The Economies of Desire
By Andrej Kupetz
Issue 6 Winter 2010
The past 20 years has seen a dramatic shift in the global economy and the way in which consumers view themselves and the way in which business views the consumer.
Companies and designers have reacted to this new hybrid consumer who is accustomed to customization. Andrej Kupetz explores the origins of this “de-segmentation” of the global market place as well as the designer’s individual role and new responsibilities in the 2.0 economy.
Various explanations are given for why the Italian designers Ettore Sottsass, Michele De Lucchi and Matteo Thun founded the Memphis Group between 1980 and 1981. One widely-held view sees Memphis as a critique of the principles of functionalism that had dominated design since the late 1960s. Another view sees Memphis merely as a parallel development in design to Postmodern architecture, which was promoting a similar formal language in another dimension at the same time.
“Design now communicates an aesthetic experience. Design makes it possible for users to identify with quite particular values and attitudes to life.”
There are also attempts to interpret the Memphis as positioned above all in a social dimension. Of these interpretations, one looks at the situation of designers who, because of their dependence on an industrial system, increasingly felt they were no longer able to see themselves as being able to use their work to improve people’s everyday lives, and as a response to this, developed a design language consisting of individual artistic impulses. Another interpretation looks at the how design was generally perceived at this time. Ettore Sottsass and Michele De Lucchi were said to have been infected with the idea of making design objects accessible to the masses as well, or, democratizing design via a spectacular mode of appearance.
How could the formal accumulation of basic geometrical solids (cones, spheres, pyramids or cubes), typically in primary colors, lead to the enormous popularity that the Memphis Group achieved in an incredibly short time and in shaping the way design is understood in general?
The Memphis Group seemed to focus on one consumer who had not existed before. This was the need to see everyday items as a medium for expressing one’s own identity by using products. Memphis was not like anything that had been available to buy before. Memphis was anti-design; it contradicted every current view of industrial design, which always seemed to start from the point of analyzing what was technically and commercially feasible. Until Memphis, the appearance of industrial society had hitherto been reduced to the principle of the (process-related) remolding of forms, as a consequence of arguments about functionalism.
The Memphis Group did away with this adherence to rules. The erosion process for mass markets, which had already begun in the late 1960s, caused different consumer needs to germinate in Western societies for the first time. The general mass market – in which push processing, i.e. supply that dictates demand – quickly became history. A new economy emerged from the economy of basic needs, which aimed at supplying people with essentials and tried to provide this supply almost as a monopoly, on the basis of a kind of welfare idea. This new economy was shaped by demand on the consumer side. Consumers had gained self-confidence. They developed their own ideas about creating a context for their lives. They started to have concrete ideas and wishes. The economy of desire came into being.
This economy is characterized by a wide-range segmentation of markets, caused by increasingly sophisticated consumer needs in relation to the product worlds that surround them. In the initial phase of the economy of desire, these are still needs that grow out of a particular group dynamic. It is still relatively easy for a supplier of products to identify needs, bundle them and direct what they are able to supply at these needs, as consumers within a particular group usually behave homogeneously. When the Memphis Group popularized the design concept in the 1980s, in many fields it was enough to use the designation “designer product” to command a higher price than was possible without that designation. For the first time, higher value can be created by formal differentiation in cases of interchangeable product quality and performance. As a consequence, design loses the reference system of post-war Modernism – technical function, industrial production, mass market – and at the same time gains a new one: communication becomes design’s new central function and replaces the product performance of an industrial nature, which is directed at technical function. Design now communicates an aesthetic experience. Design makes it possible for users to identify with quite particular values and attitudes to life.
For industry, increasing productivity against the background of an increasingly segmented market structure becomes a central challenge. The idea is, in global competition as well, to reduce production costs and at the same time raise the quality of the resulting products, and thus increase productivity. Since the 1990s, industry has increasingly seen design as an instrument for differentiating product ranges that can successfully make emotional contact with segments of the market that are becoming ever smaller.
In the globalization years, the intensity of competition consistently increased. More and more market participants were fighting for the favor of a consumer who is now no longer part of a homogeneous group, as at the beginning of the economy of desire, but who takes the liberty of consuming like this today and tomorrow in exactly the opposite way. In segmented markets, brands become more important for consumers as identifying patterns that make it possible for people to make themselves distinct from other groups, or show their allegiance to certain ones. But alongside the desire to belong to a group and to use products to symbolize this, there is a desire within the group for individual consumption. And this dialectic of consumer behavior has led to the formation of a new, inevitable and weird target group: hybrid consumers.
