Design for the sake of design?

Recently I’ve been annoyed by the shear amount of products that are being created and redesigned. All of them will be obsolete in 2 years, because another redesign will have taken its place. Another product with another gizmo you don’t need, but you’ll buy it anyway otherwise you won’t be cool anymore. Product-design is becoming an affiliate of marketing and I don’t like it one bit. Those marketing dudes don’t want to create the best product, they want to sell as many products as they can with the lowest investment costs. But the fact is people: We are creating garbage, that’s right…all our products will become waste. How long it will take a product before it becomes waste is the real question. In the old days people used to repair a broken device. Now it’s almost impossible even for us productdesigners to repair a product (cfr Afterlife: An Essential Guide To Design For Disassembly, by Alex Diener - Core77). What’s up with that? Electronical devices are programmed to break down after some years. Just in time for you to buy the new redesigned product with even more gizmo’s.

So what do you think?
Shouldn’t any designer live by some basic holy rules?

  • Cradle-2-cradle
  • Design-for-dissasembly
  • local manufacturing

  • Would you turn down an assignment because the endproduct would have no real added value?
    Isn’t it time to say no to this extreme consumerism? Isn’t it our responsibility to make it stop?

Please crit and comment


So should all of the factory workers not go to the manufacturing plant either? You have a noble cause, but the world is unfortunately not run by humanitarians.

Industrial Designers are only part of the intricate consumer product puzzle. I suppose if you just want to create weird art and not get a paycheck, then sure, don’t design anything. But being part of society requires that you sometimes have to throw out your idealistic ideas and just bring home a paycheck. With that paycheck, you can do your own humanitarian efforts.

1st of all thx for the reply :wink:

You make some valid points. Manufacturing and making new products is the fuel of our economy. But that shouldn’t mean that the products we perceive are created for this reason only (which is the case these days). And off course people need a paycheck…I need one. But there must be a better way. Why aren’t gizmo’s and gadgets designed according to the cradle-2-cradle methodology? If they have a short life-cycle it wouldn’t matter. We need to think of the long-term future (sustainable) instead of the short-term (cash-in). And that is our responsibility.
BTW: I’ve found that there’s a loophole in this whole mere ‘redesigning-restyling’-issue.
If one of my clients asks me to design a product with no real added value I add it myself :wink:
For instance one of my latest design: the dotpot (Industrial Design by Thomas Valcke at .
The client just wanted a pee-potty which would look good. I added the toilet-trainer and stepstone-feature. The client loved it and continued with this concept. Now they are selling like candy :wink:
So what I’m trying to say is that we, productdesigners, have to re-interpretate the assignment so it fits with some basic moral rules.

this is my kind of topic

Welcome to the club :slight_smile:

Planned obsolescence is nothing new, it came to be in the 50s after ww2 to ramp up the economy, and yes it’s silly, it’s a need of our backwards economic system, and the consequence is that every ‘good’ produced must breakdown in a respective amount of time in order to continue financial circulation to support the players (consumer/employee/employer) in the game. Also waste and pollution is a deliberate byproduct, as you’ve noted.

So why aren’t things made to last? If we actually created things to last, inherently minimizing pollution/waste due to the lack of multiplicity and maximization of efficiency, a monetary system would be impossible, for ‘consumption cyclically’ would slow tremendously, forever weakening so called “economic growth”.

sure, but it’s hard when the system is resistant to this approach.

Yes, and it’s not just our responsibility, it’s everyone’s. We can do better.

Not to justify, but have you ever seen the Sears and Robuck catalog circa 1920’s? It was the same thing then. Consumerism isn’t new guys. In some cases, things do wear out. Typically a super comfortable shoe is made from softer materials, those kinds of materials wear out faster, someone needs a replacement product they typically want something different, boom, you have a product cycle.

Designers don’t define the product cycle, nor do companies, nor do retail stores, nor do advertisers (though all try to influence it). In the end, the consumer decides. Sometimes the consumer decides the original product was fantastic, and you end up with 80+ years of Chuck Taylors, and sometimes they decide they want something new every 18 months and y0u end up with the cell phone market.

