I kneel to reach beneath the bed, with outstretched fingers as my eyes; that region of the floor, seldom penetrated by daylight—or the vacuum cleaner nozzle—provides a refuge for treasures of immeasurable value; my dusty fingers spider to the left, and to the right, before falling upon the corner of a small box. I fumble it into my grip before slowly drawing it into the light. Holding the box in both hands, I kneel on the wooden floor for a moment, still, watching the lid as if it were about to blow off, due to power of the meaning locked within. I lift the lid and peel back tinder dry layers of tissue paper to reveal two smooth stones.
These are not diamonds, rubies or emeralds, nor are they Stone Age spearheads or ancient Roman artefacts—to me they are so much more precious than that. They are Sussex flint from a stretch of beach near Worthing; a quiet stretch of shingle beach that must contain over a trillion near-identical stones. But they are not these two stones. My son, Jasper, collected these stones when he was a toddler. He brought them up the beach to me, like a triumphant archaeologist returning from the field, still buzzing with the drug of discovery. Both the size of fat autumn plums, though one noticeably larger than the other, these stones, he said, are ‘a Daddy’ and ‘a Jasper’—ourselves transposed in stone, so to speak.
So I kneel on the wooden floor, with dusty hands, looking into an old shoebox with two stones in it, my mind playing back movies of what has been, and inventing new ones depicting what has yet to be. And so in an experiential sense, I am not really in my bedroom at all. With my mind now awash with memory, I am back on that beach in Sussex, watching my young son scramble his way up the shingle to show me his prize. Arguably my two most treasured possessions, these stones are more powerful than any photograph, or QuickTime file. They remind me that I am a father, and that my son sees me in this way . . . I felt it. Furthermore, the origin of these rocks is rooted in a slower, geological time, which gives them an enduring permanence. I find this reassuring in a world where nothing stands still.
Now a symbol of our relationship, I begin to superimpose meaning onto the stones that Jasper himself had never intended—the smaller stone is lighter in colour; could this be innocence? The larger stone is bumpier; what could that mean? To me, the stones are a memory container, a totem, a symbol, a time machine, a connection, and they are these things because of the meaningful associations I have with them. To others who do not share these meaningful associations, the stones are, well, just stones . . . apart from you of course, as you now know the story.
As we fumble our way through life, attempting to make sense of it along the way, our need to find explanation leads our minds beyond reason, and into the supernatural. On describing memorabilia and the power of inanimate objects, Bruce Hood, author of Super Sense (2009, p. 37), 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 towards 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 to wear 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, pp. 40–45). 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.
Conversely, it may also be said that we are drawn towards those who reflect our values, and this need for affiliation can been seen in both human-human, and human-object relations. Moving towards those who share your values inadvertently creates distance between you and those with whom you wish not to be associated. This swarming behaviour is a key factor in our emotional survival—as a society and as individuals. Objects play critical roles in distinguishing us from one another in this way, and there is consensus in social psychology that this form of stereotyping, or group identification, is virtually universal (Brown, 1986, p. 75). Park, who argued that a preference for the familiar and the ‘like me’ underlay group identification, further explains this universality. He states, we like best those who are familiar and similar to us because we can understand them best and they are generally more predictable (Park, 1950, pp. 65–70). Yet, when we use designed objects—of all scales, from saltshakers to skyscrapers—as a way to communicate our relative position and values to others, each of us must construct our own material world. This world both mirrors and projects meaning, reminding us of who we are whilst mediating the same messages to those around us. And so we no longer share the world, but rather we construct and maintain our own, then compare it with others so that we may better understand ourselves.
In terms of consumer profiling, Whiteley tells us how we design things to ‘fit’ particular lifestyles: ‘traditionalists’ or ‘mainstreamers’ (those who seek the predictable and the reliable, such as branded baked beans and major high street chain stores); ‘achievers’ (those with wealth and desire to surround themselves with objects which reflect their status); ‘aspirers’ (consumers who are highly status-conscious and who seek the latest fashionable product); and ‘reformers’ (consumers with a conscience who buy recycled paper products and avoid aerosols) (Whiteley, 1993, pp. 125–32).
Robotics professor Masahiro Mori describes the uncanny valley hypothesis, in which he states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, a human observer’s emotional response to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the appearance continues to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels (Mori, 1970, p. 34). Explanations as to why the loss of empathy takes place are varied, ranging from pathogen avoidance (the disgust response helps us to avoid potential sources of disease), the violation of human norms (the appearance of the near-human robot challenges a fixed cognitive model of human characteristics) or religious constructions of human identity (near human identity is seen as a threat to some, causing existential anxiety).
