Product Potential

No one wants stuff anymore. Businesses have been created to help us get rid of our stuff, or share our stuff, or repurpose our stuff. We’ve been asked to decide: “Does it bring you joy?”

What does that mean for product companies that rely on people wanting (not needing) stuff the company sells? I like to think it means we will all make less stuff.

As a designer, I believe in creation for the sake of solving persistent problems and making lives better. I believe that making products beautiful is a critical factor of the overall success. And that there will always be a place in the world for products that answer those two criteria.

The best products are, and will forever be: Easy and obvious.

That is to say, once it’s introduced, it is such an obvious evolution that we can’t remember the world without it. And that we adopt it easily enough for that evolution to happen at scale.

Products are a vessel for change.

They inevitably take on a life of their own once they get into the hands of the user. The best designers will continue to be those who pay attention to that, and make an effort to understand the unplanned phenomena that emerge around their product. This follow through can help designers understand changing culture in a profound way.

Products are multi-faceted. They can be many things to many different people, and thus a vessel for many things, from self-expression and future shaping, to empowerment of people.

What does this mean in fashion?

When fashion products have such a short lifespan, it is difficult for them to grasp hold long enough to have an impact. Since the goal is for products to be easy and obvious, it would be an uphill battle to try and force different behavior around the consumption of fashion. But in order to impact that change, companies can make efforts on the back end.

Giant Iceberg by Richard Wear

If we want our products to be different, it can’t be superficial. Our process also needs to be different. From conception through production and onto consumption, the product lifecycle represents several opportunities for impact. Thus it’s role as a vessel for change. If we aren’t able to make change yet on the consumer level, we can at least make change through the design process (organizational level) and supply chain (potential global impact).

There was a time when garments were built to last; each item repaired and passed down through generations. With an older sister, hand-me-downs made up half of my personal wardrobe as a kid. The more disposable our clothes become, the less likely we are to give them a second life, either through repairs or through resale/donation/handing-down, and the less likely they are to last long enough to do so.

This is not to suggest that we all should own a sewing kit and learn to darn. Although that would be a great thing, it is unrealistic. Since we are not in the business of moving backwards, but going forward, we are better off not trying to go back to “the way things were before.” Instead, we can look to design new systems that create a new evolution, better than where we are, but equally better than the “good old days.”

Instead of being nostalgic for the way things were, we create a future that is undeniably stronger. This is the potential of products. There is a great responsibility on the shoulders of creators not to fill the world with waste, but to add value. As so many would-be consumers make efforts to rid themselves of stuff, now is the time to solidify that mindset by answering it with products of value.

Product has the potential to be a vessel for positive change in many ways around the world. It starts with the process. And while the consumer climate is demanding less, we have the chance to seal that relationship with the consumer, thus empowering an era of conscious consumerism at scale. Let’s not let the opportunity go to waste.

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