Product Design

2 Cars, 5 Mobile Phones, and 38 Pairs of Underpants: On 10 Years of Consumption

“Enormous weight is attached to all the objects that Robinson Crusoe saves from the wrecked ship or makes with his own hands. I would say that the moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic”

Italo Calvino, Quickness, Six Memos for the Next Millennium [1]

For just over 10 years, from 2000 to 2011, I kept a public list of every consumer item that I bought. You can see the list on the website Shornbare.com, which I built in 1999, back in what seems like now the early days of the web.

My intentions for the website were hazy at the time but they were part of an urge to both examine and expose my life and in so doing to create a persona that, although related to me, also allowed some form of creative freedom; a blurring between documentary and fictional documentary. I never attempted to publicise the site in any way, apart from occasionally sending a link to someone who I thought might be interested – mainly work colleagues or friends – and there were no contact details. Instead I imagined someone stumbling across it accidently and attempting, from the lists and work recorded there, to figure out the kind of person behind it all. And I include myself in that category of people that accidently stumbled across the site.

The examining and exposing of my life had a kind of moral purpose as well. On the one hand I felt that I’d got into a cycle of consuming too much, but on the other I was intrigued about what that consumption did for me in terms of my activity and life more generally. I conceptualised my consumption as input; a necessary part of transforming my life into new things of value, and I imagined my life as a machine, fuelled by the things I bought and finely-tuned in operation to produce energy, and motion, and forward travel. That’s easy to express for something like music, for example, where one can beat a path between what one listens to and what one produces. It’s not so clear for something like a pair of jeans or a mobile phone. What I was also interested in, of course, was whether these things of value were, in fact, valuable. That is to say, was all the consumption worth it? Was I a stuttering machine rather than a finely-tuned one? A machine with borderline affluenza [2].

I was also interested in another kind of life, and that was the life that ‘things’ have, from their birth (into my life) through to their death (thrown away, lost, given away, or sold). The period in between birth and death, during which the thing becomes part of your life, spawned a series of sub-questions; how often are useful things used? how do things become valuable things? It has always struck me that by far the largest proportion of a thing’s life is spent not being actively used. Chairs just mainly abide, waiting for someone to come along and sit on them; a kettle waits to be called into brief, powerful, service before being left neglected on the kitchen counter-top again. I set out wanting to document all the lives of all the things that came into my life; to map the magnetism and magic in Calvino’s terms.

So this was an inquiry both into the lives of inanimate things, but also into how those lives affected my life. These concerns, of cause and effect, were, and still are, echoed in my professional research where I’ve always been interested in how the intentions of a designer, in forming a design, affect the lives of those who go on to use the design and who may know nothing of the designer and her intentions.

What I decided I needed was to make myself objective both to other people, who could judge for themselves what it all meant, but also to myself, to allow me to experience myself analytically, as someone separate from me; someone other. I needed to create a distance between myself as a consuming machine and myself as a functioning person. Essentially to be able to ask myself the existential question: who is this person and how do the things around them allow them to exist?

So this is what I found.

Between November 2000 and January 2012 I bought and listed 878 things.

What counts as a thing?

Initially, I thought of the list as being solely about products – coffee machines, iPods, telephones, etc. – but that was way too narrow a definition – lots of meaningful stuff like clothes, cars, houses, and bicycles had to be there. Fairly early on I decided to set a minimum price, something like £4, with anything costing less than that, like light bulbs, not making the list. There was no upper limit.

Books, music, and films it seemed to me to belong to a different category of thing – more like delivery mechanisms for changing content – and that play a slightly different, perhaps more cerebral, role in life. I listed those separately on my website [3] as well as adding one photo a month from all those I was taking [4].

