Thursday, February 5, 2015


Let’s think about things. Things are everywhere. As objects they can be useful, and as possessions, they can be emotionally valuable, but most of us will agree that at a certain point, they can be problematic. There are a few reasons for this.

The popular Usborne children's books demonstrate to young readers the cornucopia of things that exist in the world. 

Firstly, there can simply be too many things. This quickly becomes apparent when one is moving, or cleaning, wading through the waves of consumer products that clog our lives. As writer and designer, Graham Hill has noted, “personal storage” was a 22 billion dollar, 2.2 billion sq. ft. industry in 2011 (1). The Self Storage Association proudly boasts on its online fact sheet that this amounts to “an area well more than 3 times the size of Manhattan Island, NY” (2).

Three Manhattans worth of what’s essentially dead space, packed to capacity with unused ‘stuff’, junk from all across the United States. While these metrics are from the U.S., this is by no means simply a North American phenomenon. As more countries adopt a Western standard of living and an American conception of happiness and success, thing-overpopulation and the conversion of precious space into storage-wastelands shows no sign of slowing.

This leads us to the second issue with things, their environmental impact. It takes material to make things, and as such, it follows that the more things one has, the more material one uses. This ‘material’ might be water, oil, electricity, gas, minerals, crops, animals, and of course space itself! This is the base ‘resource cost’ of a product. Often, due to the imperfections of our own industrial processes, the acquisition of these materials is inefficient and destructive (e.g. mining in the Amazon). Additionally, manufacturing often involves the creation of unfavourable byproducts, i.e. pollutants. Finally, at the end of a product’s lifecycle, materials often cannot be reintegrated into the biosphere in an environmentally friendly state (hence, for the most part, plastic does not degrade, and heavy metals from smart phones do not just disperse back into rocks). When we combine these factors - resource cost, manufacturing effects, pollutant byproducts, and product-garbage - we get a truly nasty story behind almost every object in our lives. 

None of this even takes into account the millions of poorly paid factory workers, mostly in developing countries, who are responsible for the creation of our things, but that’s an entirely different story, too big to tackle here.

These are the physical issues regarding things, but there are also psychological concerns, and even ethical ones. Anecdotally we all seem to know that the more we have, the more we want, but there’s also real science that supports this. While the studies don’t focus specifically on material goods, they do suggest that when people experience privilege or wealth, they consume more, literally. 

Some studies involving mock games of monopoly, rigged so that one player started off rich, and the other, poor, also featured a bowl of pretzels positioned at the players’ tables. Along with higher confidence levels and relative rudeness, the rich players clearly displayed greater consumption habits, eating more pretzels than the poor ones.

This even happens at the expense of others. As social psychologist Paul K Piff recounts, the scientists “explicitly told participants this jar of candy’s for children… This is for them… Participants who felt rich took two times as much candy as participants who felt poor” (3). Literally, being rich makes you more likely to take candy from a baby.

There is even evidence to suggest that certain kinds or brands of things can negatively affect one’s consideration of the law, and more abstractly, one’s empathy and compassion.

Studies that measured the relative lawfulness of drivers of different kinds of cars have found that as the expensiveness of the car increased, the driver’s tendencies to break the law increased as well. (This was measured by whether or not the car stopped for a pedestrian waiting to cross. While this would simply be courtesy in T&T, it’s the law in California, where the study was conducted.) Piff says “None of the cars in our least expensive car category broke the law. Close to 50 percent of the cars in our most expensive car category broke the law”.

It’s my own personal hypothesis that here in T&T, (bad-driving taxis aside), pickup trucks and SUV’s are perfect examples of roadway discourteousness. Without any proof to support that claim however, I won’t stick too close to it.

That aside, it’s important to note that these studies simply show correlations, not causation. In other words, the studies don’t show that driving a fancy car makes you inconsiderate on the road. Fancy cars and high end brands of other goods are simply accessories to wealth. It’s that wealth, or the perception of wealth, that seems to be the driver of inconsiderate behaviour. There are dozens of studies that have demonstrated a negative correlation between wealth and compassion, and a strong link between affluence, feelings of entitlement, and an ideology of self interest. As Piff states, “we found that it’s actually wealthier individuals who are more likely to moralise greed being good, and that the pursuit of self-interest is favourable”.

That’s not to say that rich people are bad. Rather, just that wealth and privilege have the psychological effect of predisposing us towards ethical laxness, and greed. This is the underlying mechanism by which greed begets greed, and it’s very likely the means by which consumerism begets more consumerism.

And perhaps the story is even more nuanced. Perhaps when we use high end brands, we internalise the implication of wealth. Advertising has certainly told us as much, and has used this promise to sell an array of brands. We don’t just buy nice things for their quality and longevity, we do it because they make us feel richer, and fancier. These products are not just aesthetically pleasing items, they’re social currency. Perhaps, when we are immersed in a culture of such products, we enter that mental state whereby our moral standards wane. In this scenario, the narratives, branding, and design of products really matter, not just because of their effects on the environment, but on our ethics. Not only do they inform consumer behaviour, but the behaviour of the consumer.

Indeed, the very term consumer may be detrimental. Perhaps it’s time to retire such language, and in the process, reform the way we see ‘things’ and ourselves.

