The High Cost of High Gloss: Design’s impacts on labor

Remnants of machine shop fixtures and tooling

In my hometown, a small fiberglass shop was the only manufacturing presence to speak of.

As soon as you set foot into the room where shreds of glass were enmeshed in liquid polyester resin a strong chemical stink overwhelmed you. Sharp and unrelenting to the newcomer, a worker can grow accustomed to it, gaining the ability to work in the toxic ether unfazed. In true machismo fashion, workers went without respirators and for every fiberglass part they produced towards daily quotas they were wearing down a bit of themselves. Inevitably, the unmitigated exposure permanently warps the voice, changes the skin, fries the nerves.

In making, there is an unmaking. Nothing can be brought into the world without consuming something along the way.

The entropy of object production is extensive: petroleum and rare minerals sourced from conflict zones as inputs, excess material abruptly devalued into mere scrap, all the energy expended along the way in stamping, shaping, and shipping each temporarily novel, precious widget to your door.

For all the research, focus groups, and discussion of stakeholders in the design process (extra points awarded for attempts at “empathizing” with the user), the people actually building products are largely neglected in product development practices. They are seen as externalities, outside of the project scope.

Considerations of the workers’ actions and any pain inflicted by the work often only arises when it is so severe that an impact is felt in terms of reduced production.

Assuming the goods flow, the harms are acceptable.

Often the damage occurs gradually, wearing down the workers as they wear down a tool with abrasives. Where the tool grows shiny and bright from the labor, the body is worn destructively — structural integrity is transferred from bones to goods, never to be regained. Perfection moves in one direction, from body to product.

workers polishing steel tooling for injection molding by hand

The aspirational proposition is given as the opportunity to consume fabulous goods via the energy of others from distant shores: “making this thing hurt, the pain was not yours but the joy can be.” It is no coincidence that these economically exploitative dynamics typically occur along the old lines of colonialism: raw materials extracted, processed and refined into something of high value, with most of that value carted off by parties an ocean away. The consumption here is quite literal, devouring people and landscapes to fuel the production of things.

This vicious methodology of production has two principal forks, one dictated by business interests, the other dictated by the whims of designers.

In the first fork, efficiency (of capital: applied to labor or resources) pushes production to be ever more grueling and exacting in the pursuit of exceptional profits.

When it comes to the ledger of labor saving, the savings almost is equated with time and wages, not saving the health or strain of the laborer. This is clear in the mass-production of electronics, where solvents like n-hexane are common, despite contributing to permanently damaging the health of exposed workers. Solvents like n-hexane are favored over more benign substances like alcohol because they dry faster, allowing assembly lines to move at the speed of human limits, even as the delicate internal systems of workers themselves are permanently derailed.

The second wicked path is when designers go to ever greater lengths developing products that are incredibly challenging to produce and laden with largely unnecessary features tacked on to help already commoditized goods stand out in the marketplace.

The gushing “this part must be done such-and-such a way, it must be per-fect” dresses up the designer’s narcissism for their own aesthetic fetishes as a generosity and affection for the end user: “only the best for paying customers, even at the expense of workers” is the subtext of those exhortations.

It’s a further alienation of the worker from their labor at the behest of the designer. For instance, a designer has the power to specify a whole set of parts going into an assembly have a mirror-like level of gloss, a choice that ripples through to multiple workers, from the person polishing the tooling to the assembly line workers who must work with exceptional care to prevent marring the parts and potentially losing their jobs should the production rate wane.

That perverse extolling of painstaking methods by designers and marketers is supposed to excite and inspire us as consumers, promising a vampiric transformation of human energies into artifacts that is horrifying when fully considered and confronted.

Take for example the voiceover from a “behind the scenes” video from a leading home audio brand, describing their latest speaker product:

“43,000 individually drilled holes…. Our manufacturing partners probably say we are the most difficult customers…. because we tend to compromise as little as possible”

These odd, second-hand stories of design choices leading to better product only through the added misery of labor are part bluster (“You can’t compete with us, Brand B!”), part product promise (“This absurd choice makes the product better because X”), part statement of power (“We can make the factory do whatever we want, even when they hate us for it”).

Workers that use their bodies (whether landscapers, factory line workers, or sex workers) have historically been viewed as base creatures, without the same powers of perception or moral fiber readily assumed of their white collar counterparts using their minds to earn a living.

