University of Brighton, Brighton, UK
Keywords: emotional durability; depth; meaning; materials experience.
Abstract: As design researchers, searching for clues within the complex product life space, we are drawn toward objects that matter – the photos of our children, letters from loved ones, the inherited watch from a long-passed grandparent or those shoes you wore at your wedding. Commonly, in product life research, we examine closely these emotionally durable objects, in the hope of discovering some secret to their success, which we might then render transferable across to their anonymous mass- produced neighbours. How much can really be gleaned from these idiosyncratic items, and to what extent are we establishing unrealistic expectations by placing them centre stage?
Using the metaphor of the ocean, this paper reframes products in terms of depths and shallows of our material experiences. Taking us from the handful of objects occupying the seldom seen, hadal zone of our deeper material world, to the abundance of material goods occupying the surface, or epipelagic zone. Through reframing material experience in this way, the paper aims to expose and discuss previously obscured features of the product life space to inform future direction. Indeed, product life research is currently hampered by a preoccupation with hadal items, at the very depths of human experience. Through this depth-bias, we overlook the weaker signals emitted by the myriad objects in the shallows. These objects characterize our experience of the everyday, and fill the rooms, cupboards and pockets of our daily lives. Arguably, these are also the objects that generate ecological and social pressure.
Flooding the earth with ‘stuff’
According to the director of London’s Design Museum, Deyan Sudjic, we live in a world drowning in objects (Sudjic, 2008); households with a TV set in each room; kitchen cupboards stuffed with waffle makers, bread ovens, blenders and cappuccino whisks, and drawers swollen with a plethora of pocket sized devices powered by batteries, which themselves are products that take several thousand times more energy to make, than they will ever produce. Never before have we wanted, consumed and wasted so much. In a world smothered in people and products, it must be questioned what – beyond a conventional understanding of functionality – is all this ‘meaningful stuff’ really for, and why does it transform into ‘meaningless rubbish’ so quickly?
So, what does design and meaning have to do with sustainability? Indeed, it may appear that generating meaningful synthesis between such apparently disconnected ideas is like trying to nail ice cubes together. Yet, peel back the slick, polished skin of the made world, and a dark, incoherent and altogether disturbing reality is revealed – one of misplaced agendas, obscure behavioural anomalies and harsh contradictions – showing how at the root of it all, it is the underlying human condition that shapes our impending ecological crisis.
As we inefficiently fumble our way through countless unsatisfactory embraces with material experiences – from skyscrapers to saltshakers – we temporarily connect with a longer-standing struggle to understand complex existential phenomena such as time, mortality, identity, value, selfhood and utopia, for example. So, like trout rising for hatching larvae, we roam the depths of ourselves, gazing constantly upward in endless anticipation of the existential nourishment we crave.
Rapidly rising consumption in newly industrialised countries such as China, India and Brazil puts further stress upon the global environment (Cooper, 2004). The vast majority of resources taken out of the ground today become waste within only three months: waste consisting of plastics, metals and other synthetic compounds no longer recognizable to the microbial decomposers that degrade substances back to their basic nutritional building blocks. It therefore becomes essential to generate deeper understandings of the meanings and motivations underpinning our wasteful and inefficient engagements with the products of material culture.
Flotsam and jetsam
Perhaps due to the normalcy of innovation, material culture is adopting an increasingly expendable, sacrificial persona. Today, an edgy sense of instability surrounds the made world, nurtured by continual change to render its offspring fleeting, transient and replaceable orphans of circumstance. Just over a century ago, ‘disposability’ referred to small, low cost products such as the Gillette disposable razor or paper napkins, whereas today it is culturally permissible to throw anything away anything from TV sets and vacuum cleaners to automobiles and an entire fitted bathroom (Chapman, 2013). Like flotsam and jetsam, the waste generated through this inefficient system coat the surface of our material worlds, obscuring an otherwise rich set of encounters with the inanimate.
One does not need to be an ardent environmentalist to see that there is little or no logic to the way we relate to our environment. We clear carbon absorptive forests, to grow methane-producing meat, and smother vast areas of bio diverse wilderness with ecologically inert urban sprawl, riddled with mazes of oil-dependent highways. This epistemological error (Bateson, 1972) tells us how the earth is finite, balanced, synergistic and reactive, and yet we design the world as though it were separable, mechanical and lasting. Indeed, human destruction of the natural world is a crisis of behaviour, and not one simply of energy and material alone, as is often assumed (Chapman, 2015); the decisions we make as an industry, the values we share as a society and the dreams we pursue as individuals collectively drive all that we accomplish, while shaping the ecological impact of our development as a species. This ecological crisis concerns how we think, and the institutions that purport to shape and refine the capacity to think (Orr, 2004, p2).