Mori’s uncanny valley has its critics, and as David Hanson has shown, the uncanny valley could be avoided by adding neotenous, cartoonish features to the entities that had formerly fallen into the valley (Hanson et al., 2005, p. 1729). This design-level intervention is important, as it shows that understanding the conditions that lead people to be either drawn to or repelled from things empowers design thinking.
According to Jasper Morrison, our perception of objects can be broken down as follows: the first encounter may well be based more on an evaluation of the object’s cost, the quality of the object relating to the cost, the perceived usefulness of the object to us and the object’s desirability. But later on, when it comes to living with an object, we forget all about the cost, and we have in mind the object’s usefulness in relation to certain tasks, how much we enjoy using it and how much we appreciate it as a possession. It becomes a part of our lives that we may not think about much, but that nevertheless exists, as witnessed when we move from a house (for example) and may be forced to confront the relationship we have with the object in deciding whether to keep it or not (Fukasawa and Morrison, 2007, pp. 53–54).
In Super Normal, we are told how design, which used to be almost unknown as a profession, has become a major source of pollution. Encouraged by glossy lifestyle magazines and marketing departments, it has become a competition to make things as noticeable as possible by means of colour, shape and surprise. Its historic and idealistic purpose, to serve industry and the happy consuming masses at the same time, of conceiving things easier to make and better to live with, seems to have been sidetracked (Fukasawa and Morrison, 2007, pp. 8–10). In the crowded high street, where shop windows are stacked with near-identical mobile phones, sports shoes and table lamps—each a ‘just noticeably different’ (Norman, 2011, p. 187) version of the other—the idea of a spirit or energy occupying the fabric of an inanimate object such as a pen or a cardigan is clearly not rational. Yet, most of us unconsciously behave in this way, as Hood demonstrated with Fred West’s cardigan. For example, if television chef Jamie Oliver were to lend you his favourite knife, would it make you a better—or more pukka—cook? Or, if someone were to offer to replace your treasured keepsake with an exact replica, would you accept? Probably not. But why would we reject the offer of a free upgrade to a brand-new product?
In design, we are familiar with seeing the world like this. We understand that objects are so much more than the sum of their parts; they are signs, functions, meanings and styles. Seldom are they discussed purely as inert material entities devoid of character, as this is not their intention—both from the consumers’ and the designers’ points of view. Furthermore, the superstitious or supernatural beliefs that we map onto objects are powerful and can make the difference between a product being cherished and adored, or resented and discarded in a handful of days. Cynically, waste can be seen as an essential means for us to make way for the new. Not to say that the things we throw out are always broken or dysfunctional, but rather, many are orphaned objects that have been cast aside before their time, to make way for newer, younger models.
In The Meaning of Things, the authors describe how, to preserve a breakable object from its destiny, one must pay at least some attention to it, care for it, buffet it from the long arm of chance. Thus, a china cup preserved over a generation is a victory of human purpose over chaos, an accomplishment to be quietly cherished, something to be kind of proud of (Czsiczentmihalyi and Rouchberg-Halton, 1981, p. 83). Paradoxically, this fragility and weakness highlights the strength of these objects in maintaining a visceral connection with their owners and enabling a healthy interaction between a person and their inanimate environment—durability and robustness are not what they might, at first, appear.
According to the director of London’s Design Museum, Deyan Sudjic, we live in a world drowning in objects (2008, pp. 5–9); 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. One’s material empire—with its aquariums, TV sets, plants, phones, lamps, clocks, scarves, lawnmowers, picture frames, doorknobs, computers, shoes, cameras, bicycles, screwdrivers, jackets, carpets, sinks, cars or anything else for that matter—is made up of stuff, and this stuffdefines you, whether you like it or not.
It is important to note that an increase in material possessions is not commensurate with a growth in wellbeing, or happiness—this ‘more’ is not really giving us ‘more’. We live in a time when our relationship with our possessions is undergoing a radical transformation, Sudjic writes. He observes that little in our homes now has to do with basic needs, as might have been described by Maslow. Instead, this excess results from the ‘shallow but sharp emotional tug that the manufacture of want exerts on us’ (Sudjic, 2008, p. 86).
Each of us shares, to varying degrees, the need for a material world: a world of tangible things to enhance the experiential quality of daily life, such as a faster car, a larger TV or a softer sofa. Beyond their utilitarian affordances, these props are employed to communicate messages to others—whether the part of town we choose to live in, the building we inhabit or the design of the glowing television set within, or that of the armchair and slippers pointing at it. However, beyond basic functionality, each material possession has a far deeper and more personal role to play. Individually, each possession plays its own part; yet together, our material possessions are an aggregate package of information that locates each of us in a custom-built reality.
