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

Thank you for writing this. In a world where engineers like myself are taught designing for manufacturing/assembly on the basis of reducing cost of goods and labor, there is a distinct lack of awareness of the impact that manufacturing demands and high design standards has on people making products. We compartmentalize our design efforts because it’s convenient, and more inputs is overwhelming.

I have been challenged as a consultant to frequently find myself between clients, who often expect the best and expect it now, and the assemblers and parts suppliers for products that are incredibly challenging to make. I haven’t been in many situations where personal safety or health has been an issue, but deadlines are often more important than human cost. There’s no way to quantify human cost on a spreadsheet besides labor dollars, and that’s what affects the bottom line. It requires a lot more effort to understand your whole supply chain holistically, and many people don’t do it, and many clients won’t pay for that.

I don’t have a solution. I revel in attractive design as much as anyone, and will often pay a premium for those products, so I am part of creating the demand for them. I often think this conundrum is a product of being in a world where we are so separated from the processes that make our things, that even designers often have no understanding of what the human price is for making them. Aesthetics are celebrated, and the impacts those choices have are scuttled under the rug. They aren’t pretty. They don’t make consumers feel good.

With regards to how we prevent this, regulation can protect people, but many people are hellbent on getting rid of regulations that protect people because they’re “bad for business.” Saying “no” to a client based on personal ethics can also be really costly. When working with suppliers, I recognize that it is a really privileged position to be able to say “no, that’s not possible” in the face of “we will pay you almost any amount of money to get those parts faster.” Individuals everywhere in the design process and supply chain have personal financial goals as well that they variably prioritize over other humans — not just their coworkers or employees, but their spouses and families, and their employees’ spouses and families. Empathy is important as a species, and it’s very hard to quantify on a spreadsheet. We can do better.