The Role of Design in Slowing the Pace of Consumerism

Closing the gap between architecture and design’s commercial context and their potential for social good.

By Ann Thorpe

An excerpt from Architecture & Design versus Consumerism: How design activism confronts growth (Earthscan/Routledge 2012), which helps close the “meaning” gap between architecture and design’s potential for social good and the ruthless commercialism and consumerism that serve as the context for the professions.

In this article we look at three ways that designers are addressing the problems of the fast pace of consumerism. The first approach involves shifting the source of novelty, from “new” things to new experiences and connections. The second approach is to improve the adaptability and durability of objects and spaces. The third approach involves helping us make different kinds of commitments, for example to walk instead of drive, by creating infrastructure that opens up potential for different kinds of behaviors and actions.

Each pile of wool will become a garment, traceable to the source animal. Photo courtesy Christien Meindertsma.


In terms of shifting the source of novelty, one approach arises from the slow design movement. Cases of slow design often try to change modes of private consumption so that the meaning attached to it comes less from fast-paced novelty and more from deeper, long-term content. An example is Flock knitwear by designer Christien Meindertsma. The knitwear aims to put people back in touch with the source of their clothing; the fibers are traced back to specific animals (sheep and goats), and the clothing tag provides information about the animal and its location and breeding. It is a form of “slow” clothing, connecting people and environment to generate meaning.

Another example is the Lunar-resonant street light (by design collective Civil Twilight). Instead of simply making street lights more efficient, the proposal has street lights responding to the brightness of the moon, dimming when the moon is bright, possibly turning off completely. The aim is to save energy and reconnect people with the night sky and with lunar and tidal cycles. This example ties novelty to (slower) natural cycles and to public goods (moon-light). The proposal also challenges current lighting standards, which call for bright light when studies show that even light is more important. The designers ask, “Do you need to be able to read a newspaper outside in the middle of the night?”

Adaptability & Durability

Architects and designers have done a reasonably good job of exploring aspects of durable design, linking durability to the notion of heirlooms and products or structures that tell a story. They have linked durability to products with lifetime guarantees, alluring aging processes (patterned on the aging of leather and denim), or elements that the user can update or modify over time. Here, notions of durability tie into “adaptable” products and structures, which are durable by virtue of their flexibility.

Some interesting examples have arisen from responses to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. One is the grohome, originating with Austin’s Centre for Maximum Potential Building. The home takes the form of a kit of parts that can be expanded as the homeowner can afford to, or needs to, expand or change the structure. Architect Pliny Fisk has mapped out how a single unit can evolve over three generations and how materials can be sourced locally in most cases.

Grohome Texas A&M University’s interpretation of the grohome incorporates interchangeable rooms so that occupants adapt the home to changing needs. Photo by Kaye Evans-Lutterodt/Solar Decathlon.

The Katrina cottage is another example of a kit (in this case do-it-yourself) developed by architect Marianne Cusato as an alternative to the more costly and sterile FEMA trailers. The cottage is faster to build than a FEMA trailer and it can eventually be converted or expanded to long-term use. The cottage became available to the public as a kit of parts through hardware chain Lowe’s in the fall of 2006.

Slow, durable and adaptable design goes some way toward giving us a longer term focus, toward changing our pattern of commitment. These forms of design may also perhaps be seen in terms of infrastructure. Related design approaches emphasize creating infrastructure that opens up potential for different kinds of behaviors and actions. Many of these approaches also work at the level of the narrative, offering alternative narratives about what is important or valued.

Infrastructures for Commitment

In creating new infrastructures for commitment, design projects often tackle physical limitations to activities that address social and environmental values. For example, the development of green roofs and rooftop gardens expands urban green space, but also lowers energy consumption, reduces the heat from urban congestion, cleans the air, reduces storm-water run-off, and can enable urban agriculture. New York City’s Active Design Guidelines suggest ways in which the design of buildings, streets and stores can make physical activity and exercise the norm.

Urban mobility jacket makes physical activity and material efficiency the easiest choice. Design by Kate Ludwig.

In product terms, infrastructure examples include the expandable urban mobility jacket, designed by Kate Ludwig, that provides a built-in alternative to plastic carrier bags. The jacket’s normally hidden pocket-bag zips out and is supported by an interior shoulder strap. In a similar vein, wind-up products such as radios and flashlights aim to make physical activity and alternative power sources the easiest choice.

The infrastructure approach also emerges in what designer Dan Lockton has termed “design with intent”. Through a range of formal, affordance and material techniques, designers can guide what people choose to do. Lockton proposes 101 patterns for influencing behavior.

Although a number of the patterns concern virtual interfaces, many suggestions are material or spatial, such as:

* using the properties of different materials to make some actions more comfortable than others;

* designing an extra “confirmation” step before an action can be performed;

* setting a challenge for people, or giving them a target to reach through what they’re doing;

* using color, contrast or symmetry to suggest association or focus attention.

These types of guidance or methods of influence can then be applied to a range of choices and actions that people make in terms of transport, diet, education, household energy use and many others.

Design with intent: Material properties, symmetries and other factors can guide what people do. Image by Dan Lockton.

All of these examples show how designers can shift their focus from creating ever faster novelty for consumers to creating ongoing experiences that engage users across time. The approaches reviewed here attempt to change the infrastructure for commitment as well as tie “novelty” to slower natural cycles and to adaptability embedded in products or structures.

Originally published in October 2012 on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI here.



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Post Growth Institute

Writing by team-members, guest contributors, and Fellows of the Post Growth Institute (PGI).