While you're looking forward, straining to discern the future, you often find that you're simply coming around full circle. And that's particularly true of gadget design today, in an age of throwaway objects.
Take, for example, the now-extinct appliance repair shop I remember from my childhood in Toronto. Of course, to a future industrial designer, it looked like heaven. At that age, I knew how to tear things apart to see how they worked, but generally after that they no longer functioned. The thought of being able to take something apart that wasn't working and later reassemble it into a working product was amazing to me, as were those repair men who could seemingly fix anything. Back then, "recycle, reuse, repair" wasn't an environmentally-conscious strategy for sustainability, or an economic mandate, it was simply a practical and often rewarding part of our daily lives.
Today, after more than 30 years as an industrial designer, I've managed teams that have designed virtually everything. With the exception of capital equipment, it has become commonplace for consumer products to be designed for short lifecycles, with little effort made to incorporate the ability to disassemble them for repair. Products are increasingly closed from a consumer repair standpoint, like the iPhone, which can't be opened to change out a battery much to the frustration of technology-lovers grown accustomed to the DIY environment. Yet with forethought, sometimes good planning for an extended product lifecycle can require as little effort as providing proper access at the cost of a couple extra screws.
Take vacuums as an example. There are brands/products that are very well designed from a repair standpoint — Miele, Sebo, Oreck — while others are more difficult either because of housing complexity, mechanical complexity, or inexpensive design and construction. Dyson's are great machines, but not particularly so from a repair standpoint, as the housings are rather difficult to disassemble and reassemble for repair. The Kenmore dual motor is a complex example, requiring the removal the whole front housing and many screws just to get into the machine, while inexpensive brands like Bissell and Dirt Devil are similarly challenging at repair because simple fixes, such as changing out a belt, take too long.
A disposable lifestyle and mentality is certainly not a problem in emerging markets, where the ability to repair a product is expected, and anything not designed with this in mind will almost certainly fail. This is more than just economic necessity. Though economics have been a factor in preserving the DIY mindset, there is a deeper, cultural tradition rooted in the sense of pride and satisfaction that comes from being able to fix things that are broken. It seems so simple: Spend a little more money to purchase products that are designed and built to last through years of use, repair, and changing fashions, and in the long term we save money and the environment. As sensible as this may sound, it still represents a significant shift in consumer behavior and design thinking throughout industrialized nations, not to mention business models. My hope is that if anything good can come out of our economic difficulties of late, it might be that we learn a new appreciation for the value of repair over disposal, and re-learn to appreciate those with the talent to breathe new life in those respected veteran products that deserve a second wind.
As designers, we influence both business strategy and consumer emotion, and this gives us a great opportunity to lead the movement away from a throwaway culture. We're at the epicenter, where our leadership is not only appreciated but has become expected as a moral responsibility - both for ecology and economy. Though leading this change in mentality and behavior will take effort, it will not be difficult. After all, this is nothing new - we'll just need to come full circle.
[Top image: 0514 ewate (lomo) by David Morris]