This perceived lack in the laborer is seen as an invitation for the “higher minded” to instruct, command and police those lower bodies: lift more, move faster, stay on your feet longer, do it this way, not that way.

The Industrial Revolution made the divide between blue and white collar workers deeper and more fixed. Production moved from domestic piecework and small workshops to massive factories with powered equipment and layers of management.

How and when work was to done became incredibly prescriptive, the division of labor atomized to the smallest tasks, increasing tedium while management theory introduces exacting external scrutiny.

Frederick Winslow Taylor (the first management consultant and “Father of Scientific Management”) compared workers he supervised to oxen: too dumb to understand what pace to work at for optimal production. Our contemporary algorithms that route gig-economy workers to their next task show similar patterns of contempt for the laborer and dismissal of their inherent dignity and agency: it changes nothing to call them rabbits instead of oxen- inverting the worker management ratio with one-hundred hybrid customer-managers deciding how many stars you’ve earned is another side of the same coin.

When there is limited power over decisions on what to make and how to make it, there is often an outsize price paid by the worker in damage to mind, body or hand.

A machinist in a facility where Taylor’s methods were used

Ursula Franklin, the metallurgist, physicist and educator drew a distinction between holistic and prescriptive technologies — an assembly line is on the prescriptive end of the spectrum: workers are limited to a distinct, isolated action with next to no control over the process or inputs. Holistic technologies are open ended tools, how they are used left up to the person using them.

The traditional factory model is filled with prescriptive technologies, and the human body of the worker becomes folded into that system. The factory worker is conceived of by many as a fleshy, error prone piece of equipment in the supply chain rather than a fully formed human stakeholder with needs and desires. Something to be programmed, instructed and managed rather than someone to learn from or empower to act.

Assembly line speed is determined by process engineers, how the byzantine array of components is assembled dictated by mechanical and electrical engineers, the exacting requirements for perfect surface finishes by the industrial designer. Seldom have those decision makers spent significant time in the labor roles that are tasked with delivering on their vision. They may have good working knowledge of how things are made, but they lack an understanding of how it feels to make those things time and time again. The objects that the factory worker makes have more influence on them than they do on the objects they are making.

How to best design for everyone in the supply chain would be patently obvious to designers if they had to build one dozen, one hundred, one thousand of what they design; to know those pains first hand. Feeling the hurt for yourself before subjecting 5,000 workers to tortuous challenges of dexterity based on preserving your creative vision is far more effective than the problematic calls for empathy and design thinking (which usually stop with the purchasing agent or user). With the aches felt in one’s own body, suddenly the designer’s ambitious calls to “make it pretty for me” can be heard as the empty, exploitative statements they are.

What would consideration and inclusion of the laborer mean for industrial design and product development generally? Firstly, it would mean cutting out our foie gras-like product affectations: the beautiful but grotesque indulgences. Go on a material diet that reduces or removes plated metals, highly toxic plasticizers, out-gassing additives, and harsh adhesives or solvents. Embrace repairable designs that enable upgrades and circular economies, minimizing the use of electronics as much as possible.

Most of all it would mean enabling front-line workers in any industry to use skill and judgment not just to make improvements, but to reap the benefits of those improvements. The best companies already do this, but it remains an exceedingly rare practice — usually the wisdom of the worker’s hand is discounted while the guidance of the management consultant is exalted.

That it’s difficult to imagine a factory of the future where workers would have a high degree of control over what work is performed is indicative of the deep challenges ahead of us — the models of management, supply chains, of labor and goods that brought us to this point are fatally flawed, but they have become our default ways of thinking. Our business models have grown incredibly prescriptive and those prescriptions are slowly killing the best parts of ourselves and our world.

We have to strive for a minimalism not in the final designed artifact, but for the wear and tear on our world that is a consequence of making.

Like that tiny fiberglass shop in northern Minnesota, the toll of what we make and how we make it becomes inscribed on us.

As designers, inventors, and consumers we must be critical of our demand that other people make it pretty for us — to get our own hands dirty and come to terms with the human cost of our choices so that we may make better ones.


If you want to read more of my thoughts on design, technology, and behavior I write a weekly newsletter for CLEAR design lab: http://www.cleardesignlab.co/newsletter