Tom Chi  

Getting a Life

May 7th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

The word on the street nowadays is that building a good product is no longer good enough. Marketers are convinced that products should evoke an entire lifestyle and way of being, and are falling over themselves to sell you the package deal. Lifestyle brands hawking a pantheon of products wrapped in an attitude have arrived in full force and have reimagined identity as a cart full of brand names. How can this possibly work?Stretching back to ancient times, human beings have had tribal sensibilities. The idea of extended family, clan, village… all operating under a single banner is prevalent in many cultures. When the symbols were not literal banners, they were ways of dressing, or tying one’s hair, or facial markings which differentiated your tribe from others.

In modern days, the desire to identify with such groups still exists, but has come to be expressed via brand names as visual indicators of belonging. With some brands (apple) this shared sense is strong, with others (dell), not so much. Brands have also taken hold of our definition of self-identity because most people have stopped creating entirely. In olden times, everything in the villiage was hand-made, and one generally knew the maker. As a matter of necessity, many people needed to be makers in order to support the needs of the village. Thus, people were involved in daily acts of creation which may have been as simple as making a horseshoe or a clay pot, but nevertheless opened creative outlets by which to form identity.

Nowadays, few people make things directly. Their only act of creative expression is the choice of which goods to collect and consume. Certainly all this saves us a lot of time, but it creates a conflict when one wants to truly define themselves. For the designer this conflict manifests as the following paradox: How should one design mass market products in a way that evokes individuality? Is that even what we should be doing? Is it misleading?

How do readers feel about the heavily branded world in which we live? Is a glorious state of delectable choices, or is it over-marketed chaos? What should the responsbilities of designers be in the entire equation?

14 Responses to “Getting a Life”
Ron Zeno wrote:

the desire to identify with such groups still exists

And this desire is successfully used to influence. This means of influence is sometimes referred to as the granfalloon, and it sounds like marketers want designers to assist in creating granfalloons.

Granfalloon (quote from “Age of Propaganda”)
How to Sell a Pseudoscience by Anthony Pratkanis
Propaganda and Debating Techniques: Create a Granfalloon by “Agent Orange”

Oluseyi wrote:

I once heard the term “mass customization” used to refer to mass market products which were customizable for each individual consumer - albeit in a set number of ways. The first such product is a line of jeans from Levi’s that allowed each consumer to submit measurements and receive custom-fitted pants delivered to the home, at only marginal mark-up. I don’t know how successful it’s been, or if the service is still offered.

The key to this mass customization is manufacturing technology which allows much of the fabrication process to be automated and optimized (as in the case of Levi’s custom jeans; material patterns are optimized using something like a genetic algorithm to minimize waste, then each garment is assembled to individual specifications).

The point - and I do have one, honest - is that mass customization allows for the possibility of all of us wearing the same thing, yet different. So there’s a certain amount of “group identity” or brand affiliation possible, but also a degree of individuality and self-expression.

Ian wrote:

In small doses, I don’t mind branding but it often goes too far now.

If a company lives a brand (Body Shop) then fine, but some companies try to project brands which emcompass values they don’t subscribe to. Like environmentally friendly oil companies or concerned drug companies.

What’s the difference between branding and propaganda?

I truly despise how insidious branding gets when they try to take over as much visual space as possible to get your attention as frequently as possible. Give me a break!

But more to the point of your article…

It’s rather sad people need to buy branded products as means of group identification. Creative expression through consumption? It’s so shallow!

If you design for the mass market, then by definition, you are not evoking individuality. Don’t fool yourself. The broader the appeal of a brand, the less of an individual statement you can make with it.

Wearing the Nike swoosh doesn’t make you an athelete.

As a designer, maybe a compromise is to support work on micro-brands. However, the value of the brand is it recognition so marketeers won’t be keen on micro-brands.

Bob wrote:

Like environmentally friendly oil companies or concerned drug companies.

When BP changed its logo to a sun[flower]-like thing, they spent more money on this than they spent on research into green energy (despite their logo being green and yellow).

We have long had lifestyle in computing: Emacs - not so much a text editor, more a way of life.

I think that there are (at least) three things here that aren’t necessarily the same:

  • corporate control / socio-industrial diversity
  • materialism and consumption
  • brands and identity

You can have a strong brand without stamping on diversity or obeying The Man: e.g. Linux. You can buy only mainstream brands, but in moderation and without using them as an identity substitute.

Designers could help, but in a tenuous way. I try to create my identity via my relationships with people rather than with objects. Therefore things that help strengthen those relationships are good, e.g. mobile phones.

Creating the means of production rather than a finished article (with fixed, strong brand) would help too, e.g. toolkits (or Emacs ;-) .

