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What is Emotionally Durable Design?

3p Contributor | Wednesday August 14th, 2013 | 12 Comments

typewriterBy Tara Gould

Why do we hold onto certain objects for decades, while others we are willing to discard before they’re even broken or tatty?

‘The trick is keeping it fresh.’ These are the words of wisdom we often hear from married couples who have gone the distance and survived. In order to maintain empathy and sparkle long term it helps to enjoy new and varied experiences, both together and apart.

Empathy and objects

According to Professor Jonathan Chapman the same rule of thumb can be applied to the material objects in our lives.

Chapman is a UK-based sustainable design theorist, whose work seeks to understand and uncover the social and societal patterns of consumption and waste and find practical ways out of our current unsustainable, throwaway culture. He is currently in consultation with a number of businesses, including Puma, to look at how to design products that are not only sustainable and durable, but which support resilient relationships between products and people.

In his book “Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy” Chapman stresses that “we are consumers of meaning not matter.” He explores how we retain interest in things only when they continue, over time, to remain meaningful, and can adapt to our changing desires and values.

Our resentment of the old and stale, Chapman suggests is linked to Darwin’s model of evolution and our innate striving for progress. A product becomes obsolete not necessarily because it broke. It might have gone out of style. “Style obsolescence” refers to the state when a product becomes old and unfashionable, losing the identity and status it once had. If objects fail to sate the human hunger for new, fresh experiences they become objects of contempt, as Chapman asserts, “Waste then is a symptom of expired empathy, a kind of failed relationship that leads to the dumping of one by the other.”

Playing for keeps

So what might an emotionally designed object look like?

In an earlier post on TriplePundit, student Marshall Jamshidi designs an emotionally durable microwave which, over time, gets to know the food you like, and how best to cook it for you. Students at Brighton University dreamed up a tea cup with an invisible interior pattern that only develops as the tea stain deepens, and a pair of trainers which reveal an illustration as they get dirty or worn or faded.

But products don’t necessarily require this kind of built-in novelty activator for us to want to care for and cherish them.Woody Allen has kept and used the same typewriter for the last 50 years. It’s an Olympia portable SM-3, circa late 1950s, he wrote all of his film scripts on it. My mother still uses the 45-year-old Morphy Richards toaster that belonged to her father. It toasts evenly, has been repaired only once, and evokes fond memories of her childhood home in Yorkshire.

An obsolete business model

Today’s business model, which strives to create maximum profit from producing and selling more and more products, does not encourage consumers to keep and care for things. Electrical items are unfixable, built-in obsolescence means shelf life is minimized, while rapid shifts in technology prevent consumers from keeping, and mending. Go online and try to find a kettle with a life-time or ten-year guarantee and it soon becomes clear that many of us are being forced into a throwaway society we didn’t sign up for. Unfortunately many businesses are still reluctant to more forwards because a fear of change, or habitual ways of working.

In an interview with the Guardian, Fiona Bennie, head of sustainability at design agency Dragon Rouge, says that people will increasingly demand products that last, “Companies are going to have to meet customers’ demands and needs with different business models and [in some cases] service-based systems. If they don’t, it’s increasingly likely a clever start up will.”

Icons and identity

A certain forward-thinking sector of the car industry offers us a great example of this. UK spare parts businesses such as VWHeritage, Mini Spares,UK MG Parts and Rimmer Brothers provide genuine original, heritage and quality reproduction spare parts, for classic, vintage or other out-of-production cars. David Ward, Managing Director at VWHeritage says:

“The current business model makes sense for vehicle manufacturers, who by law have to produce parts for ten years of the car being offered for sale, thereby encouraging people to buy new when the parts supply runs out. Classic and vintage VWs were built to last. They might not be perfect, but they survive 30+ years. People want to keep hold of them and we want to help them to do that. Classic vehicles are part of everyone’s history; VW Campervans and Beetles have become iconic because so many people have fond memories of them, and for that reason it is something that so many owners cherish.”

There are enormous environmental advantages to keeping the same car long term. According to a spokesperson from the Environmental Transport Association, a considerable amount of the environmental impact of buying a car is not in the driving, but the manufacture and scrapping, a factor which remains almost entirely overlooked:

“The tank-to-wheel fuel consumption is only part of the story. Petroleum and fuel transport and production consume energy, as well as car manufacturing and scrapping and the maintenance and infrastructure. The total energy consumption of car use is on average 54.7 percent higher than the tank-to-wheel energy consumption alone.”

A multipronged approach

In my experience, just the act of fixing a broken radio, restoring a car, or upholstering a piece of furniture creates a bond between product and person.

So if objects, electrical appliances, cars and even clothes are well made, and beautifully designed, we will want to hold onto them, we will have experiences with them, and we will want to repair them.

Emotionally durable design, then, needs to be so much more than just the creation of products that change or adapt, and maintain our empathy for longer. Alongside developing sustainable design, should businesses not strive to sell products that last, products that can be updated or restored, and equally importantly, products that can be easily repaired?

Tara Gould is a writer, journalist and blogger supporting ethical businesses and spreading the word on sustainability. You can find her on Twitter @EthicalBizTara

Image credit: jhorneman, Flickr


▼▼▼      12 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Sonia Koetting

    Restoration Hardware has tapped into this emotion for marketing. It clearly is true, however a business model based on things that don’t need replacing deserves some serious study. Of course it can be done. But, take this conversation as an example of the challenge: A guy I know loves his city/mountain hybrid bicycle. He asked a friend (deep into cycling world) why this bike is no longer available? The answer — “When you buy a bike like that, you never crave another one.”