The notion of a ‘throwaway society’ is nothing new, and has been in the public lexicon since 1955. In fact, it was as early as 1932 when American economist Bernard London first introduced the term, ‘planned obsolescence’ (made popular by Vance Packard in his monograph The Waste Makers (1963)) as a means to stimulate spending among the very few that had money at that time. This proposed shift toward an increasingly disposable material world was initially proposed as a solution to dark economic crisis experienced during the Great Depression in the US (1929). However, the ecological impacts of this drive toward planned product failure could not have been anticipated or understood in the 1930s.
Today, however, we are all too aware of the catastrophe-making character of these practices, and they simply cannot continue. As Slade forcefully argues in his rousing book, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, the concept of disposability was in fact a necessary condition for America’s rejection of tradition and our acceptance of change and impermanence (Slade, 2007). By choosing to support ever-shorter product lives, he argues that we may well be shortening the future of our way of life as well, with perilous implications for the very near future.
The process of consumption is motivated by complex emotional drivers, and is about far more than just the blind purchasing of new and shinier things (Chapman, 2015); it is a journey towards the ideal or desired self, that through cyclical loops of desire and disappointment, becomes a seemingly endless process of serial destruction. Link sentence leading to the depths and shallows of material experience, and how much of our materialistic activities occupy the shallows.
Materialism at the shallows
In terms of the depths and shallows of material experience, the level at which materialism manifests – arguably the site of human-made ecological destruction – occurs within the turbulent shallows. This epipelagic zone is populated by the plethora of mass-produced objects that fill our worlds. This constantly shifting assemblage of trainers, teapots and toasters are deployed to reflect our equally dynamic and unstable identities. As our identities evolve and change, so too must the products we deploy to both mirror and project these ephemeral ideas. Like a shadow that follows you around, this stuff defines you, whether you like it or not.
This form of materialistic value orientation (MVO) involves the belief that it is important to continually pursue the culturally sanctioned goals of attaining, financial success, having nice possessions, having the right image, and having a high status (Kasser, 2004). Materialism is defined as ‘the importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions’ (Belk, 1984, p. 291) or ‘a set of centrally held beliefs about the importance of possessions in one’s life’ (Richins & Dawson, 1992, p. 308). The products of MVO tend to inhabit the shallows of our material worlds, as opposed to the very different mode of engagement occurring at the depths. In this way, it is clear that material possessions gain social meaning not only because they have instrumental use in sustaining and developing our daily lives but also because they function as symbols of identity, personality and self-expression (Dittmar & Pepper, 1994).
At this point it is important to note the obvious discrepancy between the things that matter, and things that we use to communicate status, identity and self to others. Too often in product life research these two factors are conflated, leading to distorted results, and false insights.
Our most cherished possessions may very well play no part whatsoever in the mediation of our identities, whilst the products we commonly deploy as signifiers of status do not necessarily ‘matter’ to us in any significant way. Objects that occupy the depths of material experience often play an entirely different role to those more abundant objects occupying the shallows.
The constant abyss
As we dive down into the depths of our material worlds, the objects we pass become increasingly personal, and idiosyncratic. On- trend fonts make way for handwritten notes; digital screens make way for torn notepaper and logotypes are elbowed aside by images of forgotten friends, lost family and jilted lovers. In the turbulence of material experience, these enduring hadal objects serve to anchor us within a core identity, and we cling dearly to it.
We are each connected to several distinct systems of objects, occupying different depths of material experience. These objects may well sit side by side on our shelves, but are divided by fathoms, in an experiential sense. To an observer, the things we own and cherish may appear superfluous, banausic, [and] even venal (Schultz et al, 1989) yet we cling to them because they possess significant levels of personal meaning, that defines us individually, as separate from society.
