designers as CONSUMERS...

When you, a designer, go out to buy a product, do you feel your choice is more based on aesthetics than the average consumer? Think of items such as cameras, cell phones, cars, furniture, even houses that you may have recently purchased. I find many of my non designer friends hardly care how many products look, theyre more concerned with “if it works” and if it does, then it’s good for them. All through my life I’ve always loved the “cool looking gadgets”, even since I was a young child. And many years later I find myself wanting to design those such products that I’ve always simply loved the look of. My question is, what kind of a consumer are you? Of course the item has to be functional, but let’s be honest. Have you ever had to decide between two products, one being a more functional one, the other being more aestheticly pleasing, and chosen the better looking one? Do you think that we as designers do that more often than the regular population? I’m just curious to see your thoughts…


I’m a student, so price is a big issue. However I have learnt to appreciate good designs and wish I have the money to buy them.

Such as:

I really would buy this, but since I already have 2 working alarms, I don’t want to spend that money.

I think good design really speaks for itself, not just aestheic wise. For eg., the watch I am wearing is an 8 years old casio electronic watch. I never had a problem and it works well. That is not only a good design, but also a good product.

After a while you start to realize that the markup on ‘design-er’ products isn’t worth it and that their reduced functionality is also just a sign of BAD design.
Cool looking should be able to compete against similar products in terms of function and features too. Unfortunately you are right in that a number of cool looking products lack basic features or are way up in the price range (BMW, B&O, etc)

After you’ve designed a few products (or gain some experience in the field) the aesthetic aspects you start to notice are all in the details, you start going “nnnice resolution of form, clever parting line and quality overmolding. what an intuitive interface…”

I really, really wanted this player (mp3, cool looking, neat joystick toggle, interesting antenna cap,etc) but after checking out the list of feature it’s missing (no remote, no clock, no sound settings, etc) the extra cost for looks was not woth the premium.

Recently, I’ve been meditating on this subject. I thought that I was a consumer of good design, but I’ve changed that opinion recently. I am a materialist. I love material and I hate the junk that it is often turned into. My favourite products are blank reams of quality paper, worn yellowing books and my Sony shortwave radio. I love holding all of these things in my hands. It feels like I have a spiritual connection with whoever designed them. It’s a very personal reaction.

Since it is difficult to describe why I like paper so much, I’ll talk more about my radio. The aesthetics are rather average in my opinion. The interface gets 4 out of 5 from me. From my design standards they product is only average really. But, when I hold it, that changes. I notice how well the plastic molding is done. How tight and consistent the part lines fit. How the colour of the metal mesh over the speaker very closely matches the injection molded ABS just next to it. When I shake the radio it is like shaking a rock. There are no rattles. When I drop the radio from my desk (on accident) no battery cover flies off, no parts break…the colour barly gets scratched! Whoever the hell was the project manager on this product loved radio technology…that’s obvious! It’s those things that I look for in a product.

I’m surprised to find the mp3-cd-radio thing pictured above is by Sony. First impressions made me think maybe Philips.

It’s not just the aesthetics, but as suggested above the details of the product. Also thinking not exactly about how the thing looks, but the whole package of details that are not exactly part of the functional or traditional usability:

  • how the product feels to hold
  • how does it fit in the hands?
  • tactility of the materials or coatings used
  • interesting transitions between curves and lines or between different materials or parts
  • interesting use of materials in general
  • interesting use of geometry in the form
  • generally challenging or slightly poking fun at the boundaries of normal for products (and getting away with it)
  • does it encourage me to pick it up and hold it and interact with it
  • how does it sound…? ‘psychoacoustics’ - does it sounds like it looks like it should, or completely the opposite or whatever?
  • sound as an indicator of quality
  • acoustic feedback from certain actions or interactions
  • tactile and visual feedback
  • intuitiveness or encouraging playful interaction in learning how to use it - elements of discovery and learning over and above the initial functions
  • does it have ‘character’?
  • does it seem to be designed with respect to sustainablity, or not using more material than is necessary, or designed for disassembly or…?

…ah I could go on forever. But it is about sooooo much more than function.

This is something I am very interested in, possibly because I am still young and idealistic. :unamused:

To what extent do non-designers consider other aspects of products as equal to or above functionality and usability?
If you choose a product based on non-functional aspects, how long before you wish you’d bought the one that actually had all the functions you wanted?
What non-functional aspects might constitute part of the ‘wow-factor’ or ‘x-factor’ sometimes referred to in product reviews…?

People have very different ways of assessing their material environment, and much of it is cultural and geographical. The closer your product is to being a commodity (i.e. yet another chair, yet another me-too portable CD player) the more price itself becomes the “wow” factor, and often the ONLY factor.

To overcome this, manufacturers and designers must transcend traditional and static product definitions continuously redefining not just, superficially, esthetics and the permutations of a limited common range of features, but repeatedly reinvent the product and re-question its environment before, during and after it useful lifetime.

