Design and Consumption Culture
The Culture of Consumption
In the west we give printed paper social value and call it money, and in tribal cultures they give printed skin social value and call it ceremony. However it looks, culture lives through material representations. Culture lives through written and spoken word, through Art, through Objects and Clothing, through Architecture and Symbolic Idols.
Design is the creation of material expressions, and so Design is the creation of culture. Design defines the material expression of a society, and so whoever owns the means of material expression controls culture. I’ve chosen to focus on the role of design in shaping culture: how design can be used socially and politically in a transition from an individualistic consumption culture to one of community co-creation and co-consumption.
Design for or against Consumption Culture
Designers, as the creators of culture, are not spontaneous creatives. Rather they merely extend the on-going narrative of culture and are as much passengers as they are drivers of the unconscious momentum of culture. There are therefore many subconscious assumptions in design, for example, that what is created will be a privately owned product, and that what is designed will be at some point purchased. Design that doesn’t question the basic anthropology of the creation of objects as products merely rolls with the momentum of societies fixated on Gross Domestic Product growth rates and merely perpetuates consumption culture. “… the current design paradigm is characterized by three central pillars – its obsession with materialism, a predominantly positivistic method of inquiry based upon problem: solution, and an agnostic, dualistic world view . Findeli sees design as reactive; that is reactive to the needs of the latest economic models, to the needs of commerce, to the market place… If designers continue a ‘business as usual approach’ they will continue to serve interests which control the economic model. In short, designers will continue as enablers of industry, the adjective ‘designer’ will be synonymous with ‘stylist’”(Alastair Fuad: Slow Design)
In contrast,“Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life.” (Dunne & Raby: Designing critical design) Instead of finding its place in the capitalist system: designing products for the selfish interests and private consumption of ‘selfish individuals’, critical design questions the current cultural narrative and offers it a different direction.
“Critical theories aim at emancipation and enlightenment, at making agents aware of hidden coercion, thereby freeing them from that coercion and putting them in a position to determine where their true interests lie.”(Geuss, R. The Idea of a Critical Theory : Habermas and the Frankfurt School.) In this sense critical design aims for the conscious recognition of subconscious assumptions, and by their recognition, to give the agents the conscious choice to act freely rather than in a determined and unconscious way.
The process of making the subconscious assumptions and behaviors consciously recognized can also be seen at work in the psychotherapeutic process of addicts. Michael White writes about a rite of passage for individuals addicted to excessive consumption, in his article ‘Challenging the culture of consumption: Rites of passage and communities of acknowledgement’. Though the article is about the consumption of addictive substance I found many parallels to critical theories discussion about the steps involved in a transition from a culture addicted to individualistic consumption.
He writes “In that contemporary culture is a culture of consumption, and in that there is an ever increasing range of substances available to us, it should not be so surprising that addiction and/or the excessive consumption of these substances is so prevalent, and that this is destroying the lives of so many persons, traumatizing their families, and wreaking havoc in our communities. In view of the burgeoning nature of this situation, I believe that it is unrealistic to expect that individual therapeutic responses will ever be able to respond adequately. The need for organized community responses is urgent.”
Though this is meant for individual alcoholics, the same argument can easily be extended to incorporate all individual consumers; to an entire culture dependent on consumption for identity. A culture of excessive consumption that is ‘destroying’ the planet and ‘wreaking havoc’ with the environment. Michael White sketches how a community can be the forum where individuals can recognize and confront their sub-conscious self-destructive consumption habits and can make a conscious decision to act otherwise.
“The formalization of this rite of passage is helpful. A forum can be established in which the person publicly announces, before assembled witnesses, their decision to break from the addiction and/or excessive consumption of substances… and can share their appreciation of the significance of the proposed journey as a migration of identity. The hazards and the insecurity associated with this migration can be drawn out. The preparations for the journey can be outlined, along with the skills and knowledge that are available to the person in navigating this transition.”
Critical design therefore can be seen as a cultural intervention in a culture addicted to consumption, dependent on material objects for semiotic meaning. As Michael White points out, it is not sufficient to make individual ‘clients’ aware of their subconscious assumptions, but to formalize the whole process of recognition and conscious choice into a conscious community forum.The individual consumer will have to be initiated into a whole new set of community of behaviors, and the very means for that initiation will be a forum where individuals can make their subconscious conditioning conscious through discussion and consciously plan and decide how to consume.