Then there are odd things that crop up. What about gifts? I decided they didn’t count, either things given to me, since I had not chosen them as something I needed, or things that I’d given to others which, although in a sense needed by me, didn’t play an active part in my own life other than the initial giving. What about things that were bought for me at work, like an Apple laptop?  I decided not to list these, although I used them outside of my working life they were mainly used for work activity.  And things that deplete – like aftershave or paint? I decided they could make the list as long as there was potential for them to be loved, though throwing away an empty bottle of aftershave or tin of paint is obviously different from throwing away a desk lamp that you no longer want. But that discounted, for example, petrol or washing powder. It seems to me to be the brand (Shell, Persil, Heinz) that is doing the sole work there to inveigle the raw stuff into your affections. Then there is software – what to do about that? I started off putting it down, but it just didn’t feel right, and when Apps came along with smart phones, they didn’t seem right as ‘things’ either. So they didn’t get listed.

Then there were things that were parts of other things, usually as replacement or routine maintenance; bike and car tyres for example, which I listed. I also listed things that functioned as raw material for other things, like wooden planks for example. And there were overlaps between types of things, mainly between sports clothing and clothing, for example, though they seem to me to be doing slightly different things.

There were times when I forgot to list things for one reason or another, or where inconsistency crept in over the years. But hey, I’m not claiming this as science, I just wanted to get a better understanding of the shape of my life and its relation to stuff.

So, 878 things in just over 10 years.

That number was smaller than I was expecting. Worked through as one thing every four days, though, it seems like a lot. The paradox is right there. In large numbers there is only quantity; in small numbers there is quality. In amongst these things were 2 cars (both German), 4 cameras, 5 mobile phones, 3 computers, 2 houses, and 5 fountain pens.

Most of the 878 things were items of clothing – 30% of them in fact, or one item of clothing every 14 days. Over those ten years I bought 24 pairs of jeans, 19 pairs of shoes, 30 T-shirts, 55 pairs of socks and 38 pairs of underpants.

250 of the items, or just less than 30%, were sports related, although 129, just over half of those sport things, were items of clothing. 130 things related to cycling, 27 to golf, 27 to squash, 19 to running, and 15 to swimming. And that gives a pretty good reading of my sporting life in those 10 years – cycling and running throughout, giving up squash with an arthritic big toe, and taking up golf (there is a nice symmetry to that number 27). 20 bike tyres does seem kind of excessive though.

198 things related to the house, either things to situate within the house or to use for decorating and arrangement. And then, of course, there are the two houses themselves. Two houses and two cars in 10 years seems pretty modest to me.

Of the remaining things 20 of them (2%) relate to playing music in some form or other – pianos, effects, recording devices, software; and 44 (5%) are what I called personal (6 bottles of aftershave, though I’m sure I’ve bought more, 5 fountain pens, and 3 pairs of sunglasses).

So that’s the stuff; just over 10 years collapsed into 5 paragraphs. What’s happened to it?

Of those 878 items I no longer have 593 of them. Of the things that have gone I have given away 127 (mainly items of clothing to charity shops), I’ve lost 17 things, sold 96, had 5 things stolen – including Stumpy, a much-loved mountain bike – and thrown away 322 things. That’s right, 322 (or 37%) of items that I’ve had in the last 10 years have gone in the bin. A few will have been things that were simply used up, but not many.

The good news is I still have 285 of the 878 things I bought!

And some of them I’ve kept for a long time. Of 67 things I bought in 2001, 14 years ago, I still have 16 – almost 25% of them, 5 of which I consider highly valued. Three of those highly valued things relate to cycle touring – panniers and a handlebar pack – one is Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer (below) that always finds a prominent position in the places I’ve lived, and the final thing is a Cambridge hi-fi amplifier, still pumping out the tunes, although recently developing a frustrating buzz (perhaps time for a new one?).

Philippe Starck Lemon Squeezer, bought in 20xx

Philippe Starck Lemon Squeezer, an item I value highly, bought in 2001.

At the other end of the scale, of the 87 things I bought in 2011, 4 years ago, I still have 56 (65%), 25 of which are ‘high value’ items. 18 of those things are items of clothing, 5 are things relating to cycling, and the remaining 2 are things relating to golf.

