The end of consumer culture?

Should designers work toward the end of aspirational consumer culture? Can the design industry, broadly defined, reposition and reinvent itself to provide value and sustainability while still creating desire?

When I was at Northwestern, I took some classes from a Professor of Philosophy, David Michael Levin, who once asked us whether having a choice was important in our lives. Specifically, he was asking about the difference between choice and the appearance of choice. For instance, he asked, is it important to be able to choose between Crest and Colgate?

I think of Professor Levin from time to time, and often when I’m walking down the personal care aisle of the supermarket. Looking at all the variations of toothpaste and related products (Whitestrips, anyone?), I wonder whether it’s possible that our society in general may have gone just a bit too far, and that the designers and product managers and marketers are spending too much of their creative resources on selling products with limited value and without any real differentiation.

I’m not arguing that there isn’t valuable product innovation going on, but I tend to doubt the big change involves one of the 50 swirly paste/gel combos on every American supermarket aisle. Think of the improved efficiencies we’ll see just as soon as all the rest of you realize that Tom’s of Maine Peppermint is plenty good enough for everyone.

Innovation, or Variation?

Okay, that’s probably not going to be happening any time soon. And, if there were only one kind of toothpaste, I’d likely never gotten the chance to try out Tom’s products, or the cool toothpaste that combines gel, paste, and some crazy sparkly bits. I do love the crazy sparkly bits.

I’m not recommending some sort of centralized control of the means of production; it wouldn’t work anyhow, not in the fast moving consumer goods market, and certainly not in the broader markets. But there’s still something decadent and even unethical about the way we sell the aspirational in consumer goods.

Of course, if people didn’t want it, we wouldn’t sell it, and the invisible hand of the market will ultimately level everything out, right? Well, maybe.

The toothpaste reference is pretty trivial, but it points to a bigger question about designer culture. Designer culture is still about the aspirational, and it’s well established in mainstream markets.

Rob Horning wrote an article on Pop Matters called The Design Imperative. In it, he considers both the historical underpinnings and the current nature of our consumer culture. Historically,

the consumer revolution depended on the sudden availability of things, which allowed ordinary people to buy ready-made objects that once were inherited or self-produced.

and in our current world,

We are consigned to communicating through design, but it’s an impoverished language that can only say one thing: “That’s cool.” Design ceases to serve our needs, and the superficial qualities of useful things end up cannibalizing their functionality.

The problem ultimately is that all this consumption fills some sort of void in our lives, at least temporarily. And by feeding the void in our lives, designers are providing the stimulus that keeps the modern economy moving.

It’s the economy, stupid

According to the news reports I’ve been reading, the economy of the United States has a pretty good chance of heading into a recession for most if not all of 2008. One of the primary causes, resulting in part from the rocking of the financial markets due to sub-prime lending, is decreased consumer spending. Consumer spending, which accounts for two thirds of economic activity, weakened in the month of December.

But for those of us who would like to see a decrease in consumption, is this necessarily bad news?

After the terrorist attacks in 2001, I remember being slightly horrified by Bush the 43rd admonishing the people of America to ‘go shopping’ to fight back against terrorism. Of course, there was an important idea in there somewhere, that we shouldn’t allow our lives to be controlled by a few fundamentalist wackos. But I found it hard to believe that a trip to wal-mart was the best way to fight back against Osama bin Laden. It’s a long way from the Victory Gardens our grandparents planted to help win World War II.

I was thinking about this when I came across an excellent article by Madeleine Bunting, published in the Guardian, called “Eat, drink and be miserable: the true cost of our addiction to shopping”.

As Ms. Bunting points out:

We have a political system built on economic growth as measured by gross domestic product, and that is driven by ever-rising consumer spending. Economic growth is needed to service public debt and pay for the welfare state. If people stopped shopping, the economy would ultimately collapse. No wonder, then, that one of the politicians’ tasks after a terrorist outrage is to reassure the public and urge them to keep shopping (as both George Bush and Ken Livingstone did). Advertising and marketing, huge sectors of the economy, are entirely devoted to ensuring that we keep shopping and that our children follow in our footsteps.

The question that I have been wrestling with regarding this question is how we can both decrease our rampant disposable consumerism while still continuing to have a reasonably robust economy. How am I supposed to continue pushing the economy forward while cutting my carbon footprint by 60 percent?

Happy Now?

In her article, Ms. Bunting discusses the work of Tim Kasser, an American Psychologist concerned with materialism, values, and goals. Kasser has created an aspirational index which helps to distinguish between two types of goals:

Extrinsic, materialistic goals (e.g., financial success, image, popularity) are those focused on attaining rewards and praise, and are usually means to some other end. Intrinsic goals (e.g., personal growth, affiliation, community feeling) are, in contrast, more focused on pursuits that are supportive of intrinsic need satisfaction.