Thinking out of the box should not be a difficult occasional exercise as it now is in most corporations, but a way of life. Attention spans today are shorter than ever and time a much higher valued commodity than money, being in limited supply during one’s lifetime. And yet manufacturers keep churning out irrelevant kitsch like the radio and the alarm clock above. If you find this “good” design (and that’s sad) it’s likely because you’re only starting out as designers and are comparing these items to less amorphous forms you consider “bad” design for some reason. Yet the 2 items above are as conventional and staid in their approach to their specific functions as any radios and alarm clocks built over the last 50 years. Form itself does not push the envelope for a product category. This is lowest common denominator “design” made to sell more of the same. And guess what, many “consumers” (makes people sound like a herd of dumb sheep) are starting to catch on and realize the hollow shell most consumer product design is today.

As buyers become more educated they come to appreciate the investment of 2 essential qualities in any product, sensibility and inteligence, much as one is attracted to other people sharing these traits. Man-made products have always reflected their creators since the most ancient times. Antique art museums contain items still speaking to us today thousands of years after their originators have gone, while most of what is being produced today gets discarded in weeks or months never to be seen again. When you consider almost no object today is saved for a lifetime by its owner, you can start understanding why the “wow” factor nowadays only needs to last the seconds an impulse buy takes. Corporations then can mass-produce this type of low-brow design with rock-bottom emotional and intelectual quotient and still prosper while designers beg them to be let ply their trade.

Design schools teach corporatist esthetics for the business world and the glossy magazines crowd concerned more with cool than the less glamorous hard reality. Schools rarely encourage a more individualistic, non-conventional approach to creating products for people, which should be a designer’s first and most sacred mission. It is not “consumers” that need to be educated into “appreciating” design more but designers themselves into scratching more than a product’s skin and providing more generously for the daily needs and desires of ordinary people.

Otherwise much product design risks becoming to the general public either like most contemporary art or an endless provider for the garage sales and flea markets of the world.

Wow, Egg, you nailed it! Completely agree with above statement. Couldn’t have said it better.

industrial logistic architecture(ILA) will play an even more important role in design than form and function because it’s vital to have it in every level of design and production. designers are not trained to understand coordination in supply chain.
most of the knowledge comes from manufacturing principals in military because it’s a fast paced manufacturing industry compared to commercial business.
companies like boeing or lockheed martin have to deal with it everyday but when you get to less rigid manufacturing in big automobile companies you see a transition from manufacturing to form because it’s essential for them to focus on brand and style.
so by the time you get to consumer products that aspect of design starts to vanish and industrial designers will never bother understanding it. this in turn makes the designers sway away from methodology and seek other alternatives more important in their mind to their survival such as innovative concept development.
however in the big picture innovation plays a partial role.

My first comment tried to describe the kind of products that I like, but it seems this thread has developed into a more general discussion of consumerism.

I think obsolescence can be a force for good. Today, as Egg point out, it is often used to merely re-skin fundamentally average designs to get more life out of existing product architectures. But to demote a product for having a short life-span I think is jumping the gun. We live in a changing world, and we too are indeed in a constant state of changing, both mentally and physically. We need and want an ever-changing array of products and designs.

The key with obsolescence is closing the product life-cycle gap. If we look at nature we see a wide variety of life-spans in animals and plants. A saguaro cactus can live to 500 years old, but a fruit fly lives only a week. I don’t think any of us would say the fruit fly is a huge waste of global organic resources, because it is re-consumed at the end of its life by the environment. We need to learn to re-consume our products in the same fashion.

Closing the life-cycle does not mean 6 month product development cycles for everything. Products which are changing slowly can be re-used, like furniture. Products which are changing more quickly can be re-fitted, re-used or recycled (computers - we can upgrade them, give them to a family which doesn’t have one or we can recycle the component materials).

How do we get to this? I don’t know. I always tell everyone around me that is involved at a level of development to simply make themselves aware of impact of their products and push to have that impact recorded. Surprisingly at companies that are trying to be sustainable the process often starts off as merely an accounting of their environmental impact. After that the corporate mind starts taking that impact into account.

“We need and want an ever-changing array of products and designs.”

I and many millions trapped in the endless earn-and-spend merry-go-round run by global corporate interests and their overfed media puppets strongly disagree with your irresponsible statement and abhor the negative consequences and horrendous impact on society of the consumerist way of life that equates spending power with happiness.

Yet the gamble has worked. When some designers themselves start agreeing that anyone in the obscenely wealthy Western hemisphere actually NEEDS more of anything (a way of saying “more of the same”) the war on waste has been lost. The issue now, some here say, is not that we overconsume but we don’t reuse properly. The issue is not that we are becoming obese but that we don’t reingurgitate our own feces.