The oldest thing in my list that I still have (and value highly) is an Ikea dining table (below), solid and simple, bought in 2000.

An Ikea table

The oldest ‘high value’ thing in my list – an Ikea table, bought in 2000.

Really it is the things that I’ve rated as ‘high value’ that I’m interested in and that, on the surface, hold the key to uncovering how things have become meaningful in my life. ‘High value’ is just a subjective measure; a feeling that, when I read the name of the thing on a list, I like the thing. It conjures up its image, it makes me smile, I can call it to mind easily, and re-experience the pleasure and quality the thing gave me in its use.

So of the 878 original things, I’ve rated 161 of them (18%), as having high value. The largest proportion of these things are 59 items of clothing closely followed by 51 items of sport, 23 ‘house’ items, and 17 electronic items.

If I look down the list of high value items 25 of them I have used in the last month, 6 I have used today, and I am currently using 3 – my Wacom graphics tablet (13 years old), my Bosch washing machine (12 years old), and my Carhartt leather belt (4 years old).

Wacom Graphics Tablet, a high value thing, bought in 20xx

Wacom Graphics Tablet, an item I consider as ‘high value’ and that I am using at this moment,  bought in 2002.

That’s it! The raw stats about all the things I’ve bought and used over a 10 year period. I can’t help feeling disappointed – is 18% all I have to show in terms of value in 10 years?

Where I failed was in fully documenting the life of each thing. At the beginning it seemed simple enough, recording the narrative arc of a thing’s life. The expectations at birth, the early difficulties, the later years of declining use and usefulness. The inevitable end. Of those 878 possible stories I only actually recorded 24 of these and I realise now that this mainly happened when something out of a normal narrative happened – the product failed or broke (a Canondale mountain bike), or I lost it (a Nokia 6510 mobile phone, a Sony portable CD player), or I got it repaired or replaced (a Parker fountain pen). Most of the stuff just abided with me for a length of time and then got thrown away; that’s the normal narrative, hardly worth recording.

I did notice that there were clusters of things that supported certain activities. Golf clubs, bags, shoes, shirts, and trousers for golf; computers, software, keyboards, mixers, and cables for music recording. It wasn’t necessarily the things in themselves that I valued but their combination, providing a scaffold for entertainment, enjoyment and a feeling of progress and development somehow. My investment in these things was also an investment in a certain activity, though I realised after a while that it is a fine balance; the need to have the thing that is smaller, operates faster, is more responsive and efficient can quickly become the focus of your activity rather than the activity itself. Buying a new mountain bike might make big improvements to comfort and performance but it is still the feeling of being out in the middle of the countryside and turning the pedals that I value most.

Unexpectedly, the clothes category contains the highest number of ‘high value’ items. Clothes, it seems to me, become you in a way that other things don’t. They lie close to your skin, they take on your scent, they construct and project your identity – in colour, in form, in detail – and provide a level of comfort and reassurance; a structure to exist in. Clothes adapt themselves to us and they, as we, change through the years, both as fashion changes, but also through continual cleaning. Jeans get looser, T-shirts fade, underpants slowly grow bigger. You grow into them as much as they grow into you; it’s a symbiotic relationship. One thing I have learned is that wear can be a source of value; scratches that accumulate on a plate or surface, marks and dents that record events and interactions (Figure 4). Things can capture a shared history, so no wonder clothes set-off positive memories.

Three imperfect things: (left) laptop dropped at airport x-ray machine, (middle) Phillipe Starck Lemon Squeezer, leg broken and then repaired, (right) acoustic guitar scraped.

Figure 4. Three imperfect things: (left) An Apple MacBook Air dropped at Biarritz airport x-ray machine, (middle) Phillipe Starck Lemon Squeezer, leg broken and then repaired, (right) Simon & Patrick acoustic guitar banged against furniture.

