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The Socially destructive effects of affirmative product design (Case study) Affirmative product design encourages the process of creating a culture where physical objects are more valued than ideas, morals and people. Quoting James E. Burrows and Aric Rindfleisch: This materialistic lifestyle harbors negative consequences for both society in general and the individual consumer. “Materialism has been associated with such undesirable traits as non generosity, greed and envy which have been shown to have significant correlation to a reduced sense of happiness and overall life satisfaction”.1 The argument here is that by designing products of desire rather than of necessity, we are perpetuating this trend and generating dissatisfaction as people strive to obtain these, often out of reach, objects. It is largely through clever design that products excel in their ability to captivate the consumer, and it is a product designer’s job to create items of demand. So by taking this role, the designer is encouraging materialism and generating desire through his studied examination of what may increase peoples material interest. The first example comes back to the much-discussed shining example of affirmative product design, the iPod. In both aesthetic and functional design, and also in marketing, the iPod excels in generating materialistic desire in people. The design of the iPod and the associated advertising inspires in people a lust of the unnecessary. If the object of this lust is unattainable, the desires of the individual often lead to dissatisfaction with ones current situation and material wealth. This occasionally leads to crime and other negative social effects. It has been shown that in 2007 and 2008, IPods were the most commonly stolen objects followed by digital cameras and laptops.2 If, however, the desired object (in this case the iPod) IS attainable, the consumer may feel elated with their new purchase. This pleasure, however, invariably wears off and the object becomes just another everyday item. The service or functionality objects such as an iPod provide can, one might argue, be culturally meaningful and inspire creativity. In the iPod’s case it can encourage the creation, sharing and distribution of music; an important cultural product. However, it is the surplus wealth, artificial value and the encouragement of desire through slick design that causes excessive materialism. Thus it is through their brilliant design that objects of function become objects of desire. The fulfillment of this desire usually comes at the cost of money and natural resources, which could be otherwise used for the development of sustainable lifestyles. Muncy and Eastman (1998) quote: “If however consumers move away from their focus on material acquisitions and towards non-material quality of life concerns, they will consume less 1

Burroughs, James E., and Aric Rindfleisch. "Materialism and Well-Being: A Conflicting Values Perspective" journal of consumer research 29 (2002): 348 - 370. 2 Forbes news “most stolen electronics”. (accessed May 28, 2009).

from the economic system, leaving marketers (and in this case designers) with less demand for their goods”.3 The second case is that of the design of excessively cheap and low quality items, such as a plastic toy purchased from a $2 shop. The problem these often create is that they increase consumption on a larger scale, enabling and encouraging the consumer to buy larger quantities. This promotes material excess on another level, somewhat giving people with less wealth a means to fulfill their current consumer desires. Further more, as these cheap products are short-lived and of low quality they can have no positive lasting effect on the consumer’s life. As with highend consumer goods, the material fulfillment afforded by these objects does not improve the subjective happiness of the consumer, rather it reinforces the idea that ones wellbeing can be increased through their relationships with objects. Again quoting Burrows and Rindfleisch ”A substantial body of research suggests that highly materialistic individuals are less happy, more unsatisfied with their lives and are more prone to psychological disorders, compared to less materialistic individuals.”4 It has also been shown that those who score higher in tests of materialism are less willing to share what they have in terms of both money and possessions, not just with charitable organizations but also with close family and friends. These people are also generally described in negative and socially undesirable terms.5 It is not the individual ownership of material possessions that cause the steady degrade of community-based values into materialistic ideals, as a person can own “things” whilst not lapsing into unnecessary desire. It is the design and promotion of unessential goods that is socially and economically irresponsible. It’s designing goods that have no lasting positive effect and use resources that could instead be harnessed for the fulfillment of the needs of the entire human race.


Muncy, James A., and Jacqueline K. Eastman “Materialism and Consumer Ethics: An Exploratory Study”. Journal of Business Ethics 17 (1998): 137-145 4 Burroughs, James E., and Aric Rindfleisch. "Materialism and Well-Being: A Conflicting Values Perspective" journal of consumer research 29 (2002): 348-370. 5 Muncy, James A., and Jacqueline K. Eastman “Materialism and Consumer Ethics: An Exploratory Study”. Journal of Business Ethics 17 (1998): 137-145