The dark underbelly of the design world
Let me just put it out there. Creating anything for anyone (simply because they’re willing to pay) sets a dangerous precedent for designers. And I don’t just mean product designers. I mean all sorts of designers with even the slightest iota of skill and a pinch of ambition.
I don’t think anyone could have said it better than the foremost man in the field of design himself. Don Norman lashed out (if you can call it that, softest of humans that he is) at corporations in his typical esoteric manner while worrying that “the way we design today is wrong!” (sic).
Every time I watch this short video below (Yes, I’ve watched it more than once), it really makes me think of all the products that we as consumers simply refuse to live without, even though we very well can and our lives won’t be affected at all.
Evolution and methamorphosis of design
You see, we’ve come a long way since what I believe to be the very first and the simplest design innovation in human existence, AKA the cutting/hunting knife. Now, THAT WAS and continues to remain an essential product that we simply cannot function without.
Anyway, crude though the very first knife was, it served its purpose extremely well, motivating humans to further pursue their creative abilities, untouched by any commercial agenda yet. Why? Because these products were designed expressly out of necessity and not greed.
These pursuits were also what led to the design and invention of the stone wheel, the primordial version of all the wheels that we use on our vehicles, airplanes and similar machines.
All good so far, because you see it was still about creating essential products intended to make human lives just a little more simpler and to speed up a lot of life’s daily, mundane tasks. The birth of the Industrial Revolution was a result of that very vision.
But then about a century later arrived the digital age (information age) - a period of wanton indulgence in electronic devices and an indolent, causeless dependence on those very machines for every little thing that we could very easily accomplish using simply our brains and limbs.
No less than an affliction, it all began with harmless fascination, lingered around as reliance on what we got used to as our ever-present personal assistants and festered into a snobbish sense of pride in owning devices that keep getting sold for preposterous prices, egged on by this hyper contagious consumerism that will swallow us whole one fine day.
I’m not a serial whiner, but if a $1499 price tag for a mobile phone - whose primary purpose is mostly to let us make and receive calls - has become a normalized trend en masse, then there is something deeply wrong with the concept of design in our present day world.
I don’t know what’s more concerning really. The fact that we love gloating over our newly acquired, vulgarly expensive gizmos that we bought to not be beat by others or that we completely ignore the harmful impact that the manufacturing process of these products have on our environment?
But the elephant in the room is not really the absurd valuation of these devices. No, it is the latter one, which is much bigger and graver, putting human lives into imminent jeopardy in its wake. For those who simply can’t exist without digital devices, my statement might come across as a wild exaggeration, although they cannot pass it off as untrue.
This is exactly the moment when I’d like to use a quote by one of the most vociferous critics of the world’s governments and corporations, the inimitable David Suzuki. A staunch voice on how products should be designed and made, Suzuki’s words runneth thus -
“The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity -- then we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective."
Is design trouncing sustainability?
The future of our climate, and in fact humanity itself, is in the hands of those who design computer programs and other technologies. How so? Because it’s a thin veil that separates the real world from the digital/virtual world today.
A lot of people are of the opinion that designers aren’t really responsible for environmental damage because they are so far away from causing major pollution, an opinion that could change soon. What I believe is designers are the new gatekeepers of climate change since they play an integral role in designing technology that has either positive or negative consequences on our environment.
Designers are in a unique position to understand how their decisions will impact the world around them. With climate change being one of those issues, it's important that they take on more responsibility for judgment and decision-making when designing technologies, which will have an integral role throughout this century – either helping solve problems or making things worse.
For years now we've been complaining about climate change and how little action has been taken by government agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). This seems like a mere preponderance compared to other issues such as gun violence, which take up much more attention from Americans these days after the series of mass shooting incidents that happen sporadically in different parts of the country.
Let’s talk about plastic waste, which is reaching catastrophic levels in the earth’s oceans, throwing sea life into a bleak future where plastic is projected to far outweigh them if this keeps on. In the event of an absence of any serious action, the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans is estimated to be almost triple the current amount, reaching 29 million metric tons by 2040.
Thwarting that foreseeable future will be a herculean task to say the very least, especially since a country like the US produces 17% of the world’s total plastic waste. Think of all those third-world countries where plastic is the most common grocery bag because people there are not fully aware of plastic pollution yet.
Here’s a list of 20 countries with the most amount of plastic waste production in the world. Spoiler alert: the names are going to take you by surprise.
Problem is, plastic is used as the raw material to produce a whole lot of products, starting from beverage bottles to kitchen utensils to even automobile parts. But, the most proliferate use of plastic is undoubtedly as a shopping bag.
There’s simply no getting away from it. Where does one look for answers for a sustainable future under such circumstances?
UX design has the potential to alter and upgrade human lives. But does it even make any significant contribution towards the objective of sustainability? User-centered designs depend heavily on designers putting in all their concentration and efforts on what consumers need and want, but usually without any real deliberation on whether their creation will ultimately kill off humans or not.