    This would imply that a social venture based on sustainable design should also warehouse all the parts and staff those who can repair as well as manufacture. To contract this out risks losing a guaranteed future for ability to repair.

    I could list the things I own that were solid purchases, but I’ve been forced to replace because the battery (or other) is no longer available. Sticking around with pieces and parts is a huge challenge for manufacturing.

  • Sonia Koetting

    Here’s a related article about the demise of careers relative to well-designed, sustainable products: http://www.coloradoan.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013308110017

    • Tara Gould

      Thanks for the link Sonia, I enjoyed reading that. Similarly, this is a
      short documentary about people making a living from the art of repair
      in London: http://www.theguardian.com/sus….
      Yes I agree entirely that ‘a business model based on things that don’t
      need replacing deserves some serious study’ – and it’s encouraging at
      least that certain forward thinking companies are taking the challenge
      seriously. The way in which we continue to use resources, create waste
      and pollute is simply not sustainable for us long term. Businesses need
      to start to think differently. Like Tim says, ‘the latest technology is
      so fragile that it doesn’t even last as long as one’s expectations’, and
      it’s not made to. I don’t know whether it is possible to buy a mobile
      phone that lasts. I think across the board manufacturers use
      planned/built-in obsolescence with technology: phones, computers and
      digital cameras. Maybe contact the phone company and ask how long you
      can expect your phone to last? It’s only when consumers start demanding
      and buying accordingly that businesses will have to change.

      • Sonia Koetting

        Darn, I got a 404 message on the Guardian link. Maybe you can sum it in a couple sentences? It would be encouraging to see repair taught at community colleges and restored as a viable job for engineer-minded.

        Not sure it’s worth contacting phone company. Such a beast. But I do ask at every doctor visit how much that costs, and they never know, but I’m a bold consumer who will keep asking about that elephant in the room!

  • cassandra postema

    I agree that recycling creates a bond between consumer and product. The fashion industry is a prime example of seasonal demands that encourage a throw away attitude towards purchases. As a designer I find creative challenges in creating something by recycling and telling a story through that. At Emi&Eve “bullets for beauty” accessories we recycle ammunition. Its been an amazing journey working with people who survived atrocities and the warm response to our accessories is proof of this bond.

    • Tara Gould

      Thanks Cassandra, I really love the way ethical fashion is increasingly upcycling and re-using waste. The idea of recycling ammunition is quite radical! And gives the jewellery a resonant subtext too. How have you been involved in working with people who survived atrocities? Does Emi&Eve give some of their profits to charity?

  • http://www.aldissandmore.com/ Tim Aldiss

    Nice piece.

    It’s not so much that the latest business models “does not encourage consumers to keep and care for things” but that the latest technology is so fragile that it doesn’t even last as long as one’s expectations. My latest phone is well on it’s way out but I signed a 24 month contract and have to suffer for another 9 months before I can upgrade.

    I’ll think twice next time round, but how do I choose a model that lasts?

    • Tara Gould

      Thanks for the link Sonia, I enjoyed reading that. Similarly, this is a short documentary about people making a living from the art of repair in London: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/video/the-art-of-repair-old-objects-new-life-video. Yes I agree entirely that ‘a business model based on things that don’t need replacing deserves some serious study’ – and it’s encouraging at least that certain forward thinking companies are taking the challenge seriously. The way in which we continue to use resources, create waste and pollute is simply not sustainable for us long term. Businesses need to start to think differently. Like Tim says, ‘the latest technology is so fragile that it doesn’t even last as long as one’s expectations’, and it’s not made to. I don’t know whether it is possible to buy a mobile phone that lasts. I think across the board manufacturers use planned/built-in obsolescence with technology: phones, computers and digital cameras. Maybe contact the phone company and ask how long you can expect your phone to last? It’s only when consumers start demanding and buying accordingly that businesses will have to change.

  • Brooking

    This is fantastic. I’m thrilled to see the brilliance in psych, marketing, and design research finally making some real traction on the emotional, psychological, and spiritual aspects of our excess consumption culture. Really exciting, props to Chapman for this important advance in our framing of the problem.

  • Marc de Sousa Shields

    Tara thanks for this article… Can you write more on the topic… Of particular interest might be how to harness that craving for new to a craving for sustainable, convert that feeling of yum when you buy something new, to a feeling of yea for not buying something… how do we tap the value we hold for meaning and experience over a shoddy thing we know will break down sooner rather than later…. thanks again…

    • 1tara_g

      Hi Marc,

      This a a really really important point. Because it does make you feel great when you buy sustainably. If it means you have to save for a bit, or take the time to do the research and sourcing, then you have a product you love and have already engaged with more than just grabbing the most convenient thing off the shelf. Not to mention the lifetime of experience which then grows in an heirloom product. I love the idea of exploring the psychology and behavioral aspects behind consumer habits and how to make sustainable buying fun, satisfying and meaningful. Jonathan Chapman does also explore this whole subject in his book. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • http://twitter.com/hugh_knowles Hugh Knowles

    We have been developing a concept for consumer electronics that last a lifetime incorporating emotionally durable design. Also worked on business models etc as well. See http://lookupproject.org/wandular