Good Design

Dieter Rams

Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample-packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight? They’re single-serving friends.

— Fight Club (1999)

I’ve been thinking about design lately. It seems that so much of our stuff is not meant to last. Tyler Durden was onto something: “The things you own end up owning you.” When the material world around us is meant to be thrown away, that must affect how we, as consumers, see the world. And I mean that from not a typical “we’re obsessed with stuff” kind of way.

Abstract and concrete. Immaterial and material. Yin and yang. Despite the very tangible difference between these concepts, they must bleed over into each other. If we are constantly using single-serving items, we value the material less and less. Do we really appreciate the marvel of technology–the cellphone–in our hands for what it is when we know that we’ll be replacing it in 2.5 years? No! Given that the material is just a byproduct of the immaterial, the things that we use a byproduct of our imagination and design, I think there is a negative feedback loop occurring here.

We value the tangible less–the things that are around us–which causes us to value the intangible–our relationships, art, emotions–less as well. This apathy continues to pervade our senses and lives and is further reflected in the objects that we use.

What do we do when our pen runs out of ink? The vast majority of us just throw it out–I mean it was only 5¢!–and pick up another one. I remember beginning to use a fountain pen in the middle school because my dad, a collector, gifted me one. No one in my English class (Mrs. Thiele’s 8th grade!) had known what it was! In the age of cheap manufacturing, the stuff that we use is not meant to last because it is always cheaper to replace than the repair, especially as the cost of labor worldwide rises and the cost of manufacturing falls.

We’re living in a world of planned obsolescence, a world where companies fight against your right to repair.

I think that the connection between apathy to the tangible and the erosion of our values probably requires some more research and thought, so I’ll devote the rest of this essay to what provoked this line of reasoning: good design.

I was in Herman Miller NYC last week, and I marvelled at the amazing design of the products throughout the store. Everything had been designed with something in mind, something other than profit or efficiency. Nestled behind the amazing furniture and decor, I encountered Dieter Ram’s ET66 calculator and was astonished by its understated design and simplicity.

ET66 Calculator

Less but better.

Dieter Ram’s philosophy is classic because it won’t go out-of-style. It’s design will be appreciated for generations to come. With my limited knowledge, I cannot do him or his work justice, so I encourage you to visit Vitsœ’s article about him and his philosophy.

But I hope for a return to this design being commonplace in households. The return to valuing and taking care of the things we use, for our things to be life-long companions. I believe that a return to that era of care has many implications to our lives, society, and values. If you had one pen for my life, repairing its nib after an accidental drop, filling it carefully every day, you might save hundreds from a landfill. You might be more careful with the words you write. You might care more and consume, rather than be consumed.

Tejas Gupta

New York City, USA
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Tejas Gupta is a Princeton University student in the Department of Computer Science.