Sports are the next largest proportion of highest value items and (apart from the sports clothes, see above) represent the possibility of a Heideggerian sense of connection; the piece of sports equipment becomes invisible to your consciousness in becoming part of the wholeness of your performance. When you connect with a squash ball, tennis ball, golf ball so well that it seems like something metaphysical happens; when you flow down a hill on a bike as if floating on air. Sports equipment is intimately involved in your triumphs (small though they sometimes are) and also your failures (large though they sometimes appear).

That description of high value items might be applied to other products too, though less often. When I use my iPhone, or drive a car, or play guitar it sometimes feels like me and the thing are thinking together. I just don’t get that with a printer, or a kettle, or a light; those things mainly just function, though obviously they have to fit the environment and get along with the other things.

So where things work the best is when their story becomes my story, when our narratives combine even just for a short time. That’s when the magnetism and magic works with me in a way that I don’t even notice; the supporting cast to my star-of-the-show. Actually, reviewing my list in its entirety I am amazed by the number of things that I can remember quite distinctly, whether I’ve valued them or not. I often remember where I bought a thing, though not usually where I parted with it. Things provoke memories and recall experiences; the more the thing becomes you, the more intense and emotional that memory is likely to be. Like music, things take you back, things help you out, but they don’t solve the vast majority of your problems.

So what kind of machine am I? I think a not too efficient one, though there have been moments of purring performance. It seems I have far more input than output [4]. I also have a nagging feeling that if I had input less then I would have output more; that I haven’t made best use of the machine or even misunderstood its basic operation. I can’t claim to dislike the person whose life I have examined through this inquiry, but I can’t claim any love either. The things, although constituting a significant part of life, don’t, in the final analysis, really matter that much.

The reason I don’t buy home insurance is that I hope that one day I’ll come home and all my things will be gone. Then I’ll have a blank sheet, to start all over again.

[1] Italo Calvino (1984) Quickness in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Harvard University Press.

[2] Oliver James (2007) Affluenza, Vermilion.

[3] Links to my various lists (inputs) on Shornbare.com are here: 15 years of books, 14 years of music, 15 years of films

[4] Links to my various outputs on Shornbare.com are here: 10 years of one photo a month, other stuff

Design of a Do-Hicky (or Not so New After All)

Some years ago I wrote a paper [1] looking at the representation of the design process on television which analysed three programmes featuring the well known (at least in the UK) design partnership of Seymour-Powell. Each programme attempted to show the difference design could make to three ‘everyday’ things – the electric car, the toilet, and the bra.

Of the three programmes the latter, about the design of the bra, was most successful and resulted in a product, called the Bioform, that reached the market for underwear manufacturer Charnos. Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, in trying to completely rethink the product, focused on reducing the number of components in bra manufacture, making use of new materials, and increasing the comfort of wearing a bra. The programme is still available to view through the Channel 4 website here.

Since writing the paper, I have become increasingly interested in the way design is represented and talked about both on television and in feature films, so the following little scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo intrigued me. Midge, a supporting character, played by Dallas Grandmother, Barbara Bel Geddes, is in love with Scottie, the main protagonist, played by James Stewart, who thinks of her more as a friend. Near the beginning of the film Scottie talks about his vertigo condition – which has caused him to quit the police force – to Midge in her apartment, while she goes about her business as a fashion designer. Suddenly he notices what she is working on and goes over to look more closely:

Vertigo

Scottie (James Stewart) talks to Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) about bra design in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Scottie: What’s this do-hicky?
Midge: It’s a brassiere, you know about those things, you’re a big boy now
Scottie: Well I never ran across one like that before
Midge: It’s brand new, revolutionary uplift, no shoulder straps, no back straps but it does everything a brassiere should do. Works on the principle of the cantilever bridge
Scottie: It does?
Midge: Ah hmmm. An aircraft engineer down on the peninsula designed it, worked it out in his spare time
Scottie: Kind of a hobby, a do-it-yourself type thing

The ‘revolutionary uplift and cantilever design’ formed a large part of Seymour-Powell’s do-hicky, which just goes to show that innovative solutions aren’t often as innovative as designers would sometimes have us believe.