It makes sense that isolated and marginalized individual consumers, after a life time of depending on consumption for identity and existential meaning will need a supportive forum to re-discover a deeper identity, to learn how to function in a community, and to connect to a greater sense of non-material identity and human unity. Ultimately the ideas and concepts that are discussed in order to make them consciously recognized are not as important as the discussion itself. Individuals just need to be brought together, physically in one place, and then by being aligned in action; by doing something together, they can finally synchronize together in heart and mind and become a community.
A Transition in the culture of both Design and Consumption
Critical Design’s “intention to prompt their audience’s reflection on their assumptions” (Bowen: Critical Theory and Participatory Design) still reflects an antiquated perspective of Designers and their audience. Bowen goes on to say “These elements of Critical Theory imply an elitist attitude to society (‘the masses’): ‘you don’t know what’s good for you’ and, reading between the lines of this statement, that critical theorists ‘know better’.”
Indeed the conscious recognition of ‘agents’ or consumers about their subconscious assumptions and behavior patterns must in turn be married to a conscious recognition of ‘designers’ about their own subconscious assumptions and behavior patterns if a complete shift from consumer culture is to dawn. This is because Consumer and Designer are socio-cultural roles that define the poles of a single spectrum of consumption culture.
“.. a new design paradigm is not only needed to ‘save our world’ but seems essential to ‘save designers… Since Papanek, Ezio Manzini has done more than most to engage the design community in new ways of thinking about design. His ideas around design as a generator of feelings of ‘well-being’ for humankind, and as a means to at least reduce damage to the planet, or, at best begin the process of healing are imaginative… He talks of the journey towards more sustainable products and services which involves cultural as well as technological change . Perhaps the most relevant need for cultural change is within the design community.”(Alastair Fuad: Slow Design)
The shift from consumer culture built around the socio-economic model of game-theory and order through predictable selfish human nature, can only be completed when ‘designers’ as well as ‘consumers’ dissolve their roles as variables in a socio-economic equation of production. Only then will genuine culture re-emerge from the depths of raw human nature rather than an artificial culture generated from the formulas and models of the intellectual deconstruction of what it means to be human.
The cultural intervention of critical design can not only be a forum for conscious recognition of consumer assumptions and behaviour, but also of designers. Open-design represents the intuitive dissolution of consumer and designer into one fluid relationship of need and service, creativity and practicality. Only when consumers become the creators of their products will production and consumption become a closed cycle, because only then is “consumer demand” consciously recognized rather than mathematically predicted and charted by unconscious market mechanisms and models.
Open Design represents an entirely new economic model. Consumer Demand and Production and Supply become entirely dissolved and subsumed into a single conscious human process. Open-Design in conjunction with re-skilling and consumer education will emancipate both the designer and consumer from their unconscious economic roles. Through re-skilling and education the consumer becomes a producer, and through that education designers and producers become teachers and community leaders.
“De-skilling is not simply the result of digitization, but an effect of the geo-political exploitation of technologies for profit over social or environmental sustainability. In response, re-skilling needs to take place across both digital and craft practices. In the same way that cooper’s barrel making skills need to be shared for continuity, so the ability to programme code as a material needs to be taught in schools. Otherwise the result is end-user passivity, associated with product loyal consumers who lack skills for making, communication, or survival” (Ele Carpenter: Social Making)
Both Designers and Consumers must be transformed from their isolated roles; they must come together and merge into one forum and one conscious creative community. Only then will the lead of materialism and consumer culture be transmuted into the gold of genuine culture rooted in the conscious expression of our authentic existential humanity.
Designer and Consumer are two parts of a single economic system and culture of consumption. Product is what they create and consume, and Gross National Product is the name of the priest that marries them. The culture of consumption is a product of this duality between producer and consumer; of the ruler and subject duality that still defines industrial production. It is a split between the architect and the life flow he is meant to cultivate that has upset the balance of the planet, and if there is ever to be peace they must once again become one.
Designer and Consumer must align, synchronize, and merge. They must be brought together in a forum where their unconscious assumptions and the subconscious roles they play can be discussed into conscious recognition. It is only in such a forum where the de-skilled consumer can re-skill and become a producer, and where the aloof designer can find true empathy and identify himself as both client and servant.