Possibly uncomfortable for Tom: working for companies that foster diversity e.g. via open standards rather than locking in conformity via OEM agreements etc. (Cue flame war. Maybe you’re trying to reform the system from within ;-) You did pose the question, though…)

Adam wrote:

It may be obvious, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the more ubiquitous a brand becomes, the harder it is to market as a lifestyle. The two examples given illustrate this nicely: Apple controls a very small segment of the market, and they’ve managed to sculpt an image around that outsider niche. Dell, on the other hand, is the world’s largest computer manufacturer. It’s like driving a Ferrari vs. driving a Toyota. Or, even less extreme, driving a Subaru vs. driving a Toyota. This is the driving force behind indie music/underground culture.

Anthony wrote:

I agree with your point — selling “lifestyles” is ridiculous. But not the example you gave of an idyllic life in villages when everyone forged identities because everyone made stuff. The “lifestyles” of our forebears were not based in village utopias.

C’mon. People didn’t worry about such things as “identities” because they were so busy surviving that they didn’t have the time. People worked from sun up till sun down. All day long, every day, people worked from about puberty on, if not earlier. People got married as soon as their parents could foist them off — also, starting in their teens. And of course, the average life expectancy for people in the good ol’ days (pre-mass markets) was in the 30s or 40s.

All of the Western world’s current obsession with identity and lifestyle comes from the fact that we’re ridiculously wealthy compared with pre-mass market days. We’re well-fed, live in the best housing humanity has ever known, fight off all but the worst diseases with drugs, and live at least twice as long as our forebears.

Since we’re no longer obsessed with basic survival, we now become obsessed with things like identity and lifestyle, entertainment and boredom, fat and fashion.

Selling (and buying) “lifestyles” corporations use as marketing is ridiculous. But let’s be real about why we consumers would even bother making purchases based on them nowadays. It’s because we can.

Tom Chi wrote:

While there are plenty of agrarian societies where it was all about survival, there were plenty with a lot of free time as well. The Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Chinese Imperials, etc. We are not the first society to have a lot of free time on our hands or to be concerned with “identity”. Even folks like Thomas Aquinas writing the dark ages had time for concerned about the larger place of self and humanity.

So, no… I don’t think our preoccupation with defining ourselves is a recent result of having a ton of free time.

As for living longer, the majority of gains in life expectancy have come from reducing infant and child mortality rates — also from fewer tribal wars and partially from treating disease. Note that Socrates (and many of his contemporaries) lived to age 70, and he only died because he was order to drink hemlock. Many other figures throughout ancient history lived a good long while… it’s not the average life expectancy which counts so much as the distribution.

Even in the older societies that didn’t have the benefits that the Greeks had, many many of them were able to get beyond the thoughts of basic survival and ponder identity.

Given that, I stand by my original point, which is to say our disconnectedness from daily acts of creation is contributes to our modern difficulties will identity formation.

Tom Chi wrote:

To answer Bob’s post:

I like your further breakdown of the issue into 3 additional axes.

Thinking over the problem more, I’m now thinking that part of the problem is that marketers encourage people to think that consumption is the premiere way to define oneself. But considering people throughout history that have created strong identities from themselves, they have nearly always been through the power of ideas. Even among the famous artists, who one might expect to have a greater affinity for the visual culture which supports branding, there is always a strong current of ideas which underlie the visual indentities they posit.

So here’s an interesting twist on the whole deal: what if companies published their personal philosophy as the first 4 pages of their catalogs?… or had an “about our philosophy” link on their website?

Depending on the organization, this might be quite a compelling way to consider their views and values or it might just end up as another overblown marketing farce… either way, it’d be interesting.

Finally, to Bob’s last point: Open standards do not guarantee diversity. Ethernet, TCP/IP, Sendmail, SMTP, etc are used extremely widely (because they work well) with the same code being run everywhere. When the recent TCP Vulnerability was published, it got a lot of people worried. Same with wu-ftpd and Sendmail.

So while corporate hegemony might not be so good, I don’t think the point of fostering code diversity is strongest argument against it. Really, any standard (open or proprietary) which works reasonably might be widely adopted with similar drawbacks w.r.t. code diversity.

Anthony wrote:

Tom, you’re absolutely right that lots of people since ancient times have had the luxury of thinking larger thoughts, enjoying leisure time, etc. I think the real difference comes from who in society has the luxury to enjoy such things now vs. then.

In pre-Industrial Revolution societies, it was primarily the elites who could enjoy such things. The vast majorities of people were peasants, sailors, mom & pop merchants, farmers, soldiers. Except for the aristocracy and other wealthy elites, who could read? Who had an education? Who thought about or cared about higher thoughts when work had to be done to ensure survival for you and your family? Who had disposable income to spend on tons of consumable goods and services?