I agree with you in theory, and I personally do my best to try to live that way (though those new cars are tempting…), but think about the entire cycle a little more and understand a designer’s role in it. We don’t teach people how to live, they teach us how to design.

What you can effect is what YOU buy. This is what sends the message to retail and corporations on what to sell and make. If enough of us buy quality product, and keep it, retail will take notice, quickly. I’ve used this example before, but I have a Waterfall Blender from Waring and a 4 slot Dualit Toaster. They are both 5 - 10x more expensive than most other products in their category with way less features, BUT they are bullet proof. I’ll probably die before they do, and that is a clear message to Waring and Dualit to keep making them. Are you living by your creed? Are you practicing what you preach? A friend once told me to be careful who you point fingers at because they might just hold a mirror up.

My point was against planed obsolescence, not consumerism, one is the ramification of the other due to a necessity of the economic system. It needs people to consume, the more the better for it. We all consume things, food, water, O2, energy, etc. Why not do it efficiently. Like having a car that does 100mpg.

True, but in some other cases, things are made to wear out. And that is deliberate withhold of efficiency, to increase the profit margins.
It’s often assumed that if some product is made to last a life time it’s going to cost you a fortune, in some cases this is true, but in many others it’s not, like razor blades. Would it cost you much more by having a safety razor with a titanium alloy or ceramic blade, instead of just being coated with it. Its more profitable for a company to create a product that needs frequent replacement, than to make one that last forever. If we know how the market works, the companies that make the most profits are the ones leading the market.

People are now competing to figure out how to make the perfectly planned to be obsolete product. They are also flooding the market with these products and rarely do you have any alternative. I have tried to eliminate most products that use shoddy practices in their construction and quality. In order to do it I realized I would have to build most things myself because they are simply not offered. It is not in the best interest of the industry to make quality products the norm. It is far more profitable to condition us as consumers to expect less and less quality so that they can in turn sell more products to return customers. People go to stores and decide from the choices they are offered. Most consumers cannot conceive of what they want outside of the limited boundaries that our retailers and advertisers tell us exists in the first place.

I do get that as technology progresses some stuff genuinely becomes obsolete, but if we know that for certain, then why aren’t “cellphones” easily recyclable? Or why can’t I give my old phone back to the store that sold it to me to get a newer one?

I do get that the designer is only a piece of the puzzle, and there is little we can do individually, everybody as to change or else nothing really changes. The thing is that most people don’t know what to do instead or just can’t do it.

I agree with Nuno a 100%

nice discussion BTW.

I think we can all agree that our economy which relies on fast-consumerism is a dead-end road. Profitable in the short term, catastrophic in the long term. Now how can we solve this? From the perspective of a product-designer.

  • If you do create a product with a short lifecycle focus on recyclability (or even better make it C2C) and Design for dissasembly.
  • If you create a product with a longer lifecycle make it durable and repairable. And as recyclable as possible.

There must be more guidelines so please complement the list

And yes, I agree don’t preach but do. I myself try hard to live by these rules. I’m looking forward to buying the electric Kangoo by renault in some years. Meanwhile I’ll keep driving my small Fiat Panda (which I love). I try to by local food ingredients. My house is small but cossy. And I could do so much more.

I think we need to take a step back for a more sustainable economy. Not only in scale but also to what you perceive as a product.
Some famous Chinese philosopher once said. Don’t give the people fish, but learn them how to fish. There’s a great deal of truth in that saying. I believe that our profession as we know it will soon die out. People will have the tools to create them by new emerging technologies: I’m thinking 3D-printers -which will create production quality products soon- There’s printers that print plastic, some metals. combine them and the possibilities are endless. Generative Design. The computer creates lots of possible ideas/design. The user just sets constraints and picks the one he likes. And of course everything internet related…There’s more but in the end people will have all the tools to get their ideas materialized themselves. I should make a diagram of this new economy. A picture says more than a thousand words :wink:

Anyway what you say?

BTW some links:

Those are BIG acusations to make without evidence. I’ve worked for a lot of companies and never seen any evidence of this behavior. What I have seen is consumers asking for things to be less expensive, driving that demand to retail, who drives that demand to a company, who drives that demand to a factory. When things are less expensive, they are less expensively made. I believe your grandma might have called it they “you pay for what you get” scenario.

