarm signals for the public and the stop-and-go buzzer of traffic lights.

Normative theory for the design of symbols and signs exists now mostly for specific details of products like displays and keys. Apart from them, also the general appearance (shape, structure, colour etc.) of the product can convey some messages to the users, like:

The message perceived by the user of a product depends very much on the personality of the user, on his origin, education, age etc. This variation means that when writing normative theory for products intended to be sold and used in several countries it is not enough to make a survey in the researcher's home country only. You should consider extending the study to the whole population of the future users of the product. There are, of course, sampling methods that you can use for limiting the population.

When designing symbols for the user interfaces of interactive products you have to remember that there are several aspects to be considered, such as time of learning, ease of remembering, and the risk of errors, see Aspects of Usability.

Product as Allusion

It is normal when living in human society to take note of anything that other people might say to you. Beside the spoken language there are other methods of expressing and receiving messages between people. Even when you do not understand the language of a foreigner, you often are able to get an approximate idea of his or her proposals, with the help of gestures and facial expressions which you can understand with your faculty of empathy.

The habit of trying to understand other people's ideas and suggestions is so deeply rooted in us that we tend to enlarge our empathy to include not only people but also the artifacts that are made by people.

"We look at every object comparing it with our own body. In our minds, it becomes a being with head and feet, front and back; if it is slanting or if it looks as if it was falling, we immediately guess that it is feeling bad; in any configuration at all, we can feel the joys, struggles and troubles of being... Everywhere we expect to find a corporal figure resembling ourselves; we interpret everything in the outside world with the same means of expression that we feel in ourselves" (Wölfflin, Renaissance und Barock, 1888, p.56).

Striking illustrations of products which are easily understood emphatically can be found in the book Om vackert och fult by Brochmann (1953, p.59, an example here on the right).

Although it is easy to explain the idea of emphatic understanding, it is difficult to study the phenomenon because it operates in the subconscious. Many researchers have focused their study to the visible features in products or works of art which can serve as starting points for an emphatical association or for deciphering a message. This approach is used in semiology, the science of signs. Its principal object of study is the process where a product brings to the spectator's mind an object of reference outside of the object itself. In this process the product acts as a sign to this second object. A short summary of semiological theory can be found on the page Early Theories of Message.

Note that the impressions that empathy brings to the spectator's mind when looking at a product can be intentional messages or allusions planned by the designer of the artifact, but they need not be so. The spectator can quite well project potential meaning into the perception simply by associating the product with in his or her own earlier experiences.

Metaphors, by Klöcker One very common case of associating a product to something else occurs when the product resembles a face or another part of the human body, a plant, an animal, or simply another product. Two examples can be seen on the right (from Klöcker 1980, 55).

Susann Vihma (1995, 93 pp) has enumerated twenty modes of sign functions for industrial products. Because the ability of industrial products in carrying messages is quite limited, most of these "modes" are not very suitable to be used as explicit statements. Instead, most of them are effective for making allusions:

Hints are especially common in products for personal use, such as clothes and buildings. The indicators of social role related to costume, enumerated earlier, can serve as hints when used in subdued tone. For buildings, a discussion of their use as messages can be found on the page Building as a Message. "Symbolically salient" properties in classical architecture are listed by Bandmann (1951, p. 60 ... 61) as follows:

Architectural signs often refer to social relations, i.e. the division of power in the community. An introduction to such studies can be found in Politische Architektur in Europa vom Mittelalter bis heute edited by Warnke (1984).

When a product becomes associated with another, resembling object, this brings with itself some possibilities of transmitting a message. By the means of a mere association it will not be possible to express any very exact meaning, but at least it can make the spectator to consider questions like:

Premeditated associations are often used in advertisements: the product gets appreciated when presented in a favorable context, for example when it is being used by celebrated people. The favorable attitude tends to expand through association. See below, Advertisement As Message.

Contra-standard properties as allusions. When a product usually has a well-known standard appearance, any new product which deviates from this normal pattern will attract attention and this "contra-standard property" can be used to transmit a message. This message, however, can seldom be more than a hint, because only the starting point (the normal product) is exactly defined and the deviation is not.

For example, if the wearer of a uniform or of a tuxedo adds an unusual variation to the formal dress, he can hint that while being a loyal member of the group he nevertheless has his own opinions. The direction of these personal opinions can sometimes be deduced from the art of the variation. Rouse (24) mentions as subtle variations of a garment its fabric, stylistic features, color, and the way the garment is worn. All these are often used as hints.

