What makes us buy?
My grandparents (born in the 1920s) were used to a shortage. Given time and circumstances, they could repair stuff, overhaul many appliances, or call in an expert. Goods were rare; even small values needed to be maintained. The design of many items was more of a nice-to-have.
My parents (born in the 1960s) became used to conditions of disposability. As more and more repair services closed and variety increased, buying a new television, for example, became typical instead of repairing the old one. Goods seemed abundant, and the price formed the decision more than availability. The design became a want-to-have.
My generation (born in the 1980s) added newness and convenience to the plate. I got used to replacing old devices with the next generation much more frequently. The mobiles I have owned since the 90s are numerous. Design, trends, features, and as well pricing made me buy.
What makes us live so wasteful?
Assuming my personal experience is just a symptom, what is the problem? Partly, the abundance explains why over generations, somehow, the skill to repair got lost. Manufacturers encouraged us to “upgrade” and purchase more each season. But we, the user, demanded it, and the industry was more than willing to deliver. At the same time, the clients wanted to pay less and less and therefore got less quality.
By accident, I still know how to patch a coat, mend a tear or sew a button back on. But most of my peers don’t. And why should they? The skill makes no sense if the shirt costs five bucks, and replacing it is just one click away. The same goes for household appliances. Why should you repair a toaster if a new one costs pennies? You only fix stuff that is dear to you or has significant value that justifies the effort.
For some years, the increased levels of recycling bought us a good conscience. At least for me. But the truth is that most recycling is “downcycling”, and a production standard neglecting maintenance and repair is a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Christopher Barnatt puts it: “We must not allow recycling to become an acceptable penance paid by those who do not want to change their ways.”
The transition must include business and service models and the active and authentic management of customer expectations.
So, here we are: Brimming consumerism faces finite resources. Many products are labeled “no user-serviceable parts inside”, and we seem to accept this. We also carry low quality and short lifespan. Businesses, design, and consumers must change if we don’t want to change capitalism. Given that design plays a significant role in fueling our wishes and is accountable for the products and services today on the market, what can it do to tame our demand and help us use resources wisely?
Design that helps us to adapt
Design can enable (or deny) repairability.
The domestic lightbulb is a great example. The standardized bayonet fitting is easy to insert and remove. No tools are required. Even a “luser” can do it on a standard light appliance.
Changing the bulb for the indicator in your car is an entirely different story. The automotive industry designed a whole revenue stream around the maintenance of vehicles, but this is capitalizing on repairability and not what the planet and humankind need.
And history is repeating with all the lighting objects using built-in LEDs, which aren’t replaceable. I would be very interested to know the ratio of saved energy while using and lost resources due to complete replacement if broken. Have to ask my colleagues.
Design can make disassembling easy (or impossible).
There are many ways to assemble different materials. Wear parts should always be accessible and not be hidden forever behind the styling. Just think about all the Apple products, consumer electronics in general, or even food packaging. As a consumer, you have yet to learn what a product consists of or how to disassemble it. Design and communication should partner here and not leave us waiting in vain.
Design can mingle repairability and desirable, contemporary sleek aesthetics.
Design can leverage (or shorten) the lifespan of a product.
Design for repairability and disassembly is essential to enhance the lifespan of a product. The readiness to incorporate future features is next level. Designing the services and new features incorporating what has been purchased and re-using it is what the world needs to secure prosperity for all.
Standards and norms are something to strive for. Standards ensure the safety, quality, and reliability of products and services; for businesses, trade, added services, and the consumer. Standards improve systems and processes; they reduce waste, cut costs and ensure consistency.
Quality is a design decision, and so is waste.
Like above, the lifespan of a product also depends on the materials used. Designers can break the vicious circle of low-quality materials and still produce an efficient outcome. As more and more businesses care about their Scope 1, 2, or even 3 emissions, they are open to new materials, recycling products, and services.
As a designer, you can facilitate the discussion and show more sustainable options to build resilient material streams. Of course, this needs a lot of knowledge and insights, but who else could better foresee the consequences of your design decision?
Deborah Sumter describes the competencies for design in a circular economy in much more depth. She explores the gaps in design knowledge and skills for a circular economy and can also be read as an inventory of superpowers of design professionals or function as a bucket list on what to learn next to advance as a designer in the circular economy.
Design and Branding create value that people want to maintain.
No one will if you don’t communicate the value of your design, the care, and the level of competence with which you crafted the good. Design and brand management need to join forces and elaborate ways to make people see the value of their purchase. Tell us about the struggles and how you solved the problem because otherwise, we take it for granted. We—the consumers—are so used to user-centered design that it doesn’t occur to us that the planet is also a stakeholder. Products should improve with a stakeholder-centric, systemic design approach respecting the woven ambitions of individuals, businesses, systems, and the earth.
To sum up, if we don’t want shortage to shape the value of our possessions, design can help us adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. To accept less efficiency blah blah and waste but thriving for deals we like to maintain. The design has the power to enable and make repair worthwhile.