Design Anthropology: An exploration of product attachment and disposability As lifelong student of design, I’m increasingly frustrated by the cycle of disposability that the Western world seems obsessed with at this point in time. I am interested in design for longevity. One of the biggest issues in contemporary design today, if not the biggest, is waste. We are acquiring and disposing of products at an alarming, and unsustainable rate. Compounding this problem, we have political and economic systems that are founded and dependent upon exponential consumer consumption to drive and sustain them. A case in point is the Government’s $900 tax bonus during the Global Financial Crisis. Additionally, industries vie for the consumer dollar with the most up to date gadgets, perpetuating the problem by designing products with planned obsolescence and products that are difficult to recycle or disassemble. These factors result in a market saturated with cheap goods, which are easily discarded because of their inherent lack of value or longevity. By discovering the reasons people discard certain objects or products, and conversely, why they keep others, I’m hoping to incorporate the findings into a new approach to design. My first experiential research method was to visit a number of vintage and second-hand shops and interview people who were discarding or donating goods they no longer had a use for. My research took me to 5 different locations around inner city Melbourne. I wanted to find out why people love their favourite objects. Conversely, I also wanted to find out why people were so connected to their favourite objects. Two girls aged between 20-25 that I interviewed at a St Vincent’s in North Melbourne, were donating clothing, books and household bric-a-brac. The girls told me that they had been given or ‘inherited’ some of the books, or had bought them with the intention of reading them. They had “not got around to it” and eventually admitted defeat and donated the books because they were taking up valuable space in their small house. The clothing was either too small or were items that they could not give away to friends (as they had done with previous clothing). They mentioned that they usually ‘cull’ a lot of things at one time - and that space is a consideration when doing this - but that this also serves as a ‘mental de-cluttering.’ Before taking items to the Salvo’s the girls mentioned that they usually put items out on the sidewalk with a sign that says ‘free to a good home.’ At the Brunswick Brotherhood, I interviewed a 50-55 year old woman and her husband who were donating clothing, books, household bric-a-brac, small electrical goods. The couple had inherited two households worth of ‘stuff’ from elderly relatives who had passed away. They kept anything with personal or important memories – i.e. something that was specifically handed down to them, or that had special memories associated with the person. Additionally, they kept items that they believed had value – e.g. the couple had kept a radio from the 60’s (and were discarding a small boom box from the 90’s). When I asked them why they were discarding the newer model radio they said that it was cheap and the older radio was ‘good’ (better quality). She said it was “hard to find a good radio.” And I said, “do you agree with the statement that they don’t make them like they used to?” and she said: “exactly.”
I spoke mainly with the woman who told me that the clothing and shoes had belonged to her daughter and that she herself was not able to use them (due to poor fit). She had many books, had read the ones she was donating and was not interested in most of the inherited titles. Space and a kind of mental de-cluttering were also a factor in donating. She mentioned that she had been gradually collating items in their hallway and access was becoming an issue. The woman also said that the accumulation of all the goods made her question how much “stuff we really need (as a society)” - but interestingly, when I questioned why she was giving away the 90’s boom box, she decided to keep it because there was no other tape player in the house.” Further research led me to Footscray Savers, where I interviewed a young couple aged between 2025. They were donating clothing, books, household bric-a-brac, board games and handbags. The couple were donating items that were still in a good enough condition to not throw away, but they had no use for them (were not in fashion anymore), or space for them (small apartment). They said that they didn’t really have a big emotional connection with these items (even if some that were gifts from friends or family) that would prevent them from donating them. They chose to sell (rather than donate) items of greater monetary value online, or give them to friends in need (e.g. an old fridge or wardrobe). The couple also said that they just collected things into a pile until they had enough items to warrant dropping them off. Space was also a consideration because they had a small apartment. I also interviewed a work colleague who had donated items to her local Op Shop over the weekend and other friends about their donating habits. Similar results were found in regard to the reasons for donation and items that were donated.
