Gabriel Solomons

Refashioning consumption

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September 12th, 2012

Designers love ‘things’. Mostly beautiful things that are carefully considered and fulfill their purpose effectively. We live in an age where the gadget and gizmo have replaced the doohicky and doodad. Prone to the allure of all that is shiny, fiddly, stylish and trendy – the ordinary and everyday is often overlooked as some designers become too enamored with their own ability to re-fashion and consumers are too gullible to notice when the wool is being pulled firmly over their eyes (I mean seriously, are we really so lazy as to need this?).

I was reminded of this the other day when my 5 year old used a clothes peg to seal up a cereal packet that had been mysteriously separated from its box (the box was later found having been transformed into a multi-storey car park). Children have an innate ability to put everyday objects to multiple uses – the relationship between form and function being revisited each time a new object is picked up and used. Spending any length of time with a group of kids demonstrates just how inventive young minds are, often more open to interpreting new ways of putting an object to use beyond its initial and intended purpose.

I’ll never forget the time I saw a group of Palestinian kids playing with a cardboard box that had been converted into a wheel-less go cart that kept them occupied for ages or the Somalian children that refashioned coke cans into animals to sell for food – the added dimension of poverty creating an impetus for creativity. There are books and websites aplenty about the D.I.Y kids craze – which seems a clever way of cashing in on something that comes naturally to most – but designers can learn a lot about resourcefulness and ingenuity by simply observing young’uns at play.

The prevailing economic model of today is to sell us more things, more often – frequently trying to sell us the same stuff with arguably unnecessary minor additions or modifications. The term ‘planned obsolescence’ is accurate inasmuch as tech companies realise that desirability for new things can be more powerful than functionality, hence many gadgets are built with a limited ‘shelf’ life – either becoming unfashionable or simply failing to work properly after a certain period of time.

A designers role is not simply to make new ‘stuff’ but to make us think again, often about things that are around us and which have a world of possibility waiting to be revealed. Ken Garland in his original 1964 First Things First manifesto (and echoed later in the revised 2000 version) argued about the need for values in design and I would suggest interpreting that phrase literally: the value ‘in’ (a) design. Advertising and marketing can suggest the precise value of a given object but as mentioned above, this value can be extended and reinterpreted in the hands of a creative mind. Some recent projects, such as Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn’s ‘Significant Objects’ experiment have taken this idea even further by demonstrating that the effect of narrative on any given object’s subjective value can be measured objectively.

Sure I understand the need for jobs and the whole economic argument to support productivity, but ingenuity and creativity need to be aligned equally as much with cultural, environmental and political changes in a world that faces growing resource shortages, increased consumption and overpopulation.

This is a big topic and mine are small words, but I do feel that a more concerted awareness of – and reconnection with – childhood creativity continues to provide inspiration for everyone, not just designers.