Designing in the post-consumer age

Christmas is coming, again.  Last year, Australians reportedly spent $A32B at an average of $A1,200 per person during the silly season.  Nearly twenty million of these gifts with a value of around $A1B were unwanted and were sold, re-gifted, stored or dumped.  For myself, a distinctive marker of post-consumerism came when a ten year-old family member declared a few weeks out from Christmas that he didn’t know what to ask for this year because he couldn’t think of anything he particularly wanted. It seems that between Christmas, birthdays, special days and rewards for good behavior the number of buying opportunities outstrips some family member’s needs or even desires.  So it seems we are now living in an age of post-consumerism, even for ten year-olds.  We are beyond some western models of growth, in uncharted territory.

And in many respects we have the emergence of the design profession to blame:

In the 20th century, the design profession made a huge contribution to the improvement of the standard of living in the developed world.  Today, however, this standard of living has reached its natural plateau.  We are saturated with material wealth, and our consumption of products is threatening our very existence rather than being a resource for good living.  (Service Design, From Insight to Implementation, Polaine, Lovlie and Ben Reason, 2013; p. 18).

Industrial design, dating back to its foundations in 1920s industrialisation, strove to humanise technology and materials.  By contrast, service design grows out of network thinking to deliver the most consistent and desirable user or consumer experience.

The emergence of service design reflects the change of focus from efficient production to lean consumption.  Ideologically, it reflects post-consumerism, the emerging perception of value from standard of living to quality of life.  The post-consumerism movement advocates simplification over accumulation and connection over acquisition.  It associates consumption with needless waste and the cycle of unfulfilled desire.   In America, post-consumerism hints at conservative values, albeit without the return to self-deprecation or modesty.

For the post-consumer, value is more personal and harder to commodify.  The post-consumer’s social media profile trumps her desire for the latest branded teeshirt.   In systems, post-consumerism manifests in the emergence of app ecosystems, where subscription services and dozens of purpose-built, minimal apps have replaced shrink-wrapped premium priced products.  Post-consumer dinner-party guests boast of a recent user experience, or about their involvement in co-designing or pro-suming.    In the new world, reliving the experience is as important as having the experience in the first place.

The reversal of a century of consumer culture will not happen overnight but as the realisation of the emptiness of consumerism becomes commonplace, consumer design will become increasingly devalued and marginalised.   For aware designers,  some things change and some remain the same.   They will be challenged to develop systems that sustain good health, reduce energy and resource consumption, and provide leaner transport and more stable and resilient financial systems.   Systems in which the traditional product is not more than a platform or resource in the ecosystem.

Experience may have replaced the product on centre stage, but the need for fastidious designerly attention to nuanced detail is as intense as ever.  Service design is a relatively new and open discipline with few norms or consumer expectations.   Perhaps the biggest challenge on any new frontier is the lack of a roadmap.  With the devaluation of the traditional product designer’s familiar routines, cliches and affordances, we should expect some very good and quite bad service experiences.

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