By Lorrin Windahl.
The phrase ‘planned obsolescence’ was apparently first coined back in the 1950s by fellow industrial designer Brooks Stevens. After 70 odd years you’d think we’d have come to our senses by now. But I think the notion of design for obsolescence is more popular now than ever before. Consumers today seem to have a thirst for new products that cannot be sated. It is a bottomless pit of consumerism. We want, want, want. And it’s exactly that. It’s not about need anymore but just want. We want that new phone, we want that new car and even before the model we already own has worn out. For the socially responsible designer it’s a very sad reality.
So what exactly is ‘design for obsolescence’ though? Well, it refers to a product that is designed to fail or to be replaced by another model in a specific timeframe (usually a short one). By that I mean it was deliberately made to become obsolete when in fact it could have been designed to have a longer working life span. And the effect of this on the environment? Well, we produce more products, use them for shorter periods of time, discard them largely into landfill and then consume more products. This means more materials, more energy, less usage, more landfill.
To be fair there are some valid reasons for designing for obsolescence. For example, if the technology available is too expensive when the product is first developed. But sadly it is more commonly used purely to make money and to exploit the consumer, at a high cost to the environment I might add.
An obvious example that comes to mind is the iPhone. And it isn’t just because a new model comes out every year which causes hungry consumers to dispose of their now ‘obsolete’ but still functioning phones in order to have the latest model. But also because the phone has been designed so that the battery cannot be replaced by the user. Although it can be sent back to Apple for a replacement battery to be installed (for a fee of course) the much more convenient option is for the consumer to buy another phone.
But who is really responsible for this unsustainable approach to product design? Is it the designer who designs the product to fail before it needs to; the manufacturer who deliberately produces a product that will shortly become outdated; or the consumer who continues to purchase these types of products? Well, I personally think we are all to blame. If, as consumers, we didn’t keep buying these products then there would be no demand for them and if these products weren’t manufactured then we wouldn’t be able to consume them. But really perhaps the real people to blame are the designers. If we didn’t design them then they couldn’t be manufactured or consumed. Perhaps we should just put our collective feet down and refuse to design products for planned obsolescence. But is this really ever going to happen?