On describing the depth and power of inanimate objects, Bruce Hood, author of Super Sense (Hood, 2009), undertook an experiment in which he first hands out a black 1930s fountain pen, which he falsely claimed, belonged to Albert Einstein. Everyone in the audience is desperate to hold it, and shows great reverence and awe toward the object, as though part of Einstein’s soul somehow resided within it. Hood then holds aloft a tattered old cardigan, and asks who would be willing to volunteer by wearing it. Many offer to do so, until it is revealed that the cardigan belonged to Cromwell Street’s notorious serial killer, Fred West. Promptly, almost all volunteers lower their hands. Hood claims that this change of heart reveals something odd: audience members sitting next to one of those who keep their hand raised, and are willing to wear the killer’s cardigan, visibly recoil in repulsion of their neighbour’s openness to this (Hood, 2009). The cardigan is no longer the prime source of repulsion, but more interestingly, the person who feels fine wearing it, or even handling it, must be avoided also (Chapman, 2013).
As matter that we must negotiate, products can literally shape our daily experience in ways that spark particular thoughts, and designers can therefore influence what these thoughts are. As Julia Lohman describes: when communicating through objects the meaning is created through the materiality of the object. The materials become words; the design becomes the syntax. The piece speaks without the detour of language (Williams, 2012).
At the very depths of material experience, enduring associations between people and things are not wholly designable. As van Hinte proposes in Eternally Yours (1997), ‘[f]or personal reasons one can feel emotionally attached even to a turnip or a hubcap.’ (van Hinte, 1997, p. 234) Each user possesses a unique assemblage of memories, which render objects as vigorous symbols of the self, and carriers of great personal significance. Over 40- years earlier, Benedict in, Patterns of Culture (1955), asserted that ‘[n]o man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking’ (Benedict, 1955, p. 2).
In the majority of cases, durability is characterized simply by specifying resilient materials, fixable technologies and the application of product optimization methodologies that reduce the likelihood of blown circuits, stress fractures and other physical failures. Yet, durability is just as much about desire, memory and superstition, as it is fractured polymers, worn gaskets or blown circuitry. Although we may assign particular meaning to a given object, or material, meaning cannot exist outside the body. It is within us meaning can be found. Objects, materials or spaces cannot hold meaning in and of themselves – only our interpretation of these things will produce meaning. In this way, meaning draws from lived experience – that which has happened to you up until this point – and is typically associated with sets of abstract relations and conditions, which create a lasting impression on us.
Whether pitched at a deep, or shallow level, the ‘made world’ is a consequence – an emergent space in which the human species has progressively found ways to modify and enhance the world around us. The urban spaces we roam, buildings we inhabit, products we use and garments we wear, collectively represent our intellectual capacity to imagine a better world that is beyond our current level of experience. This innate capability to imagine a world just beyond our current level of experience, and then formulate (design) plans to realize those imaginings, is an essential determinant of what it is to be human – to ‘reach beyond innate human limitations’ (Heskett, 2003, p. 16).
During product development, designers and manufacturers have a moral obligation to consider longevity and minimized lifecycle impacts (Van Nes & Cramer, 2005; Cooper, 2005). Consumers need to be aware of life spans and lifecycle impacts when buying products (Cooper & Christer, 2005). However, designing longer-lasting products without a clear understanding of the depth at which you are engaging users, is like packing a suitcase for a trip to an unknown destination, and not knowing what you will be doing when you get there. The picture is incomplete, and forces gross generalisations to be made. As stated earlier, there are clear discrepancies between the products that matter, and the products we deploy as signifiers of identity and social position, for example. In confusing these two aspects of material experience, results risk distortion, and insight becomes misleading.
We are currently experiencing a seismic shift in thinking, from the design and delivery of short- life products, to that of longer-lasting material experiences and services. Longer lasting products have the potential to present robust economic models for creating products, services and brand-loyal customers – driving future sales, upgrade, service and repair. Simply having more stuff stopped making people in Britain happier decades ago. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) argue for an economy of better, not more. One of things that last and can be repaired many times before being recycled, allowing us to share better the surplus of stuff we already have (NEF, 2012).
Until recently, sustainable design methodologies have seldom engaged with the more fundamental questions such as the meaning and place of products in our lives, and the contribution of materials goods to what might be broadly termed, the human endeavour (Walker, 2006).
We must design at an appropriate depth, to enable a more targeted approach for products that last. It is repellent, to conceive of a material world, in which all possessions are priceless and indispensable. Socially, this transposes us into an obsessive culture, characterized by over attachment to our things, and anxiety formed through heightened material dependency. However, it is clear that there are opportunities for designers to engage users at a greater experiential depth, as a means to form longer- lasting bonds.
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