In architecture established design styles are well known by most people, which makes contra-standard design into a powerful tool for architects and builders that want to demonstrate their "distinction", i.e. independence from average commonplace building. This tool was skillfully used especially by the Art Nouveau, like a little later by the early Functionalist architects such as Le Corbusier, and once again by their postmodern colleagues near the end of the 20 century. The special trademark of the last-mentioned school was the "ironical reference", which was made by including in the building a fragment in classical style that was made ridiculous by distortion. The message of this was to show the high education of the architect (or the builder) and their ability to create something better than classical masters could do.

The makers of standardized products, such as cars, have noted that customers often want to personalize the product, hereby declaring passers-by what kind of people they are, or how they wish to be seen. Many companies help their customers to pronounce their messages, and have prepared long lists of "sporty" and other accessories that the customers can use to modify the message given by their humble family cars. Likewise, some makers of portable telephones allow the customers to select the color and decoration of the product's shell, and the melodies of its signals. There are even companies whose only products are accessories for personalizing already existing standard products.

Multi-layered allusions. If the spectator is motivated to study the artifact longer, which often happens when admiring a work of art, the perception sometimes advances successively into "deeper" layers of the work. In the field of pictorial art, researchers often differentiate between three levels of meaning which Erwin Panofsky (1939) was first to define:

  1. what physical object the painting represents,
  2. which generalizable story or allegory it wants to tell,
  3. what kind of vision of the world, or conviction, it is based on.

The first level is the one that every casual passer-by at once notices, and the spectator has then the option of proceeding successively to the other levels, if he has interest to it and there is anything to find.

Panofsky's definitions of the levels of understanding a pictorial work of art cannot quite well be applied to other artifacts than pictures, but his notion of gradually deepening understanding can easily be modified to match such products as a clock or a watch, for example, which can have several layers of meaning. In this case the levels could be defined as:

  1. Seiko watchThe first perception of the watch reveals that it is a beautiful and interesting object which could be used as piece of jewelry, for example.
     For example, the Seiko watch on the right has an appealing shape which perhaps alludes to a bracelet or a few other things, but this allusion is vague, it can create different associations among people, and we cannot really call it a "message".
  2. Clock faceThe second mode of understanding reveals what the product is destined to indicate, what it "wants to tell". The hands of a clock indicate time, for example the figure on the left gives exactly the same message as "The time is 12:10".
    If you have designed a clock like this picture, you have no doubt on purpose used well known indices and symbols in the design of the product, and most spectators understand them exactly as you have intended. This product could thus be said to carry an unequivocal message or statement.
  3. Waiting room symbol Third level in the message of the object is conceptual. For example, a clockface is a component of the international standard of a waiting room, on the right, but despite of its conspicuous hands it is impossible to read the time in it: is it 12:10 or 14:00?
     Instead, the clock successfully assists in giving the message of sitting and waiting.

The theory of successive layers of perception is discussed in more detail on another page, under the title Theories of communication. However, with industrial products the theory seems not to work so well as with works of art, probably because of the smaller available repertoire of expressions and also because people seldom want to study an industrial product as long as a celebrated work of art. Often products arouse suggestions in the members of the public that the designer had not intended. If we thus want to compare a product to speech, we have to admit that much of this speech will never be heard, and much that is heard was never said.

Product as Component of Message

Many researchers have drawn a parallel between human speech and the message of art. This is not so splendid an idea as it may sound, because normal speech consists of thousands of quite exactly defined words and it can thus transmit unequivocal concepts, while the language of industrial products contains only a handful of standardized symbols. To be sure, there is the additional possibility of making allusions with the help of association, but its disdvantage is ambiguity: it is impossible to know in advance how the receiver will interpret it.

Industrial production and mass marketing, however, quite often necessitate transmitting a great deal of information associated with a product, in effect many times more than would be allowed by the normal capacity of communication of products that have been discussed above. A usual solution to this controversy is to merge the silent message of the product itself and a complementary written or verbal message.

The Ant, by Arne JacobsenAn elementary example of joining these two modes of message around a product is to give a name to the product. This trick has long been popular in various arts, as well. An example in the field of industrial products is the chair The Ant, by Arne Jacobsen, on the right. A name can help the most brainless customer to make the right association and become familiar with the product.

Other usual instances where two (or more) channels of transmitting messages are combined, are the following two:

The Message of Design Management

Companies that have long been in business have usually a good reputation among customers, which they can capitalize on in their operations and especially when they launch new products. Even such companies which have no long history behind them have perhaps been able to generate a comparable prominence with a prolonged campaign of advertisement and publicity. To take advantage of this renown it is necessary to take care that potential customers can associate right products with the right company.

The association between a company and its products is normally created by using unmistakable visible marks on the products and on their packages, on the company's letterheads, on buildings, retail shops and, of course, in all the advertisements. It is no bad thing if these identifying features have some relevance with the company's intended business mission i.e. a broadly defined, enduring statement of purpose that distinguishes a business from others of its type.

