Is desgn becoming disposable?

Just like hit music is no longer something you live or die for, but something you bump asses to in a club, movies are disposable. And we suffer for it. Because when something is truly great, it’s transcendent.

I just read that referencing the Oscar’s last night.

It’s no big surprise that I don’t like any kind of trendy “design”. Things like vibrators designed by men, the thousands of chairs every year, inflatable this or that, hubless wheel bicycles, etc. All of this stuff is, essentially, land fill stuffing made by people who are supposed to be smart enough to realize the damage it causes and sensitive enough to care.

I suppose that all of this trite “design” has always existed, but it feels like with low-cost manufacturing and the trend of being a creative has multiplied this ten fold.

I’d like to know if others feel that this is hurting our profession. Similar to cheap dance music and shallow film making, is it devaluing the truly meaningful and useful work that we do?

There has been lots of bad, disposable design for a long time, maybe there is more now but it’s not becoming disposable, it is disposable. We live in an IKEA world. BUT, I don’t think it devalues good design, in fact it makes good design that much better. I also feel like more people today value good design, and care about it more then ever which is why certain companies right now are able to sustain sales even in a bad economy. And other major companies have been forced to get better (GM for instance) because average quality, and average products don’t cut it anymore.

And as far as music and movies, there is a lot of great movies and great music, and a lot of crap. I think every generation thinks “today’s music” is crap.

To the original subject of movies, there have always been disposable movies produced as a staple of the industry. Consumption of which is to fill seats. The directors aiming for truly great are far fewer. To hit transcendent, rare.

Same for design, no change, we are simply aware of more now.

I think it boils down to what the individual perceives as good design. By indvidual I mean the variation between the brand the consumer and the designer.

We have always been in a built for now ‘era’, we are in a capitialist culture and it’s human nature (keeping up with the jones’s) we always want the newer and better device. I would argue that we are teetering on the edge and actually now is the time to make a push to come ot of it, partly due to the kick up the backside attributed to the global recession.

For me the devaluation of design is actually coming from a different angle rather than the traditional cheap knock off point of view. Lately I’ve become increasingly annoyed at the miss representation of the monetary valuation of design with specific reference to "oh this has been ‘designed’ so I’m going to slap an extra 10-20% on my profit margins by hiking up the RRP. Now i’m aware this has been always been around and could be associated more with the furniture (don’t get me started on IKEA most of their larger items of furniture are horrendously overpriced) and fashion industry but it is starting to creep into the FMCG arena. This is compounded by the sudden increase in “celeb” front of house representation of the brand. It is this type of design that imo is having a negative impact on design : CES is 75% design hell imo.

Is this damaging to the industry… I would say no as consumers are equipped better than ever to discriminate through the week and the chaff.

To compare to the film industry (now this is going to be incredibly subjective) it is like Avatar. The special effects were great and amazing but the story line was pants and lacked the fundamental ingredient of a film… a good story, but it wont be a classic or something that is watched over and over again.

I totally agree with this. While there were lots of crap produced before, it has now become epidemic.
I think it`s because everyday items are nowadays regarded as more and more disposable. Items like phones, cars, tvs, etc are becoming more like fashion objects, something you replace more frequently as soon as a new more trendy one comes out.

Good design should be about getting down to the essence of a product being the exact way it should be. This means it shouldn’t be ‘afflicted’ with style, but be the exact form that it needs to be for its particular use and communicate the exact visual language it needs. Theoretically that should result in timeless design.
The problem is, most consumers are not educated enough to realise this, some wont even care, and they all have different tastes and budgets. Throw into that equation fashion, trends, marketing and everything else that influences a purchase and you can see it’s going to be a pretty difficult mess to untangle, and I don’t think it’s possible to even do so.

We have different products for different people. If crap sells then crap will be made. The problem is in educating consumers - with ‘design’ as a label gaining popularity then it might not have the desired effect, but as clam says it will better equip those consumers (that care) with a little more knowledge and they might even be prepared to pay a premium for what they perceive as ‘good design’.
Those that don’t care will always buy into false economy and keep the crap coming.

I don’t think designers, or even film makers will suffer for the amount of junk being put out there, a good film is still a good film. A piece of good design is still a piece of good design, and they will succeed. The worrying thing is the earth and its finite resources struggling to support this production.