So mere differentiation of product ranges via a specific design leads to a second phase to the individualization of products. Mobile phone covers, accessories for products like the iPod or car customization offered by most manufacturers are great examples of how users can tailor product ranges to their own specific needs through defined or open kit systems.
More and more branches are exploring a new form of production today, and that is mass customization. This involves individualized mass production focused on individual customer wishes and the greatest possible flexibility. But of course only products made up of various individual parts are suitable for mass customization. Another problem for mass customization is that knowledge of consumer needs will inevitably always be restricted; this is not about target groups with the same characteristics, but about particular individuals.
In principle, a company must have every conceivable individual part ready for every conceivable combination, in order to be able to respond appropriately to individual wishes.
It is only logical, and consistent to develop ideas of individualization further in the direction of making personalized products available. In the future, it will become necessary to develop a single product for a customer, a unique object tailored to its user’s body like a custom-tailored suit. The fact is that there has now been a 2.0 economy of desire for a long time. The Internet has influenced every sphere of our lives, and changes the economy and society at a speed that would have seemed utopian even a few years ago.
But unlike the New Economy of the turn of the millennium, which is above all based on visions, Web 2.0 is an extremely real thing, and it is also changing the economy of desire. Seen in perspective, the market is no longer characterized by a group, but defined by each individual with his or her specific needs. The consumer becomes the market participant. The very possibility of being able to communicate oneself to others becomes more important than the content of what is communicated in isolation, each market participant seeks a form of exchange with others that is not directed at fulfilling a particular consumer wish, but at interaction as a consumer experience in its own right. Phenomena such as blogs, YouTube, and Facebook are interaction platforms. They make an enormous impact on a company’s product development. Open Source technology developed for the Internet can also be seen as a strategy for integrating consumers into processes that are relevant to commerce, for example, the product development of consumer goods. In the world of Open Source design, consumers take on the role of co-designers, as active market participants. They influence the design to the extent of defining their personal requirements – physical, technological, aesthetic. This means that personalized products are emerging for the first time that are not made by craft processes like custom tailoring, for example, but take over new technologies. New processes for endowing with form, like stereo lithography or 3D printing, now used essentially for producing prototypes, can also be considered for producing “personal design” as technologies of the future.
“More and more firms no longer know who actually makes their products. This means that in the long term they lose one of their most important arguments in the global battle for customers: source, credibility, and authenticity.”
Industrial production will continue to wane in significance. The fact is that industrial production can scarcely still be located in the globalized economy of desire. The search for cheaper production sites worldwide may help an enterprise to make higher profits in the short term. But even now, the sub-contractor principle tends to predominate. A sub-contractor contracted to produce goods commissions a sub-contractor who commissions a sub-contractor to produce, etc. More and more firms no longer know who actually makes their products. This means that in the long term they lose one of their most important arguments in the global battle for customers: source, credibility, and authenticity.
Given the continuing technical revolution, we are constantly faced with new challenges. But not only that: design will also have to manage the increasing complexity of a world of many divergent consumer needs. In the 2.0 economy of desire the human being remains the measure of discipline.
Economic development, and the fact that the economy of basic needs has been transformed into an economy of desire, means that a process of profound transformation has started for design as well. The reference system that shaped design in the 20th century has started to falter because of the dwindling importance of industrial production in Western societies and the associated increasing segmentation of markets. There are still areas in which design still plays an integral role within an industrially determined process. But something else is true of the overwhelming number of areas, above all those that can be summed up primarily under the heading of consumer goods: the discipline that was shaped by the idea of functionalism until the 1980s found and finds it difficult to come to terms with the apparently unavoidable development that started with the Memphis Group. Now it is the key factor in most areas, namely that of seeing design as mere formalism.
“…design will also have to manage the increasing complexity of a world of many divergent consumer needs.”
