What happens when Design gets easier?

I have been thinking about this article all day:

“Are foodies quietly killing rock-and-roll?”

It states the internet has turned music into a digital commodity, has removed it’s value, and in doing so lessened it’s cultural status. Food culture at the same time has exploded, and is filling the cultural and economic hole left behind.

I’ve been thinking about it in terms of product design and branding and self-identification. Why is it OK to identify with culture, but commercial identification is seen as crass? Can a product or brand do what music and food seem to be able to do naturally? Is this an inevitable result of technology making something easier?

Sorry for the essay questions, but I keep on thinking about the implications this has for product design.

Sanjy: Interesting.

I think the music industry is actually changing because of the democratization of the tools of distribution. It’s not become a commodity. It’s actually fractured into a million different tiny slivers that don’t need to talk to one another.

This same process has happened in politics and to some extent TV. When there were only 3 organizations capable of distributing information or music, the agenda was widely known and accepted. Now, anybody inspired has a soap box to stand up on.

In a similar way, it seems that this is happening in design. It used to be that one needed to build a factory to build their product. Now, we can find 100 factories in any Chinese town that will quote on making our product with higher quality and at a lower price than we could in our own factory. So every designer, entrepreneur or hustler can get their product made. Today, we’ve lost any big universal trend in design and replaced it with 100 trends in parallel.

Because of these every increasingly precise trends, I feel as though certain populations have already bought into design as cultural status. I’m thinking of the hacker-aesthetic, steam-punk, Apple and things like that. Think of the importance that some people place on their iPhone and how excited they get about the next Mac Convention. It’s exactly the kind of enthusiasm that Led Zeppelin used to enjoy.

On the other side of the coin, it is crass. I just read this week that Abercrombie burns its clothing instead of donating or discounting it. All over the US, banks are destroying foreclosed homes in order to increase the value of their other foreclosed homes. Farmers burn massive amounts of good food that have an aesthetic defect. Our society has become so successful that the only way we can continue it is by systematically destroying the surplus.

Except for some Gordon Gecko types, money is not the root of all good. Although lately I think there are more and more placing value on money, but that just may be my keep-off-my-lawn-old-man rage. Food and music hit people on a emotional/spiritual level. That rings true while money is just money.

I think it is much more difficult for a product. I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to why music and food can affect people so profoundly. All I know is that the most revered products, fine art, does not get the same response. Maybe it is a senses thing. Maybe it is an experience thing. But people in general react much stronger at a restaurant or concert than they do at a museum. Ask someone if they would give up grandma’s cookies or their iphone.

I think technology does the opposite and makes things more viable. Other than hip-hop, popular music hasn’t changed much since the 70s. Since then, technology has enable musicians to create new sounds, creating some value, but other than that, I haven’t heard a significant change in a long time. I’d say that is more of a reason for decline than anything else.

And technology is precisely why food is booming. The information to bring tastes from across the globe are at your fingertips. You can combine them in any way you wish. You no longer need to travel to someplace to taste a particular flavor. Modern distribution has brought the building blocks to your front step.

Culture speaks to emotions. People grow up, live, and exist in culture throughout their lives. Identifying with it allows something to evoke emotions and memories (both good and bad) within a person.

This is kinda along the same lines. Both music and food naturally appeal to people’s senses (and thus their emotions), but on a much deeper level than a product. Yes, a product can still evoke those emotions in a user, but because they are through different senses (typically sight and touch; I am including texture of food in with taste) it will not be reaching as deep as music and food.

I would say technology is making more accessible, not necessarily easier. Things are becoming more and more open-sourced. And like have access to supplies, manufacturers, etc. right at our finger tips, we also now have more ways to learn design (or anything for that matter). Yes, this will lead to more less than or average “designers”, as it has musicians, but it will also bring about views, input, and possibilities that probably wouldn’t be seen if these kinds of things weren’t accessible.

Virtually everybody on earth regularly cooks a meal, and virtually everybody sings a song, or hums a tune. Food and music are the two forms of creation that are shared universally throughout humanity. You could drop yourself anywhere on the globe, and start a conversation about food or music with the first person you encountered. If you compare that to the number of people who have personally built a house or chair, or sewn a pair of pants, it’s not even close.

