Author: Gabriel Colomer

Products that do not last long stimulate consumption. Today this is widely accepted, but 60 years ago the pioneers of this economic strategy had to persuade people to revise their scale of values to introduce the new culture according to which it is better to manufacture objects which do not last.

If we have to make long-lasting products, consumption levels will not be enough to sustain the economy. Is there a pioneer out there who would like to take up the challenge?

It makes more sense to buy a new one

Hi, I’d like to get this sound system repaired. It stopped working a few days ago.

- I don’t think it’s worth your while. It’ll cost you almost as much as a new one and there’s probably no way to fix it. You can’t get spare parts for the internal components.

Many of us have had frustrating experiences like this and you have to be very persistent if you don’t want to contribute to increasing consumerism. Sometimes you begin to suspect that these products are designed to have a limited life and to be impossible to repair. And you would not be too far from the truth. Let’s take a look at the history of industrial design.

Planned obsolescence, RX for tired markets? This was the title of an article by M. Mayer published in 1959 in the journal Dun’s Review and Modern Industry, which pointed out that the more durable an article was, the more slowly it would be consumed, and proposed that products should be deliberately made to appear old.

In fact, planning the design of a product so that its working life is shortened goes back a long way. In the late 1930s, in a case concerning planned obsolescence brought against General Electric, evidence was presented which included an illustrative message from an employee who informed another about the decision to change the working life of a bulb from 1,000 hours to 750 hours, commenting: We’re not planning to publicise the fact that we want to make this change.

In 1956, the journal Electrical Manufacturing published a proposal to deal with the foreseeable stagnation of the US market: The sheer logic of our national economy would justify the need for a widely based policy of planned obsolescence to take full advantage of our productive potential and technological progress. In 1958, the journal Design News described the policy of a leading maker of portable radios who designed their products not to last longer than three years. One of the company’s engineers defended this philosophy as follows: If portable radios lasted 10 years, the market would become saturated and replacement sales would not keep up the volume of production; this would make technical progress difficult and in the long run that’s against everyone’s interest.

In Retailing Daily, a leading industrial designer put forward a new concept of patriotism: We make good products, we get people to buy them and the following year we deliberately introduce something that will make them look old-fashioned, out of date, obsolete… This is not organised waste. It’s a solid contribution to the US economy.

Different types of obsolescence

Essentially there are three strategies for planning the useful life of a product:

  • Quality obsolescence, making the product wear out or become unusable prematurely. A maxim in this area is that the useful life of a product is limited by the durability of the weakest component. During the development of the legendary model T, Ford told his engineers to visit breakers’ yards all over the country and find out which parts of the cars were in good condition. These would be replaced by other inferior components in the new models.
  • Functional obsolescence: the product is displaced by another which performs better. For example, the development of stereo sound was held back for many years. In the late 1950s, ten million Americans owned relatively new monaural record players and demand was declining. Although stereo had been patented nearly 20 years earlier, this was the right moment to bring out a new product providing stereo sound and making mono equipment old-fashioned.
  • Style obsolescence: the product is designed with distinctive aesthetic features so that it will look out of date when the predominant style changes. Let’s take a closer look.

Fashion, here today, gone tomorrow

The moral and even commercial limits to planned quality obsolescence (if your products are too bad, your reputation will suffer) led companies to look for other ways of making products obsolete. The best approach was to make the owners of products see them as old, and the concepts of fashion and styling were ideal for this purpose. When consumers assimilate the idea that the aesthetic style of a product is an essential part of it, the current style determines when the product looks out of date. G. Nelson explained this in the journal Industrial Design: Design… is an attempt to make a contribution through change. When no contribution is made or can be made, the only process available for giving the illusion of change is ‘styling’.

Around 1960, fashions in women’s clothes went through a complete cycle in 7 to 10 years. The trick, according to one marketing manager, was to create a number of fashion cycles within the same trend. This way, products would become obsolete sooner as aesthetic trends would change faster. For example, one of the secrets of Charles Revlon’s success was to introduce fashion in nail varnish, with new, extensively publicised shades every six months.

According to L. Cheskin, of the Color Research Institute of America: Most changes in design are not made to improve the product, either functionally or esthetically, but to make it obsolete. Every industry tries to emulate the women’s fashion industry. This is the key to modern marketing.

The automobile industry was the first sector to feel the allure of the increased sales that could be achieved thanks to people’s love of fashion and new styles, as with women’s clothes. In 15 years, Ford had reduced the price of the model T from 780 to 290 dollars, keeping the same basic design with small changes. Then its competitors hit back by emphasising variety and annual changes. At Ford, they realised the importance of this, and separated design from the engineering department, putting a former women’s clothes designer in charge.

Making sense of nonsense

In this survey of the history of industrial design, we can see the origins of many of today’s marketing phenomena. We are not saying that the poor quality or lack of durability of many products is only related to planned obsolescence in their design. The frantic race to reduce prices and consequently production costs, which is fed by irresponsible consumption and stimulated by the power of the main sales outlets, large stores, and the trends they set, leads to interminable chains of subcontracting, appalling working conditions, rushed production and poor-quality materials, all of which have an adverse effect on the durability of products.

Neither do we wish to imply that fashion can only be explained by marketing strategies to speed up the replacement of products. Aesthetics is an expression of our identity, our creativity and our way of being and doing, but for this very reason it is a field that can be manipulated and impoverished by commercial interests.

What we have attempted to illustrate is how senseless practices like making an object useless before it needs to be become meaningful in the growing spiral of production and consumption.

Consequently, eco-design, as a response by industrial design to the challenge of sustainability, needs to take into account not only energy efficiency, the recyclability of materials, etc., but also other equally fundamental factors such as the over-emphasis on style, product durability, the possibility of having products repaired, the availability of spare parts and the quality of materials.