What do you mean with becoming disposable? It already is. Companies like H&M or Tchibo ( educated the crackbrained customer to buy stuff they don’t need and that lasts a blink of an eye because there are these trendy flowers printed on it.
Customers don’t care about quality details anymore and if they do, then with long obsolete images in mind and run straight into the next rip-off. Designers and manufacturers know for ages what these customers are looking for and simply add these features to their most expensive products only. Example: customers believe that a frontloader washing machine can only be a high quality one if the porthole has a chromium finish :open_mouth:


Please tell me a time when it wasn’t. All civilizations had landfills. Just because you only see the good stuff in textbooks doesn’t mean there wasn’t crap back in the day.

Lots of hyperbole here, but little in the way of evidence.

Are we making more disposable things today? Are we making more things that last a long time or are collectible? It’s easy to point out IKEA examples and H&M but for every one of those you could just as likely find a B&O or Dior…

I’d argue that most likely we are probably becoming less disposable. In our parent’s or grandparent’s day, people had much less things and kept them a lot shorter period of time. If you moved, chances are you’d just bring a suitcase, not all your stuff. It was less disposable because of trends perhaps, but because of function. Things didn’t last as long, and while they could get repaired, you’d couldn’t always afford to do so, so it went into the trash.

We probably also have far more “high end” objects that are very expensive and people buy and keep than ever. I don’t think 50 years ago someone could ever think of buying a “limited edition” pair of sneakers for $800 that would sit in a box forever. Shoes were to be worn and tossed.

Unless we can look at some data here, I think all these anecdotes aren’t worth much.


To my eye and anecdotal knowledge of the “past”, it seems like there’s just a bigger range of quality of design, functionality, cost…There’s ultra low end all the way through to ultra high end; for every single product category imaginable. Historically you may have had a few choices, all reasonably similar in quality and cost, and you just picked one. There’s definitely a lot of junk out there, probably more than there ever has been, but there’s also a lot more quality.

I think the irony with today’s hyper diverse market, is that along with the super low end, it’s the super high end that also becomes in a way, disposable. Couture Dior thats get worn down a red carpet one time is basically trash after that. It’s single use clothing. The latest 92" 3D TV costs a fortune at launch but gets sold or traded when something a little better is released. Most people end up settling for something in the middle.

Brett: I think you are on to something about the increasing disposability of luxury products. I’ll have to try to factor that into the equation. Interesting thing that I saw last weekend when I was looking at some car auction results with my dad: Bugatti Veyrons are going for $800k. Asking price was $1.6 mil. Wow!

Disposable design: When I said disposable, I didn’t mean the commodity. We have had throw-away products forever. I’m referring to what design brings to a product. I’m talking about completely vacant concepts like this being called design:


What does this have to do with movies and music: There is great movies and music being made today, however it isn’t being marketed. Even if it were, I don’t know if people would respond, because by now, people have learned that Hollywood makes throw-away films (recycled plots & ideas) and the music companies just rotate the same recycled tunes. People have learned to spend $.99 on a track because they’ve learned that the albums that are being made aren’t worth $18.00, or even $12.00.

My worry is that design might be boiled down the same way. For the most part, people are willing to spend a little extra to get a well-designed product. However, if the idea of design gets watered down to just another marketing term, they probably won’t. Of course, the public educating themselves can avoid this to a certain extent, but it’s getting harder.

Public’s ability to appreciate design: I think this has never been higher. Look at how successful Apple is. Having said that, I think most people think that their products are good because they are Apple and not that they have motivated designers who have the opportunity to bring their best concepts all the way to production.

I think what H&M and Ikea are doing is partially good. They are selling nice looking product at a low price. That’s better than the alternative of people buying horrible looking product from Wal-Mart or wherever else people find the really tasteless stuff.

According to this New York Times article from last weekend, people are actually holding on to their products longer than before:

I hope this tendency will also lead consumers to have higher expectations regarding usability, durability and quality.

Cycles man, behaviors run in cycles.

Reminds me of the old piece of “common knowledge” (which is the most inaccurate kind of knowledge) “they don’t build them like the used to” which is typically applied to architecture or cars. Of course this is gross romanticization as most of the architecture of any period is utter crap, but it doesn’t survive so it is forgotten. While the few examples of true value are loved, cherished, maintained, and preserved so we think every home in the 1700’s was a beautiful center hall colonial, when they surely were not.

