I recently finished watching Objectified, Gary Hustwit’s documentary about industrial design. It was a fantastic introduction to a field about which I have very little knowledge, and highly recommended viewing. Hustwit shows the tools of the trade, from pencils and paper to CAD software, and highlights current issues such as planned obsolescence and environmental sustainability.
One aspect of the film that rang false, though, was its treatment of the politics of design. Hustwit and some of his subjects touched briefly on the “democratization of design”, a trend that is bringing well-designed products to market in more widely accessible price ranges. To a certain extent, this seems to be an attainable goal. IKEA is one company at the forefront of the democratic design movement. Target is another; both brands are household names, and they do (often) succeed in producing low-cost, nice-looking things.
However, two of the most memorable interviews in the film are with David Kelley and Bill Moggridge, both of IDEO, who stress that a well-designed object should get better with time. This is where supposedly democratically-designed products fall short; they may be aesthetically pleasing and easy to use, but the reason they’re inexpensive is often because they’re made from cheap materials. Unlike David Kelley’s leather briefcase, an equally “well designed” briefcase from Target will probably be synthetic and won’t last long enough to be passed down from father to son.
This problem reminds me of another I’ve been thinking about lately, prompted by the minimalists. Very roughly, the premise of their blog is that our quality of life improves when we own less “stuff,” and very roughly, I agree with them. It’s much nicer to have one good pair of shoes than three cheap pairs, and it’s a better decision to buy one good briefcase that will last a lifetime (or more) than to replace a cheap one several times. At the same time, though, these choices are luxuries. The article linked above argues that minimalism benefits both high-income and low-income consumers, which in theory it should. In practice, though, high-quality, long-lasting goods are simply not accessible to everyone. This is the next challenge that design will have to meet in order to be truly democratic.
More Recommended Reading on Democratizing Design
- Forbes on Autodesk’s investment in democratic design
- Another take on the meaning of democratic design, which focuses more on the democratization of the design process than the end product
- IKEA’s design philosophy