According to Kasser, he would like to “help individuals and society move away from materialism & consumerism and towards more intrinsically satisfying pursuits that promote personal well-being, social justice, and ecological sustainability.”

Personally, I’m not quite sure where I fall on the Aspirational Index.

I try to be mindful of what I’m consuming, where it comes from, and where it ends up. Still, I have a couple pair of shoes that I bought on a whim, and a jacket I didn’t wear more than a few times. I don’t get a whole lot of joy out of going shopping, whether for clothes or anything else, but I’m sure there are many, many ways I could do more with less.

It occurs to me that there needs to be a new paradigm of consumption, one that will work for business, community, and environment. I don’t know what form this new paradigm will take, but I believe it has something to do with learning to appreciate the real value of things and their place in our world.

Designers have an opportunity to engage in this paradigm shift. Part of the story lies in creating products that have intrinsic and lasting value, products that I like to call artisanal. And part of the story lies in better communicating the value of the artisanal. I believe that designers have an ethical duty to work toward the end of disposable culture. Of course, this isn’t going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to happen in vacuum. But it is going to happen, whether we choose to be a part of the process or not. Better to engage the future rather than have it thrust upon us.

Toward a Moral Equivalent of Consumerism

The subtitle of Madeleine Bunting’s Guardian article is “Today it seems politically unpalatable, but soon the state will have to turn to rationing to halt hyper-frantic consumerism”. She speaks to the inevitability of changing our behaviors, and believes that the change will not happen without intervention from the state. Whether it is rationing, or taxes, or other means, the change, ultimately, will have to come.

But change is never easy or simple. In The Moral Equivalent of War (1906), William James explained the difficulties of advocating pacifism:

So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way.

War, like consumer capitalism, offers a way of getting people motivated and organized. Adam Smith, in “The Wealth of Nations”, argues that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest.” Self interest is a strong motivational force, and unless and until there is a “Moral Equivalent of Consumerism” it may well be impossible to create an alternative solution.

It will likely be necessary for government to engage in rationing or taxation to decrease our impact on the environment. But there is also an important component that should not be ignored, and one that can and should be engaged in by the designers of our products and communications. A new aspiration, perhaps focused on the intrinsic and self-transcendent as Tim Kasser explains. A aspiration toward what is valuable, an experience where less is truly more.

In “The Moral Equivalent of War”, James argues that:

Great indeed is Fear; but it is not, as our military enthusiasts believe and try to make us believe, the only stimulus known for awakening the higher ranges of men’s spiritual energy.

In seeking a moral equivalent of consumerism it is our challenge to use our capabilities to awaken the higher ranges of each person’s spiritual energy, and to produce objects and communications that are filled with value.

Should designers work toward the end of aspirational consumer culture? Ultimately, I’m not sure there is any other choice.

The Designers Accord

I joined the Designers Accord this past week.

What is the Designers Accord? According to founder Valerie Casey, it “is a call to arms for the creative community to reduce the negative environmental and social effect caused by design.”

I think of it as a more modern version of the hippocratic oath for designers. It’s not just a call to arms, it’s a code of ethics, a responsibility to think through every decision you make as a designer with as much perspective as you can muster.

In fact, the first tenet of the code of conduct expressed on the site is “do no harm”. This term, derived from a core tenet of medical practice (though not, in fact, from the hippocratic oath – the term Primum non nocere has been used for the past 150 years) is essentially conservative in nature. Don’t do anything to make the situation worse. A good start, though not going far enough. The code of conduct continues:

Do no harm
Communicate and collaborate
Keep learning, keep teaching
Instigate meaningful change
Make theory action

The Designers Accord focuses primarily on environmental components, though I believe that there are social justice components implicit in the initiative as well. And it is not just designers who should consider these issues – though designers have been responsible for making more than their fair share of trash in the past. But this is a consideration for all of us in our daily lives.

In her (newly reinitiated) column on design in the New York Times yesterday, Allison Arieff says that the Designers Accord is going to be endorsed by both the American Institution of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA). She also says:

Recognizing the near impossibility of changing consumer behavior and business behavior alike, the Designers Accord asserts that these firms, which design everything from graphics and packaging to user interface to final product, are ideally suited to get the design-for-impact conversation rolling.

In some ways these are heady times for designers. Rock star architects and product designers for Target and the latest electronic gizmo. But there has to be a way to creatively engage each client, each individual, in a conversation that pushes all of us to provide more value with less impact.

Kudos to Valerie Casey for starting this initiative. Now, let’s get to work.

