What if "No Product" was the Strongest Brand?

This is the question asked by John Hockenberry in an interesting essay directed to the industrial design community.

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.

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He asks how designers might be able to cope in an economic world where consumers made very few purchases. The response is to design a different kind of product altogether: products that might last a life-time through periodic upgrading, products made from the part of older products bought during a consumer’s “binge years.” One compnay that is doing something like this is Terracycle. Using used containers from juiceboxes, candy wrappers and similar discarded objects, Terracyle makes pencil cases, backpacks, totes and other things from these materials.

Hockenberry does not offer any reason that consumers might simply stop consuming in the old fashioned way, but pointed to the decline in the last year as a sign of that possibility. In any case, he sees major implications for industrial designers. He sees designers as centrally involved in creating demand large or smalll.

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.

My book follows the same argument—that designers have a central role in designing satisfying products—but with a significant difference. Designers concerned about sustainability need to have a different kind of identity in mind. Rather than “consumers, bargain hunters, outliers, trend spotters, and opinion leaders,” the identity should be related closely to “being” and wake the user up to the area of care involved with the object. It may be taking care of the self, but can also reflect care for the world and for others. “Tawdry boredom” has little or no place in a flourishing world. Neither does consumption for consumption’s sake.

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