* * *


(1) Graham Hill TED

(2) Self Storage Association

(3) Paul K Piff TED


Consumerism & antisocial effects

Pay it forward: greed cycle

Class & moral deficits 


Life Edited

Story of Stuff

Friday, January 9, 2015


It’s hard to define design. It’s hard to define what’s not design. And after reading the countless definitions that already exist, one could even argue that after a point, the act of definition itself becomes counterproductive. Rather than leaning on hyper-specific arrangements of words, let’s first consider our own local (mis)understanding.

Chances are, in T&T, the word ‘design’ suggests something aesthetic, decorative, creative, and probably visual. Here, we primarily think of design as a creative exercise in the aesthetic ‘treatment’ of some other thing, generally physical or visual in nature. We think of graphic design (often misnamed “graphics design”), interior design, and most of all, the world of fashion.

These are of course all valid examples, but they’re subspecies of design, not the entire family tree. They don’t tell the whole truth; they don’t tell us what design is at its core. Generally I think of it as the creative process of planning something in order to achieve some goal, or solve some problem. It’s creative problem solving.

This applies to the world of tangible products, and intangible systems alike. Cars, shoes, phones, guns, furniture, kitchen utensils, spaceships, computers, websites, software, healthcare, the economy, transportation, telecommunications, agriculture, and everything else; they are all the substrate of design. So why are we so much more familiar with the design of products or aesthetics, than the design of services and infrastructures? For this, we turn to history.

Following the industrial revolution (which was by no means the ‘beginning of design’), there was a transformation in the way that things were made. Craftspeople were no longer the sole authors of objects. Instead, machines now made everything from wares to weapons, systematically, uniformly, and at a radically greater scale and faster rate of production. But this ‘uniformity’ seemed empty. The character and detail of the craftsman’s touch had been lost, replaced by the cold simplicity of factory assembly. As people yearned for a return to what had been lost, design offered the means for a new generation of creators to figure out how aesthetics could be reclaimed, in the new age of machine manufacturing.

Over the next 300 years, this became formalised, and designers and theorists developed the discipline, the discourse, that came to be known as industrial design - the design of manufactured objects. It also marked the development of design’s close relationship with business and consumerism. This was a natural evolution. Having recaptured the lost art of aesthetics, objects (and their brands) could once more differentiate themselves from one another. For the manufacturer, differentiation meant competitiveness, and for the buyer, it meant more things to buy. And so it was that the buyer became the consumer. Design has been consumerism’s right hand man ever since. This is the spirit of design with which we are all familiar; iPads, smart-phones, sexy cars, Nike shoes, and bad pop music. And while we don’t have a culture of product design in T&T, you can hardly find a designer who hasn’t worked in advertising (or who isn’t still stuck in advertising).

But for a while, globally, design has been doing different things. Today we’re seeing a total 180ยบ turn, both in terms of our attitudes towards consumer culture, and design’s roles and responsibilities. The economy of infinite growth has proven to be illusory, and as a result, a new design culture of sustainability, social responsibility, and indeed, general altruism has emerged. Somewhere along the lines, designers and design scholars acknowledged their ability to affect consumer choice, and felt guilt at the power they had exercised in the promotion of an ecologically destructive consumerist utopia. The good news though, they realised, was that by rethinking materials, packaging, and even distribution, the environmental footprint of human civilisation could be reduced. Indeed, at every stage of the design process, there is room for intervention; room for responsible, ethical choice. According to London’s Design Council, 80 percent of a product's environmental impact is determined at the design stage (Design Industry Highlights 2010, pg 19). Designers, we now know, have tremendous power. 

This is the mantra of an exciting new era, one in which new fields such as ‘behavioural design” have begun incorporating the lessons of cognitive science, so that more informed design decisions, based on real psychological research can be made. Meanwhile, the design tree has also branched out in all directions, producing sustainable design, interaction design, medical design, design for social change, design for social entrepreneurship, and many more.

Unfortunately though, while in recent years the words ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘innovation’ have flooded T&T’s institutional spaces, their close relation to design seems to have been ignored. Worse, with the increased popularity of ‘doing good’, said terms are already in the process of being diluted, in the same way that “green” and “sustainable” were consumed and corrupted by corporations and governments just a few years ago. A watered down version of design for social good is already percolating through the local design-scene.

This is especially tragic when we consider that ‘developing countries’ (a label under which most of us would still nest T&T) need ‘design for good’ more than anyone. In such places, many people do not have sufficient access to necessary systems and services. Unsurprisingly, such cultures are also often politically disillusioned, as the government has almost always failed to provide what is necessary - positive change. Action in the public sector is slow or nonexistent, and corruption runs rampant both in parliament and the boardroom. It’s precisely in places like these that design for social good can flourish, and is poised to truly make a difference.

When there are real issues like the urban heat island effect, habitat loss, medical literacy, or literally transforming education and healthcare by working alongside educators and doctors to rethink school and hospital architecture, selling KFC and branding fetes seem like truly underwhelming endeavours. This is a land where Trevor Sayers threatens to hold the cure for ebola, and people throw parties in the otherwise fairly-undisturbed jungles of Chaguaramas. With such almost comical problems facing us on a daily basis, we are definitely in need of creative solutions. 

But because Trinidad and Tobago has no shortage of problems, it also holds no shortage of potential. It’s here that a new generation of design thinkers will work with a diverse array of other professionals, to solve or address social and environmental problems. Without getting too technical, we can call this ‘design for social change’. Ultimately, this new breed of design is not a branch or a field, but an ethos. 

It’s simple. It is about society’s needs, not just its wants.