David Simpson 9th Apr 2018 3 Min Read
Scarcely a day doesn’t go by without something in life breaking. I can’t stand a cool gadget that gives up the ghost before I’ve learnt how to use it properly. An on-trend shirt that doesn’t survive the wash. A modish sofa that is worn out a year in. They may have arty references or a raft of techy functions in spades but chances are most of the goods in the shops today are designed for landfill.
It’s no surprise that the throwaway culture that we apply to fashion and food has seeped unhealthily into the digitally-dependent white goods and electronics sector. We live in technologically advanced age. An epoch of invention that allows us to send skyscrapers thousands of feet into the air. Trains to travel safely at breakneck speeds and train doctors to perform heart surgery with 3-D printing. As well as being inventive, we can make most things to be more durable, more sustainable than ever – but we don’t.
Capitalism’s answer to these developments in science and creativity is to manufacture goods with a woefully short life-span. This might give business more opportunities for sales and consumers. Further opportunities to buy more cheap-enough-to-chuck-out products. But it doesn’t sit well with a society which claims to aspire to higher ideals: eco-consciousness, material well-being, and scientific progress. A United Nations study found that there is 43 million tons of ‘electronic waste’. Encompassing everything with a plug on it from computers to toasters to washing machines that were generated in 2016. This is a rise of 8% from 2014. It is expected to continue growing at an unprecedented rate, increasing 17% by 2121.
The mobile phone is a symbol of everything that is wrong with electronic goods production today. It is a product fundamentally not fit for purpose. More often than not it will be fitted with a screen that is hard to keep clean and susceptible to cracking. Consumers of these items then find themselves trapped in a cycle. Built-in obsolescence with brands conveniently tying the lifespan of the smartphone. The average is currently under two years – to regular developments in software.
A product might be designed well in terms of style, usability, and performance but if it has no longevity, it has surely failed. As Dieter Rams said, ‘Good design is honest’. A recent experience with a vacuum cleaner from a brand known for its bagless dust chamber is that it breaks way too soon. It rides on a promise of superior power, efficiency and wow factor. However, I would rather go with slightly less suction and something that lasts longer. Nothing too fancy but everything just right.
The places where I can sense honesty and reliability are few and far between but I know they do exist. Miele, for example, still champions white goods with longevity. The German appliance brand. Made top-of-the-range washing machines, fridges and coffee makers that seem to define the word. Its washing machines may have a significantly higher price-tag but they are expected to last 5,000 cycles. Prevention is better than the cure of course but the ability to ‘cure’ is important too. Designing goods in such a way as to promote longevity also means it should be designed in such a way that it can be fixed by a trained person. Some products are designed so that repair is impossible. Surely basing your values on sustainability and reliability is a lot more satisfying than selling yourself down the river of disposable culture. This planet needs friends in brand-land as it can get. The white goods in our kitchen. The computers on our desks and in our pockets. The toothbrushes in the bathroom. These should not be part of a throw-away culture. They need to be beautiful to look at whilst being beautiful to use at that moment and over time.
A hands-on design engineer, David is responsible for driving the latest design, engineering and software developments. His experience ranges from hi-fi product design to the programme management of complex financial service software. When he’s not talking about firmware updates, tooling or road maps you’ll see him running in Hampstead Heath or ferrying his kids to school on his electric bicycle.