Designed for Disposal

March 26, 2013

“Planned obsolescence… companies deliberately design products with a limited life, so you have to buy the same thing again.”

This is an excerpt from a video by Vitsoe, a design driven furniture company that has the ethos ‘Living better, with less, that lasts longer’.

It is in our human psychology to have the desire to own products that are new, different, more in the style of the moment and just a little bit newer. It is the ethos of the marketing and sales departments at most companies. It might even be the ethos for company objectives in general. Obsolescence plays into a human psychological ‘weakness’ and companies are very good at making use of it in order to sell more products. These are new products we don’t really need and are not genuinely better than the ‘old’ products we are replacing. Short time satisfaction that leaves us with a lot of stuff we don’t need or should have. It simply leaves us with a lot of waste. Far from being sustainable, I might add.

The problem is that planned obsolescence works so well in selling more products. It enables companies to do the single most important thing on their agenda: sell more products, and thus generate higher profits.

A clear example is IKEA. We all know them, and many of us buy products from them. Their products are relatively cheap, come in many (style) options and every year or so there is a new collection. This time just a little newer, different looking, more shiny and with a funky new colour. It is the same principle of planned obsolescence. IKEA themselves call it; ‘democratic design’ or ‘design for everyone’. “While keeping great quality,” they add.

There are a few problems with all of this. The first being dishonesty. They use the word ‘design’ to add so called value. In reality, they just add to the inflation of the word design. That does not have anything to do with good design. They call it democratic, because they sell products for a price many can afford. While that may be true to some degree, as a designer I believe this to be totally the wrong approach. Good design needs to be about better products that, as Vitsoe says, ‘last longer’. In other words, it needs to be sustainable. IKEA products are very attainable at its low retail price. To say it has high quality is just dishonest. It simply isn’t top quality. It is made of low quality materials. It is so simplistic we as ‘consumers’ can even assemble it. Most will say all of that does not matter as they want to buy new versions in one, three or maybe five years anyway. And that makes sense. At that moment it is either broken, damaged or consumers are simply tired of the look and feel of it. So we go back to IKEA and buy new stuff; planned obsolescence. All the ‘old stuff’ ends up on top of the big pile of waste. But most consumers don’t really notice that so don’t care, right?
The whole design and business approach of IKEA (and many others) is one of non-sustainability, wastefulness, fashionable and superficial aims. It has nothing to do with simplicity but everything with simplistic.

The big problem lies within the focus of most of these companies. Design for them is so often about sales opportunities, marketing objectives, competitiveness and doing something new that is in the latest style. The design of so many products is determined by profitability in the short term. Knowing people will get bored or fed up with the ‘obtrusiveness’ of the product and so throw it away and buy a new version, as explained in the IKEA example above.

A good designer’s first duty is to the user and understanding their needs, wants, use and even emotions. Design should be user-orientated. Companies should take the risk and do something that is genuinely new and better. Don’t tell everyone products are innovative just to sell them. Instead work hard and make sure they really are innovative. After all, if they truly are you don’t have to say it that much. People know they are. Good design takes time, a lot of effort, craftsmanship, focus and a mix of trial and error. Because of this, it can never report to a marketing plan, time constraint or budget. They all matter, but always as part of the design process, never the other way around.

As Dieter Rams once said, “Simplicity is the stripping away of all that is unnecessary.” What I’m saying is for all companies out there, and those most definitely include lighting companies of course, the “stripping away of all that is unnecessary” does not only have value with designing products. It should apply to companies and how they operate as well. Steve Jobs described this well for the big companies with leading market positions, in an interview he did when he said;
“When a company has a monopoly position, sales and marketing people run the company, not product people. If that company would make a better product, it doesn’t matter. The company is not going to be more successful considering them already having the monopoly position. It is the sales and marketing people who can make the company more successful. The product people get driven out of decision making forums and the companies forget what it means to make great products. The product genius or sensibility that brought the company to the monopoly position get rotted out by the people that have no conception of the difference between good or bad products.”1

Sadly, I believe the above doesn’t only happen with companies that have a monopoly position, but also others as they try to be more successful and make more money. If we really want to be innovative and come up with better products within the lighting industry (and outside for that matter) we really need to shift our goals and focus.
If companies are really as sustainable as they say they are, then they need to have fewer products that are better designed and thus longer lasting. But as of now, most companies use ‘sustainability’ as an empty marketing tool for branding. The companies that take sustainability seriously and are authentic about it are almost as scarce as the number of companies who take design really seriously.

I’m saying the things that most companies might not want to hear or take action upon, just like our parents used to do when we were children. And just like we knew as children, the people making up all those companies know we need to make the change. It is just hard to do.

Citations: 1 – Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview (2011)

Thomas Wensma is founder of Ambassador Design.