The role that designers play in enabling sustainability calls for a turnaround from the course that the design world is headed towards currently. And it’s not just the designers, but consumers and large scale communities that also need to participate to make it work.
Where design & consumerism cross over
Ideologically speaking (the idealist that I am), we live in a throwaway society where users are encouraged to keep buying new items and consume more. This is because businesses make money off of our consumption, so they create things that we want but don't need as much, such as mobile phones with deliberate built-in failure modes, leading to shorter lives.
Businesses are encouraged by this consumerist mindset and produce more goods, which end up getting thrown away after a short period because there's always something newer coming out every year or two. It doesn't help either side when companies like Apple create designs specifically made to not last long.
In fact, Planned Obsolescence, which is a corporate approach towards knowingly designing and manufacturing product versions that won’t last beyond a specific period in the future, has become almost something of a common practice these days. I bet many of you weren’t even aware that such a strategy even existed.
Tech giant Apple had to face the legal ire of 150,000 iPhone users in Chile and subsequently cough up $3.4 million to settle the lawsuit. The user grievance - iPhones that slowed down after the users installed software update released before December 21, 2017, a classic example of planned obsolescence.
Although small in terms of impact, the pushback to planned obsolescence and the rollback of the throwaway society is taking off in separate parts of the world. And the people that are leading this movement are those that are taking a stand against companies like Apple and a handful of those that are thankfully untouched by consumerism.
It’s important that you consider the implications of your actions on a much wider scale than you would usually think (if you think at all). A great user experience can be both an amazing gift for those who need and receive it, but also something that has far-reaching consequences, which could ultimately hurt those who were not intended to be the end users.
Merely providing good services isn't enough. Our goal must always stay balanced between doing just enough while being careful not to overstep boundaries and create negative feedback loops with potential side effects that could linger for years, especially the psychologically traumatic ones.
So, though grim and tragic enough to touch a raw nerve, I’d like to bring up the untimely death of a 34-year-old temporary Walmart worker who got tramped by 2,000 frenzied Black Friday shoppers in Long Island, NY in 2008. So driven was the crowd by their consumerist lust that even when being cleared from the store after the incident, they made their anger and disappointment very clear because they were “in the line since the previous morning.”
What is it that drives a horde of mindless consumers towards such overpriced and most likely unimportant products that don’t even have any real contribution to society? All I know is that inflicted by an acute sense of FOMO, those that cannot afford the retail prices are feeding the greed of corporations and vice versa.
In their state of trance, do they even realize that they’re drifting further away from humanity and slipping into an abyss of self-destruction? Remember those clichéd scenes of deserted streets filled with piles of discarded, broken machineries and cars from dystopian films? The rate at which we’re going, those scenes won’t just be in movies anymore.
Designing a product or service with the end-user in mind is not just good marketing; it’s essential to creating something people actually want. To do this, designers must stay informed on how their audience use their products and services so that they can make sure they are being used properly—and avoid any potential problems before they arise.
Designing for the humanity of people is at heart a good designer's work. Understanding your audience and their needs will help you create products that solve problems, not just satisfy desires.
Design should be undertaken with an understanding about who and what we are designing for. Designers have responsibilities beyond creating beautiful designs. They must also ensure that their creations do no harm by continuing to address issues even when there may seem like nothing left to fix or improve.
"Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that's why it is so complicated." -- Paul Rand, graphic designer
Designing for sustainability
Now, just because consumerism is at an all time high doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no hope for a sustainable future. In fact, some of the leading brands are beginning to take sustainability seriously, especially these 10 companies that are on a mission of delivering sustainable solutions, to the surprise of some I’m going to bet.
As we become more aware that preserving our environment has an impact not only on what surrounds us but also how people feel when using products and even services, designers should think about whether their creations can be made sustainable in order for them to be both aesthetically and environmentally viable.
In order to ensure that the long-term impact of these products is positive, designers need to have a better understanding of how their designs will play out. This means taking into account more than just what's going on in front offices and meeting rooms; it also involves considering consequences like social justice issues or environmental implications outside an individual company’s scope.
Designers are often in a position to make the first sustainable design decisions, but they need space and support from other teams. By working closely with marketing professionals, for example, who can help create alternative paths based on audience needs, designer's ideas may become more informed rather than just throwing something out there without considering consequences or implications.
In the ever-growing world of digital design, it is important to consider both our users and society at large. We must not only think about what will make people happy but also how these choices impact others around us.
The industry holds great responsibility in empowering designers with tools for positive creativity that will lead us all toward a better future through mindful use of technology and design intelligence. To that end, it’s also about creating an accessible and inclusive world.
And that’s how designers should start with every project, not just when there's some problem or issue cropping up that forces them into thinking about it again. Because at its core, their profession is one focused on helping people achieve their goals while also making sure they stay safe, which means the quest for learning and improving never stops.
We keep our flame for knowledge and our commitment for sustainability alive at all times and cost, which is reflective through our projects that scream minimalism and green design. Write to our UX & web designers at 0707 Agency to learn more about our design approach and how we can apply it to help you achieve your goal without any negative impact on the planet.