STORY: at the metro center for visual arts

Hadley, along with Brent Green and James Surls, is exhibiting in the current show at the Metro State Center for Visual Art. Entitled “Story”, the exhibition “brings together three artists whose artwork has a tale to tell. The exhibition is a profound collection of works that delve into created realities and visually realized narratives of the strange and familiar.”

When I met hadley, 19 years ago or so, I was immediately struck by the incredible layers of meaning in her paintings and sculpture. I remember commenting that nothing in her work is what it seems on the surface. It’s not surprising I suppose, given my interest in stories, that I fell in love with a woman who is a better storyteller than I am. I’m sure the understanding of narrative is part of why hadley is such a successful illustrator, but her paintings are another level of expression, and really where she puts her heart.

Narrative in the visual arts has come back into style since the heyday of the abstract expressionists.Today, I don’t think many people would stand behind this quote from Clive Bell, which he wrote in support of the abstract expressionists non-objective paintings:

The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful, but it is always irrelevant. For to appreciate a work of art, we must bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its affairs and ideas, no familiarity with its emotions.

Like a good pop song, the best narrative paintings tell open-ended stories. As Mary Chandler wrote in her review of the show in the Rocky Mountain News, Hadley’s work consists of “lushly textured paintings – paint, ink and toner on Venetian plaster – that follow one of the big rules of art: that work should ask as many questions as it answers”

Kudos to the team at the CVA, who have paired hadley with Brent Green, who creates brilliant animations (as well as working with musicians like Califone and Giant Sand and Fugazi among others), and James Surls, who builds fascinating hanging sculpture; the show holds together really well.

The show opens with a public reception on Thursday, January 10th from 7 to 9pm. More information is available on the CVA website.

“what if?” design

The Design Continuum


Design rests on a continuum between production and innovation. Along this continuum, whether working in product, communication, or interaction, designers focus on providing a compelling experience, an experience that is useful, usable, and desirable (or, as the architect Vitruvius wrote in the first century BCE, firmitas, utilitas, venustas).

In those realms of design that are mature as a practice, it’s not necessary to invent new approaches in order to provide their audience with a satisfactory experience. For instance, print design for corporate reports or brochures or magazines may benefit from new approaches, but in a narrow sense innovation isn’t required to be successful. These design realms lie closer to the production end of the spectrum.

While there are many designers doing successful work in these fields who don’t feel the need to change the recipe for success, others are feeling “the squeeze of print” during our time of interactivity and connectedness and environmental awareness. Many writers, illustrators, and graphic designers have taken the best practices of print communications and are now applying them to the web and interactive world. For these artists, it’s not too great a stretch to design for interactivity.

These artists are well-served by understanding basic principles of people-centered research and design, but a deep knowledge of these realms isn’t absolutely necessary for their work to be successful and engaging and compelling. The intersection of motion design principles with ‘swiss’ design grids and hierarchies is bringing out some great design work. But most of the change is formal rather than essential.

Designing Change


For many designers, interactivity and connectedness and socially responsible approaches have led to new paradigms; there is an increasing overlap between the worlds of ‘strategy’ and ‘design’. Business strategy in particular is closely aligned to design innovation; in fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two, though there are important differences. What are the specific approaches that allow designers to create new products? And how do these approaches align and diverge?

As we look at the new paradigms in contemporary design practice, there are many terms currently in play. For instance, design thinking has gotten a lot of press, and there are other terms bandied about to describe these new approaches; people-centered design, participatory design, interaction design, metadesign, concept design, systems design, innovation design, and story-centered design are just a few, and each speaks to some part of this evolving approach to designing change.

It’s possible to consider all of these as components of a broader world of design strategy. At the least, they tend to share some characteristics; for instance, most combine research and generative components, advocate for iterative methods, and encourage the use of narrative as a tool for discovery.

Research Components

The value of ethnographic and other qualitative research techniques in the development of people centered design is broadly understood and accepted. Observation, interviews, journaling, and other techniques offer designers working in a variety of fields (product, experience, communications, interaction, etc.) the opportunity to gain insights that inform the design process.

Some research approaches are comprehensive and take a considerable amount of time and expense to complete, while others focus on quicker turnaround with a guerilla attitude. The appropriate combination of research components has to be tailored for each design problem, and may vary from conducting a few interviews with friends to spending months or even years recording the behaviors of whole families or organizations.

What is undeniable is the value of conducting some research on any innovation project; you don’t want to overbuild your initial solution, but a key component of designing innovation is “getting out of your head” and understanding the perspective of the person who will be using your product. Even short research can often reveal adaptive and compensatory behaviors as well as individual peculiarities that help to inform the design process.

