Emotionally Durable Design And The Art Of Loving Your Stuff

The cultural and social messages we express through the things we own and wear are driving our current unsustainability crisis, which has led to a wasteful, consumer culture. From fashion to furniture to cars, owning what is new, fresh and on-trend reflects status, identity and intelligence.

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This post was edited by Bre Cruickshank

Woody Allen has kept and used the same type writer for 50 years. It’s an Olympia portable SM-3, circa late 1950s; he wrote all of his films scripts on it.

I own a Morphy Richards toaster from the 1960s which belonged to my grandparents.  It toasts evenly, has never broken down and it reminds me of my childhood and family holidays at my Grandparents’ Yorkshire home.

Source: madinfoshop.wordpress.com

Source: madinfoshop.wordpress.com

All of us have at least one object in our possession that we can’t part with. Both of the objects mentioned above are of practical benefit, were built to last, and carry sentimental value because of the bond; consolidated by experiences between person and product.  But it’s not always about what things represent for us privately, but communally and culturally too.

The status of The British Museum as the nations number one memory archive and the success of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 objects are both testament to how the items we collect are a powerful means of sharing and understanding our collective human narrative.

By the same token,  the cultural and social messages we express through the things we own and wear are driving our current unsustainability crisis, which has led to a wasteful, consumer culture.

Anyone brought up in the late 20th and 21st centuries has been groomed by a culture where disposability is not only acceptable, but de-rigueur.  From fashion to furniture to cars, owning what is new, fresh and on-trend reflects status, identity and intelligence.

Imagine…a triple bottom line?

Our current business model prioritises maximum profit by producing and selling more and more products, profit over people, and profit over planet. Even those of us who might choose to keep the same products long term will find obstacles in our way.  Built-in obsolescence means shelf life is minimised, electrical appliances are unfixable,  and constant modifications and advances in technology render many products obsolete after only a few years.

Imagine the impact there would be on businesses if we could buy one product…and keep it for life? 

Imagine the impact there would be on businesses if we could buy one product: a tin opener, a kettle, or a pair of shoes for example, and keep it for life? As our current crisis becomes increasingly unsustainable, many businesses are going to have to shape up, or ship out.

The technology is there. It was there 60 years ago when Woody Allen’s typewriter was made; but the corporate world is going to need a lot of persuading and some habit changing to use that design technology to lengthen rather than shorten the life of products.

Professor Jonathan Chapman is leader of MA Sustainable Design at Brighton University  and he is making some serious efforts to alter the direction of our current trajectory. Following the publication of his book “Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy,” he was invited to the House of Lords to present his theories and ideas,  which are currently making ripples not only in the world of sustainability and design, but of big business too. Chapman is working in consultation with Puma and a number of other businesses who are attempting to weave sustainable sensibilities into their design processes and brand identities.

Emotionally Durable Design via BBC

Emotionally Durable Design via BBC

A tale of human bonding

So what is it that makes us bond with certain things, while others we are more than willing to discard once they become old, unfashionable or tatty?

According to Chapman, it’s all to do with relationships; how successfully and for how long a product sustains our interest and empathy.

He advocates that we need to find meaning in products for us to want to keep them.  When objects fail to quench our thirst for the new, the fresh, the fashionable and the exciting, we are more inclined to reject them, often even before they are broken or tatty.

“Most products are capable of creating even a small amount of empathy at the point of purchase, from this point on however product longevity is soberly dependent upon the sustainability of that empathy. Like everything in this unstable world, empathy too has a lifespan, governed in this case by the type of relationship that is evident between the user and the object. Waste then is a symptom of expired empathy, a kind of failed relationship that leads to the dumping of one by the other.”

Bright ideas

Students at Brighton University have come up with a number of innovative designs which embrace the concept of emotionally durable design. For example, a china tea cup which reveals an intricate and beautiful pattern only as a tea stain develops on its surface; and a pair of trainers where an invisible illustration manifests as the canvas becomes dirty.

Our natural human behaviour is one that begrudges the stale or outworn

Our natural human behaviour is one that begrudges the stale or outworn; reminders of what we once were but are no longer. In order for us to ‘stay in love’ with the items in our lives, either they need to change and adapt with us, or they need to be designed in such a way that the enjoyment of new experiences over time is possible.

However, products don’t necessarily require this kind of built-in novelty trigger for us to want to maintain and cherish them.  Woody Allen’s typewriter and my toaster prove this.

The spirit of things

The concept of emotionally durable design is not a new thing. The Arts and Crafts Movement,  headed by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris admonished the monotony and soullessness of the mass reproduction of objects and appealed for a return to traditional crafts.  In this way objects created with skill and love would be both practical and beautifully designed; enlivened by what they referred to as ‘spirit’. This spirit would then, in turn, enrich the lives of the people who owned these things, thereby kindling a relationship between owner and object.

Zoom forward to 2013 and we find in the UK a number of forward thinking companies and small businesses that have been quietly supporting people to keep and care for their things for some years.

In the excellent short documentary film, The Art of Repair: giving old objects new life in east London, Director Will Stewart, founder of the bike repair website MadeGood, focuses on a number of small London businesses whose: “talent is to mend and to extend an object’s lifespan, part of a rebellious tradition that honours recovery over waste.”

Likewise, UK spare parts businesses such as VW Heritage, Mini Spares,  UK MG Parts and Rimmer Brothers sell genuine original, heritage and quality reproduction spare parts, for classic, vintage or other out-of-production cars helping people to keep and care for their vehicles over decades.

Source: Life Magazine

Source: Life Magazine

VW Heritage is an ethically run, Sussex based company providing VW spares parts and service to owners and enthusiasts. Managing Director David Ward is passionate about vintage VWs and was keen to provide a service for people who share the same passion.

Ward says, “Classic and vintage VWs were built to last, they might not be perfect, but having survived thirty-plus years, people want to keep hold of them and we want to help them to do that. Classic vehicles are part of everyones 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.”

Ward is only too aware of the waste mountain associated with the scrapping of cars and the huge environmental impact of manufacture:

“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.”

When old is greener than green

The environmental advantages to keeping the same car long term are not much publicised, but the greener option is to keep an old car on the road for longer. The environmental impact of buying a car is not only in the driving, but also the manufacture and scrapping. This applies to green, electric and hybrid models.

A spokesperson from the Environmental Transport Association advised me that:

“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% higher than the tank-to-wheel energy consumption alone.”

But not all cars become collectable or vintage and there is a simple reason behind the continued popularity and growing iconic status of certain types of cars, which is great design; both mechanical and aesthetic.

It seems to me that in tandem with weaving innovative and important concepts such as Emotionally Durable Design and Cradle to Cradle design at the early stages of a products life, businesses also need to consider some crucial questions if we are to find a way out of our current crisis.  These are questions which might also be considered by a consumer at the point of purchase:

Is this product made to last?

Is this product beautiful – or will it please aesthetically long term?

Is this product practical, and will it live long enough for a person to build meaningful relationships with it?

Is this product easily repaired, restored and maintained?