We have some products, such as say your iPhone, which have a technology life of about 18 months, some people keep them longer, but most want the latest amount of g’s or whatever new feature. This relatively short lifespan product is made out of glass and metal. Now take your toaster. It is never going to need an upgrade ever, yet it is most likely a plastic housing with the thinnest parts possible with a toast popper mechanism that will wear out after x many uses… Seems like it should be the other way around. The toaster should be a tank and last forever. Even if it costs double, avoiding the energy expenditure to ever manufacture, distribute and sell replacements is surely worth it. While the phone, which will continue to go through radical change in the next decade, should be engineered to break up like a F1 car on impact.

Reminds me of the old piece of “common knowledge” (which is the most inaccurate kind of knowledge) “they don’t build them like the used to” which is typically applied to architecture or cars. Of course this is gross romanticization as most of the architecture of any period is utter crap, but it doesn’t survive so it is forgotten. While the few examples of true value are loved, cherished, maintained, and preserved so we think every home in the 1700’s was a beautiful center hall colonial, when they surely were not.

YO: I am often guilty of this. That’s why I made the post. I wanted to stick my toe in the water and see what the temperature really was.

I think this logic is driven by narcisism and creating positive self image. Phones have become status symbols like watches and expensive cars. Most people are willing to spend a lot more for an item they can show off than for something that sits in the kitchen or laundry room. Fashion industry is very similar, products with very short lifespan (clothes) are often very expensive and waste material. Yet people buy them without thinking twice… But when you buy a fridge or a dishwasher that lasts you 10+ years, you`re suddenly counting every cent.

So its simply answering the markets demands.

I think it happens to all of us… sorry for all of the typos… that was posted on an iPhone :wink:

I hate being ahead of a trend…just read this article on the Guardian website that reminded me of this thread:

“Designs for life won’t make you living”

Yes, we are making too much junk:

These days, there is so much emerging talent that companies flit from one hot young designer to the next on a yearly basis. In the fashion-driven novelties market, product cycles are becoming shorter and shorter – another reason why the royalty system (the designer gets 3% of the wholesale price) doesn’t pay off. Eero Saarinen, designer of the classic Tulip chairs for Knoll in the 1950s, made only five chairs in his career, and all are still in production. The Munich-based superstar Konstantin Grcic can boast that many this year alone (if you include a stool and a sofa).

And, yes, it is hurting our profession:

In the endless exhibition halls at the Rho fairgrounds, 2,700 furniture brands exhibited their wares over half a million square metres. Many of these lamps, chairs and tables are prototypes produced by designers for free in the hope they will make their money back in royalties. Only the lucky few ever do. I spoke to one young designer who has five items in production with a respected Italian manufacturer – no small achievement. “My royalty cheque last year came to €600,” he said. “Half a month’s rent.”

Now, the question is, what can we do? Personally, I think that we need to stand up for our value. We should encourage young designers to not accept these conditions & help them.

I’ve recently changed my avatar to a luddite breaking a weaving machine. Perhaps our profession needs to do a little “creative destruction” to move on. We’ve built up these luxury salons around the theory of a few strong personalities. Can we build something around the ideas of design process, consideration for the environment and users?

Mind you, I’m a lowly designer working in Montreal (design equivalent to BFE, in spite of whatever international award the city may be awarded this year). However, I don’t work for free and I make enough to pay my rent. I kind of feel the same way about this as I do when I see a footballer get injured. No matter how much I care, I am on the outside of this tragedy. However, as John Donne wrote:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Are we romantically dreaming of the satisfaction “designers” received when things evolved based on need, vs, “something to sell” ?

That didn’t come out right … are we longing for that warm, fuzzy, “craftsman” experience of supplying people with low(er)-volume, quality, lasting, objects that are actually “needed” instead of simply “wanted” ?

I think so.

I am troubled by the devaluing of the word 'design’. I find myself now being somewhat embarrassed to be called a designer. In fact I prefer the German term, Gestalt-Ingenieur. Ever fewer people appear to understand that design is a serious profession; and for our future welfare we need more companies to take that profession seriously.

Glad to know that I’m not alone.

I know I’m 1000% in this boat.