I don’t know how that really relates to the original question, but I think there’s something there. People can form strong emotional bonds even with awful, industrialized food and music if it’s something they were exposed to at an early age. Just look at all the people who got misty over the demise of Twinkies.

Good point, but I was looking at it from the point of view of how easy ‘digitalisation’ has made accessing things. When I was a kid, to find out about new music meant buying NME’s that were 2 months old (I couldn’t afford the air freighted ones), listening to the one show on the one radio station that played music I liked, looking through stacks of second hand records and reading the liner notes etc. etc. Hard work for any committed band t-shirt wearing music nerd. Now anyone can type type type into their phone while on the toilet and have access to the entire works of everyone. Unbelievable, fantastic, wonderful, but lowers the cost of obtaining the item so lowers its value.

Regarding product design, if technology allows more and more people to ‘design products’, do products become less valued? (like how many iPhone cases are on Kickstarter?) Looking at digital photography as an example, does the ‘democratizing’ of the technology make for better photographers? or just more photographers? or the same amount of good photographers overwhelmed by a sea of amateurs?

The difference between access and ease is well made. I think digitalisation means Access is so much improved, Ease maybe slightly, but you still have to do the work. The skill required to do good work won’t change that much.

Yes, but I wonder if ‘foodie-ism’ is booming because food is an actual experience, to eat something requires physical objects, which are much harder to obtain than a download. Effort means cost which shows value and implies status.

I still can’t put my finger on why this is intriguing me. Thanks for your replies.

That is kinda what I was getting at. No matter what, someone is always going to have to put in the work to learn about or how to do something.

Sanjy: I think there is a danger that design could disappear as a paying career, but it will be a way off. Music, art and cooking are all things that seem to either pay very little or a whole lot. Perhaps design will get that way.

However, design is hard. To be a basic musician, one just needs to know how to play a few songs on one instrument. Someone that can draw isn’t a designer. Here’s a short list of my skills: drawing, 3D modeling, 3D rendering, illustration, basic carpentry, basic sheet metal working, knowledge of injection molding, basic painting and finishing, accounting, project management, knowledge of costing, marketing, sales. Those skills take a mix of precise training along with hard-won experience. It’s not something that an 18 year old in Des Moines can do well. Maybe that kid could do a 3D model, print it and toss it up on Kickstarter, but it will be blind luck if it resonates with people.

I think the answer is quite simple, at least in the US. We have been washed with crappy food for decades. McD sucks. Chotchkie’s sucks. I personally live in a chain-ridden desert. It’s a horrible combination of sugar, fat and salt.

In the last few years, thanks to the ubiquitous reality show and not some boring cooking show on PBS, demand is created for good food. And good food is, well, good. It’s a no-brainer that “foodies”, or non-crappy chain food, is on the rise. Even in the desert I live in, there are a couple of islands of good fresh food. Those businesses are doing very well.

But music has nothing to offer. Rock in the 50s. Punk in the 70s. Hip hop in the 80s. Everything else is just a variation. What have you done for me in the last 30 years? They have nothing to offer, they decline. And a literally decreasing population of young people will not help the matter either.

Both music and food naturally appeal to people’s senses (and thus their emotions), but on a much deeper level than a product.

That obviously depends a great deal on what the product provides. If it fills a base need, the user identifies much more closely with it. Price doesn’t matter at some point.

But music has nothing to offer. Rock in the 50s. Punk in the 70s. Hip hop in the 80s. Everything else is just a variation. What have you done for me in the last 30 years? They have nothing to offer, they decline. And a literally decreasing population of young people will not help the matter either.

That’s why one has to return to the to basics frequently, be it music, design, or scrambled eggs and toast … KUSC

But music has nothing to offer. Rock in the 50s. Punk in the 70s. Hip hop in the 80s. Everything else is just a variation. What have you done for me in the last 30 years? They have nothing to offer, they decline. And a literally decreasing population of young people will not help the matter either.