These identifying features are normally described in special written guidelines (styling guides) for designers of products, architects, interior decorators, graphic artists etc., and in the best case these guidelines have also been tested with a sample of customers.

Advertisement As Message

The product itself can function as a message and proclaim its superiority to potential buyers, but there are also a few other channels of messages from the manufacturer to the customers. Together with the product are given instructions for its use, and there can also be after-sales information about the care of the product. These messages are seldom problematic and they will not be discussed here. Instead, a few words should be said about the message of advertising which is typically sent and received before the act of buying the product. The same viewpoints can be applied even to publicity which means news-like information about new activities and products that a company distributes to the media but does not pay for its further transmission.

The normal starting point when planning an advertisement campaign for a product, or a for a group of them, is the marketing mix. It is a combination of several decisions made on the basis of the business mission by the management of the company. It contains at least the following topics (the 4Ps, cf. Jobber 1995, p.15):

By studying the marketing mix and gathering data from market research among the target customers, it should be possible to decide which are the points in the marketing mix that need reinforcement through advertising. On this basis you can start planning the message content of an advertisement campaign.

The information content in advertisements and publicity is often divided in two genres, though the division is vague and both types can be mixed in one advertisement:

Normally only one topic is chosen for each advertisement in order to keep the message clear. Usually it will not be too difficult to formulate the message of the advertisement, because the company has already done its best to make a good product and you have only to explain it to the customers using an approach and wording that corresponds to their point of view.

However, there may be complications when people receive the message of an advertisement because they will associate the message with their existing attitudes and mental images.

Advertising The attitudes of potential customers, in turn, have already in advance been affected by numerous sources which can be either people (e.g. family members, friends, colleagues) or information (e.g. consumer journals with tests of products; publicity of competitors).

It can be useful to keep apart those mental images (or their sources) which endorse purchasing your product and those which disapprove it or your company. In the figure on the right (modified from Merja Salo 1994, p. 20) these two groups are called:

  1. proponents: people or mental images that are favorable to your product, and
  2. opposers: those that are against.

Target of publicity Target for an advertising campaign that wants to convert potential customers' attitudes becomes thus either one (or perhaps both) of two alternatives (see figure on the right):

  1. To breed favorable attitudes, or strengthen those that you believe are common, among the target group of customers.
  2. To diminish attitudes opposed to your company or to its products.

The first-named target is more common because people have seldom much disagreement with a company's messages. Nevertheless, the latter situation occurred quite dramatically in tobacco advertising in the middle of 20 century, when the public began to be aware of the dangers of the product. Copywriters had then the almost superhuman task of persuading people to buy a product that would perhaps kill them. Below are factual examples of advertisement messages which aim at manipulating attitudes to cigarettes, taken from the empirical study of Salo, 1994, who examined tobacco advertisements in Finland from 1870 to 1994.

The first table below contains only favorable attitudes to smoking, and in the right column of it are listed a few of the most common message contents found in the advertisements. All of them might be effective in supporting some attitudes of customers, though no written evidence has remained to us about the factual intentions of the advertising copywriters. The attitude that the advertisement probably wanted to support is characterized in the left column of the table.

Supposed favorable attitude of potential customers: Message which can strengthen the attitude e.g.
Smoking gives pleasure This is proved by photos of pleased smokers
A cigarette helps you to face problems and master difficulties Pictures of aeroplane pilots, racing car drivers etc. smoking
Smoking is all right anywhere, anytime Pictures of numerous different situations of smoking
"People have always smoked" (Fabricated) pictures of historical persons smoking
Smoking is typical of higher social classes, professionals, sportsmen and other admired people Examples of noble smokers, professionals etc.
Smokers are independent, brave people The Marlboro Wild West cowboy etc.
Smokers are sexy Picture of a cozy couple, one or both smoking.
Our cigarettes are same as in America, therefore high quality Proved by photos of the Marlboro cowboy etc.

From the same source we select as examples some usual message contents which evidently were intended to resist existing negative attitudes of customers:

Supposed negative attitude of potential customers: Message which can resist the attitude e.g.:
Smoking can damage your health Strategy 1: Our cigarettes are mild, scientifically tested and have effective filters
Strategy 2: Courageous, independent people (like the Marlboro cowboy) enjoy facing risks
Our competitor's tobacco is said to be better or cheaper Connoisseurs say that ours is best.
Competing products are just cheap imitations of us.
You should prefer domestic products, not imported ones Strategy 1: Our factory is here
Strategy 2: Our packages carry patriotic symbols

The examples above demonstrate that advertising has been used to counter-attack not only negative attitudes but also "negative" facts that could discourage consumers. Another question is, whether it is consistent with your ethical principles and those of your company, and also with the laws of the country. Especially tobacco advertising in the latter half of 20 century was found to be so unconcerned about facts that the legislators of many countries prohibited it completely.