For the majority of consumers, locating oneself through consumption is reassuring, as it grounds us within social, cultural, economic and political contexts that can be modified and adjusted simply by updating (replacing) certain objects, as one changes, adapts and evolves as an individual. In this scenario, objects that no longer provide accurate representations of who we are must be outcast and replaced with ones that do. Though this may be described as nothing more than a Darwinian process of progress-driven obsolescence, the ecological implications of this practice are grave, leading to the culture of serial discarding and consuming so characteristic of unsustainability in the developed world.
It is clear that the limited ability of material goods to sustain an emotional resonance with their user might present one of the greatest challenges in moving towards sustainable consumption. We must look for more emotionally sustainable solutions if we are to slow the throughput of energy and materials. Recycling, for example, is an important part of the sustainability drive, yet it does not slow throughput of materials and consumes significant quantities of energy via the process of collection, sorting, reprocessing and distribution. Conventionally, industrial activity is based on a crude linear production-consumption flow with inbuilt environmental deterioration at both ends; sustainable design activity over the past forty-five years has made these wasteful and inefficient ends of the scale marginally less wasteful and inefficient. Whether we are talking about life cycle assessment, design for disassembly or grass-roots activism, there is no single big fix. As Fletcher has stated, we do not need mass answers but a mass of answers (2007, pp. 130–5).
Meaning is unstable and is constantly updating itself. For example, in a pet shop, a rat will have a particular meaning associated with it. There will be some variance in this associated meaning due to differences in the way each of us feels about rats as pets, but overall, the meaning is fairly stable. Take that rat out of the pet shop, however, and place it in a restaurant kitchen, and its meaning changes dramatically. The same object—the rat—has transformed instantly before our eyes, simply by changing its context; it has moved from an appropriate to an inappropriate scenario, and as a result we feel repulsion.
This switch in scenarios is common in the designed world. One need only look at electronic devices such as smart phones, where technological up-to-date-ness is the primary value; so long as a given item is the latest, its meaning remains intact. Indeed, placing technological contemporaneousness as the sole value-indicator of a product practically guarantees disappointment, ensuring loss of meaning the moment a newer model hits the shelves (Chapman, 2005, p. 16). In a marketplace of relentless product obsolescence, the notion of consumer satisfaction will continue to remain a tantalizing utopia until product values diversify to incorporate factors beyond technical modernity.
Conventionally, product failure is characterized by blown circuits, stress fractures and a host of other technical and physical glitches; in attending solely to physical ageing, designers overlook numerous invaluable metaphysical renderings of durability. As a creative industry, it is vital that we break away from the physical and begin to understand more about the sustainability of empathy, meaning, desire and other metaphysical factors that influence the duration of product life.
As we drill down into the experiential nature of an object, we reveal layers of meaning, so to speak, some of which are glaringly obvious and readily identifiable, while others lurk much more deeply and are harder to spot. Yet, such inanimate manufactured objects cannot contain meaning, but rather, they can activate meaning within the perceiver; meaning is a construct, and as such there can be no meaning other than that which we create. Like a radio constantly playing in the background, humans are always unconsciously forming judgements about the world around them. These judgements may relate to the quality of an object, the temperament of a stray dog or the wealth of a total stranger. We are often unable to say exactly what it is about them that we are noticing, but the opinions flow like water and shape the nature of our behaviour in powerful ways. Indeed, though these mental processes may seem subtle, even negligible at times, their consequences are profound in shaping our experience of the everyday. As writer and psychologist Sherry Turkle describes, we think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with (2007, pp. 3–8).
In Creed or Chaos, Dorothy L. Sayers warns that a society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand (1999, p. 47). Indeed, marketers play an important role in the construction and manipulation of these experiential levers, as perceived by the end user. However, within the context of product design, both the nature and scope of these designable conditions are not adequately understood. It is also questionable as to whether attachments are actually beneficial in terms of product life extension. For example, Marchand explores detachment from possessions as a way to extend the longevity of objects; in interviews, test subjects revealed that by practicing detachment from objects, they are more predisposed to accept an object’s physical ageing (2003, p. 128).
