How can the discipline of design challenge excessive consumerism? It’s all based on the intricate relationships we establish with our designed environment. Humans love their belongings not only for their function. Don Norman explains that the visceral, behavioural and reflective aspects play a role in design (compare: Norman, 2004, p. 39):
- Visceral – appeals to appearances, related to the pre-thought level
- Behavioural – pleasure, effectiveness of use, appealing to experiences
- Reflective – rationalisation, intellectualisation, referring to the stories, the identity that we establish around the object
A durable design would appeal to all of these levels and engage the consumers in a rather long-term and versatile relationship with the objects. Norman furthermore underlines the important role of aesthetics in product design: “Attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively” (Norman, p. 19). Although people often love ugly things for the stories that are attached to them, aesthetics are thought of as facilitating an initial positive response to the objects.
The stories behind our designs
Stuart Walker puts forward the notion of spirituality in design. If objects possess a value that transgresses the worldly use, people become more attached to them. Design should not be following the corporate utilitarian notion of progress, instead it should be “informed by broader apprehensions of human meaning” (Walker, 2014, p. 83). This can be closely connected to the stories, the narratives, that surround the objects. Narratives form an important tool of sense making across cultures. Humans use story telling and cultural narratives to establish a feeling of connection with their history and cultural values and, most importantly, to form their cultural identity. Linda Martín Alcoff defines identities as “positioned or located lived experiences in which both individuals and groups work to construct meaning in relation to historical experience and historical narratives” (Martin Alcoff, 2005, p. 42). Objects are tools for the construction of these narratives; they contain the stories that we build our identity upon.
We establish an emotional relationship with objects that evoke meaning and feelings in us rather than just the apprehension of their practical use. Sustainable design can rely on these structures by reinforcing the emotional bond between the consumer and the objects. Things that we are emotionally attached to are less likely to end up in landfills.
Jonathan Chapman refers to this mechanism as emotional durability: “Emotionally durable design explores the idea of creating a deeper, more sustainable bond between people and their material things. The ultimate aim is to reduce the consumption and waste of resources by increasing the durability of relationships between consumers and products” (Chapman, 2015, p. 21).
It is clear that these emotional bonds are being capitalised on an industrial scale as they form the base for marketing campaigns. However, sustainable design should aim at overcoming the mere capitalist intentions and focus on the responsible use of resources and the whole lifecycle of a product.
Alastair Fuad-Luke advocates an activist design, a “design that does not affirm the industrial agendas but challenges and questions it” (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p. 120).
Design can play a leading role in social change by challenging current consumer practices. Many methods like the co-creation of products and modular designs are gaining popularity and could have a tremendous impact on the ways we consume.
Alcoff, L. M. (2005). Visible identities: Race, gender, and the self. Oxford University Press.
Chapman, J. (2015). Emotionally Durable Design. Objects, Experiences & Empathy. Second Edition. Abingdon, New York: Routledge.
Fuad-Luke, A. (2009). Design Activism. Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. London, Sterling: Earthscan.
Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional Design. Why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York: Basic Books.
Walker, S. (2014). Designing Sustainability- Making Radical Changes in a Material World. Oxon, New York: Routledge.