I completely disagree. Music is just as important, if not more so, than ever. People are constantly listening to music. They are connected to it. However, distribution & marketing is completely different. No one listens to radio music (NPR is actually still rapidly growing). Youtube has almost leveled marketing allowing complete unknowns to have the same reach as yesterday’s super-bands. It’s also dropped the value of music to almost nil. People can listen to something 2-3 times and toss it out for something new because the cost of changing is so low.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Salt was so difficult to get that it was used as currency. Now, it’s almost free and widely available. Ice was a luxury item that fueled a huge trans-national trade until refrigeration was invented. Ice trade - Wikipedia Things change…

I don’t disagree with anything you write. But you effectively have written that music is a commodity just like salt. And I agree, it is. And without adding any value, something besides a variant of rock/hip-hop, it will stay a commodity and decline from being a premium product.

Food on the other hand, is doing the opposite. People are taking the sugar/fat/salt dreck and are adding value, thus raising it above the commodity level of fast food.

It proves my long time belief the only strategy for long-term growth is a strategy of innovation - adding value.

Downloading music may have a finite value to some, but the rise of very expensive concert festivals has also occurred in this period. SxSW, Bonaroo, Coachella, Outerlands, and dozens more. People flock to these things and pay premium price tags for an experience. Musicians have traditionally made more from concerts anyway.

agree, you have to add value. Just being present doesn’t count for much. As an example, the 10 most expensive salts. You can take a commodity and make it special: http://www.mostcostly.com/most-expensive-salt

Music has nothing to offer what??? You know who you are if you typed that Chill out dude if you don’t like music of today just make your own?

iab: I responded because I get the feeling that you think there was some greater originality or quality to Led Zeppelin than some random electronic dance music. I don’t think there is. It’s not the music that has changed as much as distribution. Maybe we are saying the same thing and I’m projecting.

yO: Great points. It’s funny how some of the most expensive products today are commodities. Bottled water is another great example. The price of gold is completely based on marketing and tradition.

Maybe this is part of something larger. An economist, Robert Gordon, recently presented a paper in which he argues that innovation is declining.


Gordon argues that the really big productivity gains have all been made. For example, speed of transportation peaked in the 1960’s/1970’s. Planes actually fly slower now to save fuel. We’ve built an interstate highway and national rail network. Projecting into the future, we don’t see the possibility of another leap in transport. Therefore, overall economic growth will be slower the next few decades than it was in the 19th and 20th centuries where we had seen these very rapid innovations in key industries. He also sites computing, indoor plumbing, agriculture as innovations that have plateaued.

So maybe we can’t add as much value to products as in the past. The only thing that we can do is make something artificially exclusive and charge an arm and a leg for it.

If what I wrote came across like that, I apologize, it was not my intent. I am referring specifically to genres of popular music, not any particular band within a genre. Zeppelin, Springsteen, Foo Fighters - they offer variations of rock. Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, Kayne - they offer variations of hip-hop.

What music hasn’t offered the consumer in 30 years is something other than a variation of the same old thing. It has commoditized itself .

And yes, it is possible to make a commodity a premium product. The classic example is is Sunkist. They added a label and all of a sudden, they cost 20% more than any other navel orange. Its the same with the salt examples yo posted. But I attribute that to branding, not innovation. I also believe that branding is harder to sustain and in the long run more costly than innovation. The pet rock is only cool for so long.

So it seems to me that music either needs to come up with something new that has impact, or rebrand itself somehow.

Nothing new to offer.

Also, there is this thing, called the English language. I find it helpful.

Iab, have you seen “everything is a remix”? You might find it entertaining. There was one part on Zeppelin.

I don’t think Design has gotten easier. I’d say making stuff has gotten easier. If anything, design has gotten more difficult because there are fewer constraints and it’s easier to cut corners and copy/paste.

Iab please don’t say things like music has nothing new to offer these days because as a musician and artist I feel all you need to do is to listen if you can listen, the capacity to listen, and you will find godliness. It is a question of an inner approach of listening to things, and you have this quality within you. Also I feel it isn’t necessary to comment on my poor english because I’m not an english man. Music of today has everything new to offer if you can’t hear it your deaf. Even if your listening to the same songs over and over again, you can hear new things in those songs that you may have not noticed before simply because you changed as a being from the last time you heard the song. You are not the same person you were yesterday.