Within the Product of No Product
John Hockenberry asks: what are the implications for industrial designers if the strongest consumer impulse becomes not buying?
What if, suddenly, the strongest product brand was No Product and the strongest consumer impulse was not buying? Last year there was ample evidence that the muscle consumers were flexing most was that of restraint. The inclination not to spend almost did in the entire U.S. auto industry. It still might. At the end of 2008, Chrysler sales dropped 53 percent. Toyota reported an operating loss for the first time in more than 70 years. Retail sales for the end of 2008 actually shrank. Fewer people bought fewer things. Instead of growth numbers and fashion trends, market analysts reported that nonbuyers were driving the market. Not making a purchase was the most powerful impulse in the global economy. No Product was the strongest brand. These abrupt and mass-scaled changes in behavior suggest that, at least in theory, many basic assumptions about retail capitalism are being reexamined and reevaluated by consumers all over the world.
In his 1980 New Yorker essay “Within the Context of No-Context,” George W. S. Trow made a slightly less radical claim about media. The absence of any context, he declared, had become the prevailing context. Trow argued that vast homogenizing forces, principally television, had reduced much of culture to a repetition of small events disguised as either intimate (confessional) or important (celebrity). The auteur of television was someone who could deliver a mass audience, whatever the narrative. In such a context-free world, the external events that pass as news or history would become a prelude to endless commentary on how skillfully politicians, celebrities, and corporate executives can coax audiences into various mass behaviors. The behaviors are by necessity few in order to make profiting from them as easy as possible. By Trow’s definition, I counted three: watching (television or other screen-based media), buying (what watching sends us off to do), and voting (an odd, though occasionally important, hybrid of purchasing and watching).
Trow’s analysis was bitter and sardonic, and it was even more correct. But the irresistibly entertaining tone of despair and disgust in his essay may have blinded him to the possibility that this whole constellation of media could come crashing down in the face of new global realities. Trow’s media-manufactured frames are useful as long as external events don’t intrude to diminish the simulated relevance of the frames. As we have seen in the last three years (accelerating with the economic crisis of the past 12 months), media and capitalism, which are dependant on the repetition of small events, have difficulty evaluating phenomena such as the wholesale collapse of the Bush presidency, the rise of Barack Obama, and the vanishing of the private-banking sector overnight. All of this has implications for product designers and especially for what constitutes a product in this new environment. Twenty-nine years after Trow envisioned an era of no context, it is suddenly possible to discern an economic era of no product.
The staggering growth of the postwar global economy has come about through the creation of a consumer class whose demand for objects can be coaxed or manipulated ever upward and whose appetite for new categories of objects is apparently endless. Industrial capitalism’s desperate response to vanishing pools of labor is to embark on inefficient global searches for new labor to build duplicate manufacturing facilities. The response to the problem of environmental limits has been similarly questionable: a new category of “green” consumer objects along with the demand that consumers dispose of everything in their lives that is not “green.” There is, as yet, no coherent response (desperate, absurd, or otherwise) to a global decline in the demand for consumer goods. At the very least, such a response would require a complete overhaul of our understanding of consumers and their perceived need for manufactured objects.
Americans are accustomed to assembling their economic identities in quasi-sociological categories with names like consumers, bargain hunters, outliers, trend spotters, and opinion leaders. Design is part of this identity-making process. By appealing to human notions of beauty, convenience, and pleasure, designers help invent the desires that grow to become economically measurable demands, and that then have the chance to generate mass markets. Designers celebrate consumer demand as a kind of validation of the mission of improving the human condition, at best, or postponing some tawdry bit of individual boredom, at worst. Design lives in the demand side of global capitalism, which in only a few generations has gone from a narrative of technological ingenuity to a frenetic quest for personal identity through brands and objects, before finally turning into an extreme ideology of shopping as a form of geopolitical defense. When George W. Bush famously urged Americans in 2001 to buy in response to terrorism, the aspiration ceased to be personal; it became a full-fledged nationalistic ideology.
When demand shrinks, what are we to make of design? In the fashion world it means 70-percent-off sales and stores empty of shoppers but full of design statements that are suddenly seen as extravagant and superfluous. Design appears to vanish in this domain. While advertising has the greatest variety of fonts and styles from product to product, going-out-of-business signs all look exactly the same. In the tech world and the auto industry, built-in obsolescence and incessant upgrades become annoying and even deeply offensive. The aggressive culture of obsolescence and upgrades has already created well-documented fatigue for users of cell phones laden with cameras and other advanced features. Apple and Dell can perhaps no longer rely on an army of beta-testing first adopters who will pay an absurd price to troubleshoot version one of the next iPhone, essentially subsidizing Apple’s development of a cheaper, debugged upgrade for everyone else.
For most of the postwar era, design and marketing have been all about creating aspirational narratives with the aim of getting people to make purchases. Reliable growth depends upon getting more people to make the same purchases or the same people to make purchases at a greater frequency. But after 2008, it is clear that the consumer aspiration to buy nothing—whether out of exhaustion, bankruptcy, or simply to pay other bills—has become a plausible narrative. There have always been narratives of consumer restraint. “Getting a bargain” is perhaps the oldest, but it’s a bit of a ruse. Successful bargain hunters are generally encouraged to increase the raw number of their purchases as they rack up sale items. Energy-efficient vehicles and appliances acquire their value because they explicitly promise that users will be compelled to make fewer energy purchases.
But what if the aspiration is purely not to buy? How might designers participate in an economy of no product? Could product design focus on concepts of “one for life” tools and objects, tech devices that can be infinitely upgraded with a minimum purchase, methodologies for assembling new products out of surplus leftovers from the binge years? Is there a product of no-product aesthetic that would let consumers tangibly track how one purchase actually eliminates the need for a range of other products, in the same way that the archaic 20th-century notion of the “labor-saving” device motivated the purchase of appliances? Design might create the “purchase-saving” appliance and link objects into permanent one-for-life relationships, under which users could cheaply modify external colors and textures to personalize products over long arcs of time.
The popular “long-tail” idea suggests that products can be matched with users by designing distribution networks that enable small packets of supply and demand to find each other. Last year suggested that an even more radical shift is at hand. There may no longer be a market for any product that cannot be customized to a single individual. In this new era, any purchase is suspect; anything new represents an unfortunate bit of bad planning. In the economy of no product, having a few durable things that stand out for not being shiny and new, arranged and constructed in a way that expresses an individual set of lifelong choices, is the aspiration. It will take a new breed of product designers to fully flesh out the narrative. The current economic malaise has already provided an irresistible premise.
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