Nowadays, everyone in Western society — workers, soldiers, and peasants in addition to the political and merchant elites — has education, has leisure time, has adopted the consumerist/leisurist mentality because they can. Because society has schools, hospitals, factories, supermarkets, and shopping malls, people have the time (and money) to spend pursuing whatever sort of consumer ideal strikes them.

In sum, when the masses have disposable income to spend on consumable goods and services, then companies step up to create create concepts like “branding” and “lifestyle” consumer products to sell to them. You can’t have one (ridiculous movements like “lifestyle” marketing) without the other (mass markets where most people have lots of disposable income because they can do more than just survive day to day).

Anthony wrote:

P.S. —

This is the first time I’ve visited this site and I think it’s brilliant! As a professor of mine in grad school said, “The world is an interface.” I’m looking forward to making regular visits to your site to share in more of your observations!

Tom Chi wrote:

Well remember that there is a selection effect at work. We only hear about the work of aristocrats, scholars and merchants because they were the only ones that were literate. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the populace was stupid or incapable of complex philosophical thought. It just means that they did not have a means of preserving their thoughts in way that would last throughout the centuries.

Even in modern times where many more people are literate, there is a selection effect at work. These words that we write may be gone in 200 or 500 years, as there will be a natural tendency to archive and access only popular works (Elvis, Harry Potter, Wittgenstein). Despite all that, it certainly does not mean that we were incapable of complex philosophical thought.

Anthony wrote:

Please don’t think that I’m arguing that people were stupid or incapable of complex thought. That’s not the point.

Lucille wrote:

This is a late response to the
?mass customization? post:
Many forecasters and futurists believe that mass customization is the future of fashion. And for good reason, as the amount of waste created each season by the industry is significant and must stop! At Cornell I participated in body scanning research such as the one used for Land’s End (Tom Chi did consulting for them in 2000!), I got a chance to examine the technology first hand. The vision is that people will enter scanning rooms (instead of dressing rooms) and customize a perfect fit using scanned 3D measurements.

These changes will be slow in coming though, since mass customization requires complex machinery as well as notable changes in how designers work. The time horizon for a company to launch such a system could be anywhere from 16 months to 10 years (depending on the scope of the project and the experience of the engineering team).

In this new approach to creating goods, the designer’s responsibility increases ten-fold as it is no longer just aesthetic mindfulness and good research that is required, but an expertise in engineering, a willingness to explore design compromise and an ability to contribute to debugging.

As for the ethical questions surrounding marketing and branding:
fashion is a good example of a system to manufacture artifical affiliations. I noticed that the IDEO acknowledgement for CHI2004 stated “we have worked on everything from re-designing healthcare centers to creating PRADA concept bags”. While it was surprising to see two totally opposite concepts on the same page, it made me wonder whether those same techniques could be used to encourage customers into doing something good and thus create a win/win for the customer and the world.

Mass marketing and production could be used to further deceive us, or to help invoke positive change in our relationship to the environment and our definition of self. Personally, I’m glad that Land’s End (a functional apparel company) caught on to mass customization before a conspicuous consumption high fashion giant did.

As a designer and teacher of designers I feel it is every designer’s responsibility no matter what the product to first and foremost be socially responsible and environmentally conscious. In the end fulfillment is better reached through doing good things, not through acquiring tons of things. If designers can approach their work from this perspective, then there is hope for creating a world that fulfills more than sales figures.

A further twist on the mass customization concept is that of personal design backed by a virtual production chain. The simplest examples of which are sites which allow you to design your own t-shirts — you design and they handle the production and distribution of said shirts.

This same infrastructure applied to wider range of apparel and offering significant more flexibility in design/cut/pattern/etc, could lead to a system that truly does allow one to individual expression through customized product.

Bob wrote:

Lucille’s post about fashion reminded me of a model I have for fashion, the details of which are fuzzy due to my incomplete and rusty grasp of physics.

If I remember correctly, an electro-magnetic wave propagates because the electric and magnetic components are always out of phase with each other - the lagging one is always trying to catch up with the leading one. Fashion is the same - it perpetuates itself by saying “What you have is useless, strive for this instead, which will answer all your problems.” Only trouble is, when you get there you’re told “No, that’s rubbish now, you need this instead” and so on.

Bringing this back to a semblance of relevance - the question of obsolecence and satisfying need. My PC at home runs Windows 98 on a Celeron and is fine. I don’t need to upgrade hardware or software as I’m happy with how it is now. (A faster net connection would be nice, but that’s about it.)

So, how long do you support products? Do you force customers to upgrade to keep support? How backwards compatible do you make your products, to allow some instances to remain at old versions rather than forcing a complete upgrade across the board? As customers we want support for as long as possible, but as suppliers we know what a headache that is.

For hardware designers, how easy is it to mend / reuse / recycle your product? (If you sell in the E.U. you’d better watch out as the law’s soon going to require this.)

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?