In Sein und Zeit (1927/1986), Heidegger defined two ways in which we experience objects: ready-to-hand and present-to-hand (Verbeek and Kockelkoren, 1998/2010, p. 92). When things are working properly, and we are absorbed in the use of them, they are ready-to-hand, and we experience the world through the object. He gives the much-cited example of the hammer to demonstrate this, telling us how when hammering, our attention is not on the hammer itself but on the nail we are trying to knock into the wall. In this way, we are caught up in the activity, enabled by the hammer. However, should the head of the hammer become loose and wobbly, our attention is drawn away from the nail and the activity of hammering, towards the hammer itself. The hammer, according to Heidegger, is now present-to-hand and must be repaired in order for it to be ready-to-hand once more.
One could describe electricity in a similar way, in that it only becomes noticeable when something goes wrong with it, like a power outage. Importantly, there are connections here between what we expect things to do and what things actually do. Often, we see natural facets of ageing, such as the loosening of the hammer’s head, as some kind of disappointing product failure or weakness on the part of the object—disappointment being categorized by a perceivable difference between expectation and reality.
In the case of the hammer with the wobbly head, repair is a fairly straightforward process and may in fact be why so many of us are happy to keep the hammer we have and fix it should it fail, making the return journey from present-to-hand (broken, and visible) to ready-to-hand (working, and transparent). In the case of a more complex product such as a hairdryer, for example, the return journey may be something more complex, and in almost all cases this perceived complexity leads to the discarding of the item.
It is clear that the design for durability paradigm has important implications beyond its conventional interpretation, in which product longevity is considered solely in terms of an object’s physical endurance, whether cherished or discarded. Immaterial phenomena such as love, desire, fascination, curiosity and trust, for example, can also break and wear out, causing immeasurable quantities of fully functioning objects to be discarded before their time. Understanding the deeper nature of this form of psychological (as opposed to functional) obsolescence is critical in the search for solutions to the throwaway society.
Commercial interest in the lifespans of manufactured objects can be traced back to London’s introduction of the term planned obsolescence (1932, p. 1), made popular by Packard in his book The Waste Makers (1963, pp. 45–57). Planned obsolescence means designing and producing products in order for them to be considered as ‘used up’ within a specific time period. More recently referred to as ‘designed for the dump’ or ‘death dating’, obsolescence can occur as a result of failed functionality (a refrigerator with a condensing unit that lasts for twenty months) or through failed desirability (those maroon corduroy trousers are no longer on trend). Though informed by the work of London and of Calkins (1932), Packard’s dualistic theories of functional obsolescence and psychological obsolescence assert that the deliberate shortening of product lifespans is unethical, both in its profit-focused manipulating of consumer spending and its devastating ecological impact through the nurturing of wasteful purchasing behaviours. He stated that if you are a producer and most families already own your product, you are left with three possibilities for making future sales: you sell replacements; you sell more than one item to each family; or you dream up a new and improved product—or one that at least seems new and improved—that will enchant families that already own an old model of your product. How much more can a toaster or sofa or carpet or sewing machine be improved, really? (Packard, 1963, p. 127). In Industrial Strength Design, we hear how Stevens (an opponent of Packard’s) defined planned obsolescence simply as instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary (in Adamson, 2003, pp. 129–34)—and Stevens saw nothing wrong with that. Slade explains in his work Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America how disposability was in fact a necessary condition for America’s rejection of tradition and our acceptance of change and impermanence, yet by choosing to support ever-shorter product lives, Slade argues that we may well be shortening the future of our way of life as well, with perilous implications for the very near future (2007, p. 22). The lesser-known text by Calkins (1932) entitled ‘What Consumer Engineering Really Is’ may provide a text of equal significance in this context. In consumer engineering, Calkins sees design as a business tool that fashions products to address more closely the changing tastes or needs of the consumer. A broader definition consists of any action that stimulates the consumption of goods; shaping the goods does not mean a simple colour change or more attractive package design. Instead, the process involves changing ordinary goods to modern, distinctive ones; consumer engineering benefits advertisers by supplying them with new product information to reveal in their ads. In turn, the advertisers will be held accountable to these new product claims, thus benefiting the whole of society. In Emotionally Durable Design (2005, p. 20), I described how landfills are packed with stratum upon stratum of durable goods that slowly compact and surrender working order beneath a substantial volume of similar scrap. There would, therefore, seem little point in designing physical durability into consumer goods, if consumers lack the desire to keep them. Indeed, durability must no longer be distinguished merely by a product’s physical robustness—whether cherished or discarded. One could argue that it is quite easy to design and manufacture an MP3 player that will work without failure for eight years, but it is another thing entirely to design one that people would want to keep for that length of time. Perhaps due to the normalcy of innovation, the made world has adopted an expendable and sacrificial persona. In the majority of cases, the durability of products 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. Is this durable product design or simply the designing of durable waste?