Key findings of this first stage of research were: Space: creating more space was a consideration for a lot of people, but not only physical space, also ‘mental space’ – de-cluttering and getting rid of things they didn’t need Perceived value: related to the monetary value as well as the quality of the product and functionality whether it still worked (most did) Psychological end of product: the product wasn’t fashionable or ‘didn’t fit in’ with other products in the house - if it was expensive they were more likely to keep it, or resell it rather than donate Memories: people usually kept items that had a strong personal memory attached to it – e.g. if it was a family heirloom or if it was gifted to them by someone significant (regardless of monetary value or the condition of the item) After exploring the disposable life of objects, I wanted to explore the reasons people hold on to certain objects, and what their specific attachment(s) to them was. In Product Experience (Schifferstein/Hendriks 2008), researchers from Delft University pinpointed four major determinants of product attachment: Pleasure: not only through a product’s utility but also added value through aesthetics and superior styling or function Self-expression: the user defines their view of themselves with a product, or differentiates themselves from others. This determinant ties in with personality and notions of fashion Group Affiliation: a sense of belonging, being connected to others, being a part of something
Memories: a memory attached to a product is one of the strongest ways to engender product attachment
In chapter 3 of The Meaning of Things (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton 1981), the authors interviewed 82 families in the Chicago area and asked them to rate objects in their home that were special to them. 36% of respondents named furniture as their most treasured object in the home. “There was a total of 638 meanings given for why furniture was considered special. Of these, the largest classes referred to Memories (15 percent), Stylistic reasons (12 percent), and Experience (11 percent). Only 5 percent of the meanings were Utilitarian, that is, focused on the usefulness of the object. The importance of the relationship between the self and the object was stressed in 17 percent of cases; 15 percent of the time, people stressed the relationship between the object and the respondent’s immediate family.” (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton 1981). To further explore people’s attachment to the significant objects in their lives, I conducted an email survey to determine a person’s favourite object, and the meaning they attached to it. The following survey questions were asked of respondents: 1. What is your favourite product/object and why? 2. How long have you had this product/object? 3. What are the reasons you've kept this product/object? The answers were to relate to a product or an object that the respondent actually owned and they were encouraged to describe any stories, emotions, pertinent details or important memories connected to/with the object. I was interested in the link between strong emotion and product longevity. As well as exploring whether the length of time that someone owned an object, influenced their decision to keep it or dispose of it. In analysing the findings from this survey were a little surprised to find that some respondents mentioned that the function or the utility of the object was rated as a primary factor (a direct contrast to the findings in The Meaning of Things). However, as I suspected, a number of emotions and memories also were cited as major factors that produced attachment to the object. Furthermore, the fact that the object was rare, sought after for a long time or unique in some way was also a strong factor in attachment. Another important factor was the individual’s sense of identity or self in relation to the object. Favourite objects were: a Bear Grylls utility knife, a rosary from Medugorje, a Swiss pressure cooker, a sterling silver babushka necklace, a Vespa, a chess set handed down from father to son, an iMac, a Mazda MX5 convertible, a mechanical pencil (illegally obtained), a coffee mug collection, a MacBook Pro, a Kitchen Aid mixer, a Playstation 3, a weightlifting squat rack and a guitar. In reflecting on these findings and analysing the many observations and conversations I’ve had, I found that utility was a driving factor in product attachment and longevity. Also, people were less likely to throw something away if it was associated with a memory or was handed down to them, and they were more likely to hold onto something that was considered unique or something they perceived was of good quality. Many people purchased products that were ‘classic’ or had a ‘stylish’ or iconic design, but again not for these reasons alone. Not surprisingly, strong emotions played an integral part in whether people would keep an object and the level of attachment they had to it. Emotions such as fun, joy, and happiness were often quoted in descriptions. Other keywords were: love, memories, special, hard to find; as well as adjectives such as sleek, sexy, retro, classic and stylish, suggesting that these were qualities that people identified in themselves when using the
product or object (i.e. an extension of the self or how they perceived themselves). People were more likely to hold onto products that were hard to find, unique in some way or that they had to wait for. Additionally, many people’s objects or products were an extension of their creativity or their interests and therefore an extension of their self-expression. Some insights gained through this exploration were that people were not only interested in fads but were driven by the quality and utility of a product. I.e. none of the objects listed were simply decorative or ornamental items, they were objects that were in constant daily use and an intrinsic part of the person’s everyday life, tied in with their identity. Early directions based on these findings would be to further explore avenues of quality (materiality, workmanship), ‘iconic or classic’ design form, utility and notions of memory.
References: The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and The Self, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Eugene RochbergHalton Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK 1981 Product Experience – Edited by Hendrik Schifferstein & Paul Hekkert; Elsevier Press Oxford, UK, 2008
An exploration of product attachment and disposability