That is a cop out. Information is a click away, people just need to want to get it. Did you watch “Who killed the electric car?” Great movie, and it details the short sighted thinking on the part of a company who thought it was make the best decisions, and also showed in the end, the consumer had no idea what the EV1 even was.

So the customer is always right?

Can we restrict his choices then? So there is no bad choice?

I do agree about what you say. The customer is your endboss, judge and maybe executor.
But there’s also this: " If I asked people what they wanted. They would say: a extra horse" a quote by some Ford-guy :wink:

Actually it was a faster horse.

But Henry did not restrict the customer from buying horses! Do you see the difference in thinking? He provided a better option, paid for the design, development and manufacture of that advancement, and brought it to people in a way that they understood it was better. In the end, THEY chose the car over the horse.

Thanx for correcting the quote :wink:

Whether or not the car is a good invention is discussable. I’m sure a lot of horse-selling dudes went broke :wink: But it did change the world and yes it was the customers who made this revolution happen.
But again here’s my point. Shouldn’t we strive to products who are better in every way than it’s predecessor? For the end consumer, the factory-worker and the environment. It’s not that this is an impossible task. Someone mentioned some post earlier where companies are deliberately stalling innovation. I can assure you that I’ve had many projects where this was the fact. Either because they thought it was to risky or because they felt they where gonna miss some profits on potential less-innovative products. The response I got from a big-company client really says it all: “Yes, that’s it I love it! Superb Idea! The ultimate! Fantastic! ding dong bells…!!!” after which he continues: “But we’ll do this in 10years so can you create me some intermediate products?”. :open_mouth:

Anyway I think we can add another rule to the above list:

  • The customer is always right


Love the way this discussion is going…many valid points are made :wink: thx

OK, I’m not saying that everyone does it, or that it is always deliberate, it can also be consequential, as you point out, people want cheap stuff, and this usually means that that stuff is going to fail sooner, due to poor materials or design.

It’s hard to find good proof of this stuff as you can figure out why, but the EV1 is a good example. GM did all it could to keep the EV1 off the marker because it offered little to no after market profits, compared to regular combustion engine cars. People pressured GM into making and selling them, and it changed nothing. They were deliberately made obsolete.
The fashion industry is also an example of planed obsolescence. How many of those old rags do we still wear?

It’s impossible to know everything about everything we consume. So the blame can’t fall on the consumer. He will naturally be unaware of the full consequences of his choices. You can’t blame companies either, they have to sell stuff to sustain them selfs, so in the end their main goal is to cash in, not to give the consumer total satisfaction. And this is where the problem lies, the priority that is given to profit. You can only be ethical in society if you can afford to.

The fashion industry is a perfect example of how the consumer drives these things.

GM didn’t do all it could to block the EV1, they made them! And not because of consumer pressure, it turns out, aside from the small quantity of lease holders, the general public didn’t care! The company became confused as to which way to go, one faction wanting to keep developing it, one faction wanting to shut the program down. A decision was made, and again, aside from the small amount of people who actually new about the vehicle, no one took note.

I’d hope today that wouldn’t happen, at least in the auto sector.

Your intentions are good, but I think there are a lot of complex levels to these things. It is not ideal. Tricky stuff to navigate. In the end the people at these companies are just trying to deliver products that people will want based on really their best educated guess as to what those wants will be 2 years from now. If people outright demanded, I mean really demanded that cars were not gas powered, it would happen fast. In mass, people hold all the key.

Check out this store:

All they sell is timeless products, founded by two fashion industry veterans who got tired of the grist mill.

I guess it is as much driving as it is being driven. No one is to blame as i said, it’s a consequence of the economic system. It needs to be this way.

No one took note of the EV1 because GM didn’t want to. Former EV1 lessees accused GM of self-sabotaging its electric car program due to its then-unprofitability, while also blaming the oil industry for conspiring to keep electric cars off the road. Profit priority for big oil, means no electric cars for you.

Like Yo, I’ve been doing this a while and have yet to see anyone “plan obsolescence.”