The continual churning out of newer and shinier products is an ongoing, evolving discourse about how the world ought to be. At its best, this discourse flexes and warps in response to cultural, social, economic and ecological agendas, making it a compelling critique of what we collectively value and strive for. At its worst, however, we see that this process of continual evolution and adaption leaves behind it a wake of ecological devastation, the enormity of which has yet to be fully understood. Indeed, the complex and thorny nature of our engagement with the designed world directly shapes the ecological impact of our consumption; as designers, as creators of things, we ignore this at our peril.
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. Though the need for longer-lasting products is widely recognized, practical working methods, design frameworks and tools that facilitate the development and integration of such emotionally durable characteristics within products are scarce. In this oversaturated world of people and things, durable attachments with objects are seldom witnessed. Most products deliver a predictable monologue of information, which quickly transforms wonder into drudgery; serial disappointments are delivered through nothing more than a product’s failure to maintain currency with the evolving values and needs of its user. The volume of waste produced by this cyclic pattern of short-term desire and disappointment is a major problem, not just in terms of space and where to put it but, perhaps more notably, for its toxic corruption of the biosphere. In Natural Capitalism (Hawken et al., 1999), we are reminded that the human race was fortunate enough to inherit a 3.8 billion-year-old reserve of natural capital, but at present rates of consumption it is predicted as unlikely that there will be much of it left by the end of this century. Since the mid-eighteenth century, more of nature has been destroyed than in all prior history; in the past fifty years alone, the human race has stripped the world of a quarter of its topsoil and a third of its forest cover. In total, one-third of all the planet’s resources have been consumed within the past four decades (Hawken et al., 1999, pp. 3–4). The urgency of this situation is described in ‘The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change’ (Stern, 2006), which states that if no action is taken to reduce emissions, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could reach double its pre-industrial level as early as 2035, virtually committing us to a global average temperature rise of over 2 degrees Celsius. In the longer term, there would be more than a 50 per cent chance that the temperature rise would exceed 5 degrees Celsius. This rise would be very dangerous indeed; it is equivalent to the change in average temperatures from the last ice age to today. Such a radical change in the physical geography of the world must lead to major changes in the human geography—where people live and how they live their lives (Stern, 2006, p. 56).
An empirical study, conducted by the author, examined the relationship behaviours of 2,154 respondents with electronic objects, during the use phase. Through survey research and subsequent focus groups, results from this study demonstrated that within the sample frame, value was perceived due to the presence of one of the following six experiential themes:
Detachment: feel little or no emotional connection to the product; have low expectations and thus perceive it in a favourable way due to a lack of emotional demand or expectation (this also suggests that attachment may actually be counterproductive, as it elevates the level of expectation within the user to a point that is often unattainable).
Fiction: are delighted or even enchanted by the product as it is not yet fully understood or known by the user; these are often recently purchased products that are still being explored and discovered by the user.
Consciousness: the product is perceived as autonomous and in possession of its own free will; it is quirky, often temperamental, and interaction is an acquired skill that can be fully acquired only with practice.
This six-point experiential framework provides distinct conceptual pathways through which to initiate engagement with issues of emotional durability through design, presenting a more expansive, holistic understanding of design for durability—both in terms of the paradigm, and that of the language used to articulate it. The aim of this theoretical architecture is to enable points of entry to the complex and knotty problem of emotionally durable design. It facilitates more structured, focused modes of exploration that could lead to the emergence of a new genre of sustainable design, one that reduces consumption and waste by increasing the durability of relationships established between users and products.
Sustainable design is maturing. In The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability, Thorpe refers to this coming of age as the second stage in the debate (2007, pp. 6–7), in which the role of design in economic and social aspects of sustainability is more fully explored, in addition to the already established focus on energy and materials. In examining the actual causes—rather than the symptoms—of our environmental crisis, we begin to understand the deep motivations that fuel the human condition itself. Indeed, the sustainability crisis is a crisis of behaviour and not one simply of technology and production alone. In order to move towards sustainability, we must first recalibrate the parameters of good design in this unsustainable age. Furthermore, to engage on a behavioural level, we must reconsider our creative strategies, tools and languages, exploring new ways of thinking and of designing objects capable of supporting deeper and more meaningful relationships with their users over time. This will call for a dramatic reappraisal of the way in which we design the products, buildings and spaces that constitute the made world.
Stern, N. (2006), ‘The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change’, HM Treasury: London, <
> accessed February 25, 2013.