How can a machine express the simplicity and spirituality of tea?

Unilever wanted to launch a tea machine for use at home. It was an exciting idea, but with an in-built tension that needed some semiotic exploration. What did tea – reflective and spiritual – have in common with machines – traditionally seen as cold and industrial?

When a contradiction like this comes up, it’s definitely time to call Space Doctors; luckily Unilever did just that. They briefed us to look at the changing meanings of domestic machines, and map tea rituals in two key markets: France and Russia.

Drawing on this groundwork, we provided Unilever with detailed experiential and sensory design guidelines, which fed directly into the development of the first prototypes. At the same time, the cultural insights we uncovered were used to steer focus group discussion.

The overall message of our work was that the age of the cold, industrial machine is over. Today’s domestic machines need to be seamlessly integrated with their users’ bodies and homes.

When it comes to tea, that need is heightened. Tea, symbolically, is all about creating time for reflection. So we recommended that the machine feature soft lights to allow for quiet night-time use. It’s a clear example – and just one of many in this project – of how semiotics can turn cultural insights into practical design cues.