Why product design fails us

MERRY-GO-ROUND (2013) by Nuno Pimenta

Product design as a subject bores me.

I’ve come to see it as a subject which is the creation of things to feed a consumerist society. An industry which creates things people don’t really need and then uses advertising to make people want them, with the subjects using these objects as substitutes and blindfolds for internal and existential struggles.

Despite this, I realise that it is indeed important and has a huge impact on shaping our world. Not only does a product designer have the ability to make things beautiful and to solve problems/aid and improve people’s lives, but also they have the ability to create positive social, environmental and maybe even political changes through the way in which people interact with objects. In spite of humans ever increasing life expectancy — it is a fact that many of the objects and items produced in our lifetime for our consumption will actually out-live us.

The majority of products and items you will see in the field of Industrial and Product design are objects which serve a basic function, which help people complete a physical task, e.g.- chairs, speakers, phones, jewellery, screwdrivers etc etc. And while a lot of these are all very necessary for our society to work, create, communicate, to have fun — they mainly focus on the external world. Now there is nothing wrong with this at all — infact people often gain great pleasure from these products- which can actually bring people together and create memories. But in a world full of increasingly more ‘stuff’ it also just provides more opportunities to substitute deeper, more fulfilling values for fleeting external pleasures.

The thing that really keeps me interested in and still wanting to study product design, is that every once in a while I’ll come across a project which has considerable impact on a social or environmental issue. A project that single handedly scores some victory for humanity and is a push in the direction of a caring, environmentally sound and self-aware societal model. A few examples of projects I’ve seen which have inspired me range from new manufacturing processes/recycling techniques, public installations which challenge societal norms and products which encourage or aid introspection and meditation. With this blog I aim to look into the relationship between products/ objects and what I consider to be intrinsically ‘good’ internal values. Of course what is determined as a ‘good’ value differs between cultures and individuals, but I will focus on those which encourage love, compassion, unity, equality, self-knowledge, self-improvement and progressive attitudes.

I’m also interested in researching if it is possible for an object- specifically a man made object to achieve one of the most challenging tasks humanity has and will ever face; that is — to be able to convince or aid in the convincing of someone that life is worth living, and to examine if it is possible to create products, objects and services which can actually reduce consumerism due to increasing internal fulfilment in the consumer.

Research in this area is fairly limited, and I think this is most likely due to product design being nearly entirely funded by corporations with their sole goal being to sell the products and generate profit. In fact it is so limited that unless I’ve missed it, this is not actually a field of design with a name. The closest neighbours to what I want to look at are Speculative and Critical design, which are outlined below:

“[Speculative design is] a kind of design that is used as a tool to create not only things but ideas. For them, design is a means of speculating about how things could be — to imagine possible futures.”

Critical design takes a critical theory based approach to design. This kind of design uses design fiction and speculative design proposals to challenge assumptions, conceptions about the role of objects play in everyday life.”

Despite both of these areas being established within design — there are still very few Critical and Speculative design projects in the public eye — and this I can only assume to be due to a lack of funding and resources.

There is some overlap with I want to look into and these areas of design, but it doesn’t quite fit into either definition. Speculative design is mainly focused on the future, and Critical design on the role of objects — whereas my main focus is on how external products can affect internal areas such as emotions, thoughts and values. This is an area I’m going to coin Intrinsically Aimed Design.

Could a product actually reduce consumerism?

Can products help us gain self-knowledge and understanding?

Could a product make us more compassionate?

Can a product/system make someone question their core values?

These are some of the questions I aim to look into through my research and study of Intrinsically Aimed Design — and the research I intend to do will span areas including psychology, psychoanalysis, economics, religion and spirituality and of course — design.