[1] Lloyd, P. (2002) Making a Drama out of a Process: How Television Represents Designing, Design Studies, 23, pp 113-133.

Expanding the Rubber Band

The first Spring I lived in Holland I was shocked to find that the only asparagus available was what seemed like an anaemic white variety. Where was all the green asparagus, I asked, had it all been eaten?

The answer was that there is very little green asparagus in Holland as the white asparagus, I subsequently found out, is much tastier – more creamy and delicate in flavour. White asparagus is grown under soil while green asparagus emerges from the soil; the green (slightly bitter?) chlorophyll provided courtesy of photosynthesis.

In either case asparagus needs bunching before selling and, in its conventional form, it remains a refreshingly minimally-packaged vegetable, with a rubber band (below, left) usually sufficing.

Asparagus

Back in the UK, green asparagus is in season again and I noticed a new and neat bit of packaging (above, centre and right) while cooking last night. A softer, more latex-like, indented rubber is used for the band, and which is welded almost seamlessly on to the packaging label to make a multi-functional coherent-looking whole. A neat solution to a problem that probably didn’t exist in the first place, but an illustration none-the-less of how packaging is the first place to look for advances in material-forming technologies.

Toothless Cowboys and Spacesuits: The Future of Chewing Gum

Restocking on chewing gum recently (an ugly habit, I admit) I found that the packaging had changed significantly and seemed, prima facie, to have taken a turn for the worse. The photo below shows the old and new package side by side – which do you think is the new packaging?

Image

If you thought the container on the right, you’d be wrong. Although the right hand container has the curving form and sweepy dynamic background graphic of something from another planet in a long distant future – complete with grippy detailing around its top edge, to hold on to it with a spacesuit glove in zero gravity – it has been replaced by the rather plain container on the left.

Why would Wrigleys take what looks like a step backwards?

The container on the right comes in three separate parts – a white plastic ‘body’, a white plastic ‘head’, and a transparent delivery mechanism dispatching either a large or small number of pieces by lifting a large or small tab respectively. There is also a shrink-wrapped label, shrunk, like a figure-hugging dress, on to the curvaceous body of the container. That is four parts to mould and form, and four separate operations to piece it all together.

The container on the left is made of one piece of plastic, the body and lid coming from the same piece of material. Graphics are added with a simple sticker. That is two parts to make and a much easier process to bring them together. A smaller and more regular shape will also mean more can be transported in bulk for the same volume. So the decision looks like a simple decision about reducing complexity and saving costs.

It is never that simple though, is it? Cost is the pretext, but what is the subtext?

Look again at the left hand container. What does that plain container remind you of? Something out of the medicine cabinet perhaps? Maybe Wrigleys are now using the same production line as Bayer – chewing gum in one, paracetemol in another. What it suggests to me is a change of meaning for the chewing gum contents, from frivolous pieces of confectionary to ‘tablets’ that are good for you. (The ‘approved’ by the British Dental Health Foundation stamp attests to its goodness.) A medicalization of chewing gum from sweet to supplement. The new packaging is crucial for this transfer of meaning to take place because the contents have remained exactly the same – a 1.5cm oblong shape. Gum is good – you can buy it guilt free!

The classic chewing gum packaging is Wrigley’s gum – Juicy Fruit (yellow), Spearmint (white) or Double Mint (green) – each piece of gum a rolled out piece of fawn coloured oblong, carefully wrapped in its own saw-tooth edged foil. 8 pieces of gum and 8 pieces of foil! How valuable each piece was to prospective cowboys everywhere; it took a lot to give one away. You can still get it, but it won’t do you any good. Cowboys have long since lost their teeth (not so many dentists in the wild west) or died of lung cancer from smoking too many Marlboros. The future, as Damien Hirst has showed us, is pharmaceutical.

