The Growing Design Middle Class
If you think back to a really long time ago, you could conceivably imagine that products fell into two categories: Products, and luxury products. Products got the job done. They were the bread and butter of existence, and they either worked better or worse than the other ones around them. Luxury products were those things that were super-nice, and bought by kings and queens because they could.
With the development of disposable products, like silverware, plates, tablecloths, cheap plastic rain gear, etc., this grouping became three classes. The high end, which used the very best money could buy. The low end, which was designed to be disposable and low cost. And the "middle end" which was still the product for everyman. Durable and long lasting, this mid level product was the bulk of the market. This was still during the 1930's, through the 1950s, and the middle class included everything from the latest kitchen gadget to Chevrolet Automobiles.
But once manufacturing really took off after world war two, this standard of middle class design began to slip. Increasing efficiency of manufacture continued to make goods cheaper and cheaper, which allowed more and more to be included in every product for a still lower price. Since the 1940's, the middle class has changed to the point where it means something very different than just "good stuff to be used by everyone".
The design lower class still takes care of disposable goods. This does not assumer that the goods are low quality, or poorly designed, they are simply designed for disposal.
The design upper class is still the high luxury goods. Items valued for their extreme craftsmanship and quality of materials. These items are purchased with the intent of longterm ownership, and even passing down to your children.
The design middle class is defined by its lack of well defined product lifetime; These products generally function for less time than you would expect from their outside appearance. If you buy a Bang and Olufson sound system, you can expect it to last long enough to make repairing it worthwhile (probably greater than 10 years). But if you purchase a low cost stereo at Wal Mart or Target, it will most likely seem very high quality initially, but its lifespan may only be a few years.
This is fine with most consumers; the products from Target or Wal Mart didn't cost too much. And they lasted past some magical threshold where we decide if things are "crappy" or not.
But in general, these middle class products use the same amount of energy and materials to make as higher class products. They just create a lot more waste since they are cycled through much faster. And it's the waste that is causing all the problems.
We know that this is an inevitable trend in a culture where low prices are the sexist thing. And we know that it's largely not the fault of designers; Most products, even that cheap stereo from Wal Mart, could last quite a bit longer if people treated them with the care that they tend to treat a super-high-end stereo.
But we need to be mindful of it. Either we figure out some grand scheme for recycling everything super easily (which is not that likely) or we start to put a little more emphasis on longevity of our products. There's not enough oil out there to keep making plastics like this, and not enough room for all the plastics once we make them.
We need to be mindful of it.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team