Vocabulary of advertisement message. In an advertisement campaign it is not necessary to restrict the message to the "natural" (i.e. traditional, archetypal and collective) sign types, listed above. In advertisements there is much more freedom and possibilities to use signs and symbols and even to develop new ones and use them successfully. Reasons for this are:

The necessity of prominence. The message of an advertisement can have effect only if it catches the attention of the public (which seldom has much interest in advertisements) and coaxes it to have a look at the intended message, too. For this reason many advertisements include a conspicuous, striking element which often has only superficial relevance to the principal message.

The normative character of an advertisement is sometimes condensed into the formula "AIDA" which is an abbreviation of four targets of advertising: it should arouse first Attention (or Awareness), then Interest, Desire and finally Action which does not necessarily mean immediately buying the product. It can simply mean that the person's attitudes become generally more favorable to the company or to its products.

Research Methods

From antiquity until Spengler and Jung in the 20 century, research of the real or potential messages of products was mostly descriptive, i.e. descriptions of existing artefacts and discussion about their symbolic meaning. In a few cases, survived documents revealed an intended or perceived symbolic message of the artefact, too.

Buildings have always been one of the favorite objects in the study of symbolic messages. Approaches in the study of architectural symbols and hints are listed by Bandmann (1951, p. 60 ... 61) as follows:

Today we know that the interpretations of signs and symbols are not at all uniform all over the world, and the patterns of interpretation found by the early authors are often valid only in the writer's own sphere of culture. This does not mean that there were no universally valid mechanisms and patterns in the use of symbols and signs in various times and different countries, and it is also quite possible that already some of the earliest writers found some of these invariances. However, if we want to know exactly how universal the patterns of meaning are, we need to demarcate the population of people who are deciphering the messages. For example, if the findings of the study are to be used in several countries, it will be necessary to incorporate people from all those countries.

When selecting the problem and constructing a model of the concepts, it may be advisable to avoid such a broad-spectrum approach which has been common in semiotics and aesthetics in the past. For example, it is seldom fruitful to study arts in general - many venerated philosophers devoted their lives to that and already found all that can be found in that direction. Today, the normal practice is to specialize in a given genre of art, or in a single type of product. Likewise, your findings will probably be too vague if try to study together all three types of signs: icons, indices and symbols. Each of them is different in essence, it works differently, and it should be studied with dedicated methods. Try to restrict your study and use demarcation.

In psychological research of signs and symbols these often have been examined in isolation from their original context and often in laboratory environment. This has helped to cut down disturbances, but the disadvantage is that the findings have not been very realistic. In real life the perceived meaning of a sign will be greatly affected by the context and the available clues for deciphering the message. For instance, the meaning of a beckoning hand depends on whether the person is a friend of yours or not, a small child, a policeman, etc.

When studying the symbolic meanings that either the artesan-designers or the general public attaches to products, the most effective method will usually be a thematic interview. As an alternative, polls have also been used (e.g. Väkevä 1997), but then the researcher must have an exact and realistic hypothesis about what he is going to study already at the beginning of the project because in the questionnaire method new and surprising factors would be difficult to deal with.

If the researcher has a definite hypothesis about e.g. how certain variations in a work of art will change the message conveyed, he can test this hypothesis with experimentation in laboratory. There are several alternatives for preparing the stimulus, from real works of art to mock-ups, see Stimulus in the experiment. Optimally, the variations should differ only with regard to one variable, and the experiment will reveal which effect the variation has to the message conveyed.

Of course, there is always another important variable: the test persons have different backgrounds and have different expectations concerning the object of study. Consequently, you should try to register not only people's reactions but also their expectations (and other factors that are relevant in your particular study) because they are independent variables that perhaps can explain people's reactions to the variations in the objects.

When the purpose of the study is normative, i.e. if you want to develop tools for the design of signs or symbols affiliated with products, you can use many of the descriptive methods listed above. The approach is slightly different depending on whether you want to create general design theory, i.e. models, standards and other tools for semiotic design, or if you just want to assist the creation of one product. The latter task is usually easier. Its methods are explained in Developing Art With Scientific Methods and Developing an Industrial Product.

The methods for creating general design theory are explained in Preparing Design Theory, but as was stated above, normative work is obstructed by the great variation in people's usage of signs. The researcher's proposals to design guidelines should always be tested with a sample from the intended customers. For clarity, it is best to test not only written guidelines but also as fidel mock-ups as possible. Suitable methods are listed in Presenting the Draft and Prototype and Evaluating a Design Proposal. Do not forget to include in the testing group people with impaired abilities of perception.

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August 3, 2007.
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