Explore the Canadian creative economy.
Discover the makers/companies behind Brand Canada.
Design is stuck. Once earning cultural respect as a powerful way to disrupt and innovate, design is now recognized as the principle force behind materialism and the growth economy. We live saturated in planned obsolescence, where daily life is presented with a flow of endless new forms, a stream that eventually makes everything we use useless. Design stimulates consumers to buy, not for need, but for desire, and is a exacting a serious toll on our planet, and ourselves. Is design a force for good or bad? Here, we look squarely at what we feel are The Deadly Sins of Design: Toxicity, Stereotype, Malfunction, Wastefulness, Meanness and Alienation.
Most rubber duckies and other chew toys are made of rubber and plastic with chemical softening agents added to give the toys their chewable texture. Unfortunately, when babies chew on the toys, these same agents, many of which are known carcinogens, can leach out and become ingested. While toy manufacturers claim that the risk to children is minimal, many scientists disagree and several of these toxic chemicals and materials (such as BPA) have been banned by Canada and many other countries.
In theory, toxicity should be easy to avoid by simply identifying and using instead materials that are not toxic to humans and the earth. However, the use of such materials depends on whether designers and manufacturers are willing to use more healthy alternatives. Most designers are happy to put in the extra time and effort to determine the best materials to use, so it helps if consumers demand these safer alternatives. Manufacturers can be persuaded to switch to safe ingredients, but consumer pressure is critical to inspire changes on large scale. That said, it’s not impossible and is increasingly common as the population becomes more educated about the products they consume.
It’s a known fact that gender specific products sell better than unisex. So, it makes sense that companies create distinct male/female packaging for comparable products, deodorant for example. While the men’s version is packaged in a wide, angular dispenser with names like Lightening, the female version is packaged in a slender, delicate, curved form. As a result, women typically get less product and by virtue of what the market will bear, pay more.
This stereotype is relatively innocuous, but we felt its prevalence warrants attention. Despite political correctness, cultural, gender and other stereotypes often find their way into design; and these stereotypes are (however unfortunately) a common and effective marketing device.
Creating well-functioning items is the basic goal of design, yet it sometimes eludes designers. Function is deceivingly complex and with tight deadlines, budgets and constraints, we can end up with designs that malfunction. On rare occasions these are catastrophic, like certain safety recalls can illustrate. Other designs sacrifice function for stylistic impact – Phillipe Starck’s Juicy Salif juicer is a famous example, a striking object that doesn’t juice well, leaving a mess on the counter and hands. The majority of malfunctions are far more mundane and that’s why they are so often overlooked. For example, the stainless steel teapots common in restaurants are infamous for their poor functionality. There are numerous makes and designs, yet most of them dribble and spill. We take for granted that certain objects just don’t function very well.
Despite a growing awareness of environmental issues, wastefulness has become so common, some of us must think it a virtue. Typically, good design has strived to create enduring objects, thoughtfully utilizing materials to minimize both cost and waste, and embrace wear. Today, many designers have abandoned these goals, instead embracing disposability in the name of luxury and convenience. Cleaning tools, like the classic Swiffer, are such wasteful devices. Instead of a reusable mop head, they uses disposable ‘cloths’ that are moistened with a cleaning solution. When you finish cleaning the floor, the cloth and cleaner are thrown away. Sadly, the actual Swiffer was terribly inefficient at actually cleaning the floor and this only compounds its wastefulness.
Novelty could be considered industrial design’s ‘original sin’. Though it may be difficult for some of us to imagine, there was a time when manufacturers were content to produce the same products year after year, introducing occasional design changes only to improve function. During the early twentieth century, the burgeoning profession of industrial design introduced the concepts of product restyling and yearly model changes. While such redesigned products offered little in the way of genuine improvement, the novelty of these ‘new and improved’ items proved extremely successful for increasing sales. Today, given the looming dangers brought on by this kind of chronic over consumption, encouraging people to buy what they already have, is no longer desirable.
Gillette’s razors are a blatant example of novelty at work. In the search for an ever-closer shave their Mach 3 razor contains a small battery powered motor that causes the blades to vibrate. Sure, the Mach 3 Power gives a close shave, but is it really any closer than the original? How much closer can a shave get? Given the merger of Gillette and Duracel (the razor comes with a free Duracel battery), this may have more to do with co-branding than it does a closer shave.
By most standards the 9mm handgun is a well designed object – simple, reliable and efficient. Unfortunately, it’s not good for much besides killing. Meanness is unique among the deadly sins. While any well-intentioned designer can ‘slip up’ and produce a design that malfunctions or is more gimmick than genuine innovation, meanness is deliberate. With that in mind, it can be disheartening to realize just how much of humanity’s resources are aimed at producing cruel and even lethal designs. Eventually, we do reap some benefit from these efforts, many of our technological advances have been adapted from military applications, but these are just byproducts of our advancements in hostility. Imagine what might be developed if these resources were aimed directly at producing joy.
Sometimes the technologies and systems intended to make our lives better actually hurt our quality of life. ATM’s, cell phones, video-on-demand, and the Internet are all great conveniences that few of us would be willing to give up. On the other hand, these designs can sometimes lead to anti-social behaviors, distancing us from people in our communities and in extreme cases, even our own families.
Architects are especially conscious of the dangers alienation. Unlike the technologies above, which we choose to consume or not, with architecture we often have little choice. For this reason (and of course, many others) architects give special consideration to site – location is everything. But, with the rise of the franchise and the big box store, many architects seem to be abandoning this basic principal of good design. The architecture of box stores ignore physical and social surroundings, offering the same uninspiring format whether in Kamloops, British Columbia or Montreal, Quebec. As this architecture spreads through our cities, it eradicates local differences and leaves behind public spaces that offer little opportunity for interaction. If you live in a town that has been turned into a strip mall, you likely understand just how devastating this can be.
We want to design grow in relevance, to move beyond all these sins. As designers, we have a responsibility to aim higher and as consumers we should demand better design. This insatiable desire for more, better, and newer stuff is draining the planet and threatening our future. When we start asking for and purchasing better objects, and celebrating better spaces and experiences, we will get them.
Illustrations by Tanya Wilson.