FYI, > “Planned Obsolescence” was the title of a speech that (Industrial Designer) Brooks Stevens gave at a 1954 advertising conference. The popular meaning of the term, thanks to cultural critic Vance Packard’s bestselling 1960 book “The Waste Makers”, was the manufacture of products that had been pre-planned to be non-functional after a period of time or product usage. To Stevens, planned obsolescence was a more benign concept of consumerism, where consumers merely desire “to own something a little newer, a little better, and a little sooner than necessary.” Stevens looked upon “obsolete” products as those being sold to a second-hand market not dumped straight into a trash heap as was Packard’s strong insinuation.

So Brooks is saying it’s a desire…albeit one first capitalized by Industry in their desire to dig themselves out of the great depression.

I guess things are a bit mixed up.
As far as i know there are 4 types of planed obsolescence.

Technical of functional - when new technology makes the old one unusable or when a mechanism is deliberately engineered to last a certain amount of time or uses.
Systemic - alter the system do discourage the use of the product.
Consequential - due to use of poor materials or design.
Perceived/Style - through engineering of consent, false notification, consumer persuasion, to believe it is so.

Usually engineers are the ones that take care of this kind of stuff because it has to be well calculated.
Planned obsolescence tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly. Competition can prevent it from happening. While it is rather unethical, the practice actually makes good business sense.

Evil Corporate America or Smart business?

Any examples you can give on this “planned obsolescence” theory?..sounds a bit conspiracy theory like in line with the Zeitgeist content links in your sig… I’m with Yo, that I believe there is no corporate conspiracy to make things obsolete, rather that consumer demand for product/functionality/price dictate the products that are produced and that the choices are largely driven by consumer demand and that we all can make educated choices if we want.

While in some cases (on paper) you could figure that a product becoming obsolete would dictate a good business model, like you mention (re: oligopolies) the case for this rarely occurs and without choice and quality the poor quality I would think would more tend to backfire in terms of consumer support than be served by people buying new stuff from the same brand that produced a failing product. There are very few companies (even less so in the business of consumer products) that I can think of that would have a monopoly or oligopoly in place to make any such strategy even close to feasible from a business and competitiveness perspective…


This is a question of psychology, not conspiracy.

Conspicuous consumption is an evolutionary trait. Like physical beauty, it signals the resources necessary to successfully parent and therefore pass on genetic information. Would you date someone who didn’t own anything newer than 1970? Why not?

Would the compulsion be satisfied without designers and industry to fuel it? I’d say yes–take away fashion or products, and people will find other ways to ‘decorate’ themselves, even if all they’ve got left are haircuts and tattoos.

If there is no planned obsolence why do car-brands change the look of their product-range every 2-3years? Same cars just new looks. The same goes with cellphones, kitchen appliances, furniture etc… I mean some people are now changing their interior every year because it’s ‘out of fashion’. All perfectly fine products being replaced way to soon. And that bothers me a lot. If a product will only last for several years because of it’s looks (fashion/trends) then make it so that they will break down but also make sure easily disassembled and recycled. Again I would have no problem with ‘fast consumerism’ if the products where perceived according to Cradle-2-cradle methodology. I’m not saying we (productdesigners) can change the economy or the system. But we are part of it and therefore can alter it (even a little bit).
Again what if the consumer can’t buy a ‘bad product’? yes that is market restriction. But think about it. The economy itself doesn’t have to change.

We create ‘good’ products meaning:

  • Created by the cradle-2-cradle rules
  • Designed for disassembly and easily re-(up)cyclable
  • Locally manufactured

The products offered will still be as good or better as the current products on the market. But will do no harm to our environment are economy. Even if there’s planned obselence than I wouldn’t care because the broken product wouldn’t be reduced to waste. It would be reincarnated in another product.
And that is something we can do. I know I’m repeating myself…over and over :wink:
But if only enough productdesigner would live by some holly rules. They could really change the system.
Maybe we should write a charter or manifest :wink:
I would sign it.



Because sales start to slump and market share shifts to competitors who release new products.

Have yo ever worked directly for a corporation by chance?

Anyone can sign something. That is easy. If you are truly passionate about it, write it, OR, even better, don’t write it, instead DO IT. But don’t force your thoughts on others. Lead by example instead of forcing others. That path, no matter how well intentioned, has never lead anywhere good.