Nudged Off: Maternalism in Design

The publication of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, in 2010, brought paternalism in design back on to the agenda, if it had ever been away.  Is it right, the hand-wringing naysayers asked, that we can, through design, force people towards making choices that are good for them?  It is a conception of the good here that is problematic of course.  Is a nudge towards eating steamed vegetables at the expense of a plate of greasy chips a good thing for the person concerned?  Doesn’t the good lie in their ability to freely choose what they wish to do?

The argument is that steamed vegetables make healthier people, and healthier people are good for society.  They can hold their concentration for longer and don’t have heart attacks so often; they are sources rather than sinks.  So a nudge towards the steamed vegetables is warranted, even if we did accept the (to my mind illusory) premise of free choice that the HWN assume.

The UK government certainly bought the idea, anyhow, setting up the infamous Nudge Unit or, to give it its official title, the Behavioural Insights Team in 2010.  Presumably the people employed were busy finding all sorts of little nudges that would slowly improve the population without them realising it.  Perhaps once we were all eating steamed vegetables we’d be able to do away with the odd hospital or two?

In the slightly irritating way that ‘new’ design trends are trumpeted by the believers and then dumped as the believers find something else to believe in, the Nudge trend has now come and (largely) gone. Because of its ‘incredible success’, the Nudge Unit has been handed on by the government although a buyer couldn’t be found – not even with a nudge and wink – so it was nudged off to Nesta, which was formerly NESTA the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts for continued, though back-door, publically-funded support (the irony of the whole drama was not lost on Private Eye (#1360, p.11, 2014).

So is paternalism dead, now that the nudge unit is making its way in the commercial world?  I don’t think so at all.  In fact I think it is one of the most powerful ideas in design; an idea that links aesthetics and ethics and gets to the very heart of how we both engage with the world around us and think about the future yet-to-be-designed world. Have a look at this rather good paper on applying behavioural insights to health if you think it is waste of time.

But paternalism sounds ominous to me, like your dad is telling you what to do – “eat those steamed vegetables over there, son, they’ll be good for you”.  There is always an unspoken threat in dealings with the pater familias.  No one likes to disagree with their dad.  But what about your helpful and forgiving mother, full of unconditional love and encouragement in the face of adversity?  Might she provide the way forward for how the world can shape your experience?

Travelling on the Eurostar to Brussels I came across an example that made me think.  The photo below shows the tissue place mat you receive if you travel in standard premier class and hence receive free coffee and drinks.

Image

You’ll see a crescent-shape embossed in to the paper; a curve that suggests, or perhaps dares you to place your cup or glass in its confines.  One might even play with the ‘rule’ it suggests, placing the cup on the other side of the mat, leaving the space circumscribed by the crescent bereft.  You tussle with the consciousness of a mat that so wants you to put your cup neatly in the crescent.  Perhaps you didn’t know there were peanuts coming, it seems to say to you, and what are you going to do then?

Image

The crescent is essentially a simple line.  A nicely proportioned and rendered line, a neatly embossed line that has, at some point, passed through heavy machinery, but a simple line none-the-less.  Yet it asks something of you.  Through aesthetics it asks you to consider what you are doing.  There is a conversation taking place between you and the mat.

We are not talking about the common good here, or you becoming a better person for having placed your glass in the ‘right’ place on the mat.  The consequences of my putting the glass on the ‘wrong’ side of the mat are, to be frank, inconsequential.  But there is an experience happening; a play, a soft rule, a guidance; a curve.  Something suggestive rather than something instructive, something that is slightly disappointed if things don’t work out, but there none-the-less.  Something maternal.

The curve is aesthetic, not ethical.  If anything, it is nudging me towards play, and towards a freedom in play.  So perhaps it is nudging me towards a common good after all. In the contours of the curve I can discern maternal delight in my interaction.  A softer kind of thing; a wink rather than a nudge.  A safe place for my glass of milk, although Eurostar may want to rethink their glass purchasing policy.

Image