No one can blame designers trained to produce taking the side of the (dirty) hand that feeds them, after all the profession of the “un-designer” has not been invented yet. Imagine getting paid for actually trimming down a company’s product line!

Responsible consumerism, an oxymoron if there ever was one, is a pipe dream of deluded designers having bought mindlessly into the cruel hoax the industrial design profession has become, i.e. an obedient spineless servant to that other overpaid “science” - marketing. Design has stopped being an independent force for positive social change many decades ago and is just sliding helplessly into being an irrelevant marginal intelectual exercise and yet another sales tool.

The current system thrives on waste, design mediocrity and consumer debt, it is naturally allergic to large-scale product recycling that could jeopardize its very existence. What’s more, it’s got us so well trained the more we buy the more we WANT. And the less we truly NEED. But it is fabricated needs paying most designers’ salaries, so we better hush up about it, our bosses may detect a revolution in the making down here…

You bring up some very good points Egg, ones which we as designers should always keep in mind. I’d like to comment on a few of them as I’ve spent some time to ponder them as well.

To begin, there is the issue of living in a society which damages its environment through over-consumption. I totally agree with you that at humanity’s current rate we will either run out of resources or destroy the planet in short order. This is mostly due to the societies which inhabit the “obscenely wealthy Western hemisphere”. However, I would like you to consider the immediate alternatives, soviet style communism or a return to nature. I don’t feel that either would be beneficial or widely accepted.

Communism was proven to be even more wasteful than capatilism. That is because there was no customer driven reason to improve. If you look at the soviet industry before its collapse you will see horribly polluting factories producing junky products which often times were also horribly polluting. Our society, albeit slowly, encourages (Honda Insight) and forces (EPA) industry to lessen its impact on our environment.

A return to nature isn’t acceptable to me, and probably not 99% of the population. It’s so safe and fun to live in developed society and I feel fortunate to be part of that.

As with all things there is a third way, you yourself even allude to it:

“The issue now, some here say, is not that we overconsume but we don’t reuse properly.”

I feel that we, as citizens, need to demand that our governments and companies continue to lessen their impact on our environment. Part of this is through re-use of products. Other opportunities exist in renewable energy, recycling, and creating products with longer life cycles. Of course, all of this is dependent on producing yet more products!

That is part of the reason I said, “we need and want more products and designs”. The other part is that design and engineering is always improving. I think everyone wants a new medical device which can save lives, even if its production puts a ton of CO2 in the air and contains hazardous unrecyclable materials. Also, some of us would love to have a more ergonomic keyboard which would make our typing faster and more comfortable. That is what design is to me.

My last response was one based on looking at historical trends and attempting to use logic, but I want to add a bit of a philosophical slant as well directed towards Egg.

Consciousness is a trouble shooting device. It can only concentrate on one thing at a time. I think this is what you are doing looking at the environmental or economic impact of consumerism. And when one does that one find an awful turmoil, that is what our brains are designed to find. It is only human to attempt to alert others to this awaiting disaster and try to avert it. I would argue though that we should not try. Dr. Oppenheimer once said, “The whole world is going to hell, and the only possible way to avoid it is to stop trying to.” It is almost funny that since the 1960’s when environmentalism became very widespread, that it seems we are even closer to disaster today. There is a tendency that as humanity tries to correct things, we screw them up even more.

So don’t worry Egg. The more you worry the worse this will all get. hehe. This also fits into what I argued in one of my posts in the Green forum…that is we shouldn’t push industry to ACT to change, but rather just for them to account for their impact. See if we ask industry to change, I’m sure they will only pollute more, just in a different way.

Lastly, for those ultra-libertarians that will try to align me with them…please don’t take this argument too seriously. It is just a philosophical case against do-gooding.

Thanks for your time, Mr-914. Sad to note so many others peering in but not daring to join our private chat here. And we were talking of the courage to act on one’s beliefs?

I’m beyond worrying about green design (most of which has been an abject failure anyway, as agenda-driven creative drives often are) and saving the world at this stage in my life.

I read somewhere closing your eyes in the face of imminent drowning makes it easier to accept death instead of gasping for air.

Just a wandering thought…

Poor little egg! It’s not that bad. There are a lot of initiatives out there and people with initiative and corportations which will make efforts–if for no other reason than to look good.

In the last several months I’ve been feeling alot more confident about green design making an impact as well as consumerism being under fire in general.

I work with a lot of really conservative people and it’s funny to listen to them be affected by what’s going on. For instance several coworkers love to eat at McDonalds and know it’s bad for them. Then the documentary where the guy eats at McD’s everyday for a month and nearly died started being a topic of conversation. Well, now I am seeing fewer trips to you know where.

Although, I’d probably let go while drowning too. kidding!

great responses…I hadnt been at my computer long enough since I posted this to read any until now…I’m still workin my way through all the posts!