For instance, I conducted a series of interviews with University of Denver students recently, and found both surprising alignment and extensive differences both in terms of behavior and values. A well-conducted interview can reveal quite a bit, but I’ve also had great success using participant photo journals to explore beyond the time limitations of the interview session. More extensive research programs have been used to create whole new product categories.

Rick Robinson, formerly of eLab and Sapient, and now at Continuum, has defined an ethnography as follows:

  • A description, of a system, activity, belief, setting, culture, etc.
  • and interpretation – not just a summary-of that description
  • toward an end – both instrumental and salient
  • within constraints – of site, setting, time, tools, materials, and solution spaces

Whatever the scope of the research project, understanding the importance of interpretation, goals, and limitations is critical to success. This is not research for research sake; the findings may be surprising, but the goals should be well-defined.

Generative Components

I have written extensively on story-centered design; it’s an effective approach to collaborative problem solving, particularly as a tool to help generate new ideas. This approach is gaining broader interest and acceptance, especially among interaction and product designers. In an article titled “Creative gesture or vapid prototyping? The importance of fictional products” posted on the adobe design center site, Allan Chochinov of Core 77 says the following:

Too many of our products are function first/form second—or form first/function second—with narrative, story-telling elements nowhere to be found. How bad would it be if our products began with narrative in the first place; with an idea of the experience of the product in mind, before that product ever had the chance to turn into landfill? Not bad at all, really.

He goes on to quote Scott Klinker of Cranbrook who argues that:

more and more product designers are now exploiting the power of storytelling to probe user behaviors, find experience “touchpoints,” create novel forms, and ultimately deliver new product experiences.

As with research techniques, narrative exploration needs to be focused on well-defined goals; stories need to be individualized and involve specific interactions. Story-centered design is a method that needs to be combined with other design approaches to be used successfully.

Innovation Design, understood broadly, provides a rubric that can help to understand the components involved in the process. In the current issue of Interactions Magazine (published by the Association for Computing Machinery), Hugh Dubberly offers A Model of Innovation that explores a lot of these parameters. The introduction to the article states:

As businesses have become good at managing quality, quality has become a sort of commodity – “table stakes,” necessary but not sufficient to ensure success. When everyone offers quality, quality no longer stands out. Businesses must look elsewhere for differentiation. The next arena for competition has become innovation. The question becomes: Can innovation be “tamed” as quality was?

One component that Dubberly discusses in his model is the importance of values (beliefs may lead to actions may lead to artifacts). Experience shows that an iterative design process based in the experience of the individual requires grounding in the importance of providing value.

Emergent Design

There is a facet of the design process that isn’t satisfactorily described by any of these terms; specifically, the experience of design as iterative, evolutionary, and, in a sense, out of the designers control. I’ve written about this before when discussing the work of Jan Chipchase, who argues that designers provide the basic functionality, and the extensions are added by the users. How do we design for a future that we can’t foresee? The best term I’ve heard for this is ‘emergent design’.

I first started considering the idea of emergent design based on reading Henry Jenkins ideas of “emergent narratives” in his description of Game Design as Narrative Architecture:

in the case of emergent narratives, game spaces are designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing activity of players. In each case, it makes sense to think of game designers less as storytellers than as narrative architects.

If we abstract the idea of emergent narratives beyond games, perhaps emergent design offers the opportunity to describe a design process that is equally “rich with narrative potential” while inclusive of other design methods (for instance, ethnographic research and prototyping). It points to iterative and participatory approaches, without requiring a particular methodology.

In an article titled “Emergent Design and learning environments: Building on indigenous knowledge” published the IBM Systems Journal (Volume 39, Numbers 3 & 4, 2000), David Cavallo of the MIT Media Laboratory says this of the limitations of current approaches to systems design:

When the desired changes cannot be reliably foreseen, and particularly when the target domain is computationally too complex for automation and thus relies on the understanding and development of the people involved, then top-down, preplanned approaches have intrinsic shortcomings and an emergent approach is required.
[...]
The critical point is that adoption and implementation of new methodologies needs to be based in, and grow from, the existing culture, and typically fails when it is merely imposed from above without such cultural considerations.

What If?

Going back to Allan Chochinov’s discussion of ‘fictional design’, we find a great summary of the emerging approach to designing for change:

Playing out “what if” scenarios has well served designers, conceptual artists, and provocateurs of all stripes to explore their craft; to take license (or to take “design permission,” using Leonard’s phrase) with what is expected, what is sensible, or what is pragmatic. Design fictions remake the playing field into something beyond a commercial go/no go enterprise; they let designers ask “what if?”

Of course, there always has to be balance between production and innovation. But more and more there is a need to ask what if, to get out of our own heads, to explore, to innovate our way into the future.