In the last century, design sought to define itself as a discipline above all by rendering itself distinct from art; it has recently lost this defining opposite. On the contrary, the former opposites, design and art, have moved towards each other in recent years, and largely follow the same rules in production and within market mechanisms. This has happened through the achievement of unique results by experimenting with materials, forms and processes, and in the system of marketing via galleries, trade fairs and auctions. If it is possible to define the essence of art as research for no specific purpose using artistic resources, then this definition can equally be applied to design. The fact is that it is very difficult to argue that there is any real purpose in the design of a chair, which a briefing has laid down should be like any other chair, but different from it, at least within the original definition of the purpose of industrial design. Well over 90% of all contemporary design work does not serve the idea of creating something radically new. 90% of all design work is about competitive differentiation within an existing product topology. It is about product differentiation, i.e. about modifying a familiar product and its typology, in order to design it more attractively for a defined target group.
The idea of product differentiation involves differentiation from the competitor’s product as well as differentiation for the product range within one’s own company. This all-embracing urge to differentiate is one of the core theses of the economy of desire and all its pluralistic manifestations. Product differentiation defines differences in product quality between various products, and also differentiation of products that are the same and fulfill no technical function, but can satisfy different psychological or physical needs.
Design still uses industrial methods in product differentiation, but it has considerably changed its attitude to this. Until a few years ago, materials and technologies determined the design of a product as well as, and this is important for the development of the discipline, determined it ideologically. Now, circumstances have changed to produce precisely the opposite. The design borrows a possible appearance that can be achieved through a manufacturing method or a particular material, in order to transform it into a different context. The consequence is that in furniture or car manufacturing, there are scarcely any purely industrial processes. Craft activities are always included in order to achieve the desired result after a tangible product differentiation. The designer wants to achieve a particular look for his product, and on the basis of his now artistic and entrepreneurial responsibility becomes a researcher, looking for an appropriate way of implementing his ideas. The effect he achieves in the best case: the person looking at the completed work is amazed, and asks: “How can this be possible?”
But this approach in the design process is made possible above all because of the change in the general economic conditions. The company is no longer concerned with market share, or with producing as much as possible as cheaply as possible. It is about enhancing productivity, i.e. the quality of the production. If a product looks to be of higher quality, and the look can be new or simply different, but must seem to represent high caliber, there is a chance of creating goods to meet consumers’ ever more sophisticated needs for items to consume.
Design has liberated itself from industrial conditions and their associated physical demands, allowing itself to take on any form it desires. The question about the appropriate form for an object, which should arise from its function, has become redundant, since thousands of functions can be stored on media that are only a few nanometers in size.
Beyond this, there are no patterns of behavior or rules for designers any more that draw on an ideology with discipline inherent in it. They are able to decide individually on the approach taken by their work and the way they act as market participants. They can cling to the old idea of design that is able to change and improve people’s everyday culture. They can see themselves as exploring new forms and construction principles, or conceive their frame of reference in the context of ecological questions. But they can also simply pursue the idea of becoming rich and famous, without being tormented by pangs of conscience, as they would have been in past views of design.
Despite all the artistic freedom offered by the economics of desire, they find themselves within a hard-fought competition of identities. They have to develop an identifiable handwriting that is theirs and theirs alone. Along with working for individuals and companies, designers must pursue their own projects and promote them, so that like artists, they clearly convey their ideas to the public. The good thing about this: the approach that produces a design can be a quite different one. Just as consumers treat consumption dialectically, designers can behave dialectically as well. They can work on a whole variety of projects at the same time, plunging into different stylistic worlds in order to lend form to their desires.
Design’s Seat at the table
Design still acts within a stylistic system that is pluralistic in a way that it was not in times of functionalism, and that is essentially characterized by four questions that definitely imply aesthetic expression and a design language: Can Modernism be continued? What does the future look like? How can I entertain you? What can I contribute to creating or sustaining an environment that is worth living in? On the one hand, these are conservative and liberal, hedonistic and social questions, and on the other side they are questions that are directed at popular or elitists themes, at innovative or traditional concepts. They are starting points for formulating group-specific replies. And in these replies they find different, but identifiable, aesthetic preferences. Here we are dealing with stylistic characteristics that permeate every design and can thus be located within a stylistic system. So these design languages behave like aesthetic models or visual expressions of social ideas that are taking place and extending themselves at the same time.
This survey of design at the end of the first decade of the 21st century uses a system of four identifiable aesthetic model, and has placed those involved in each together in groups that sum up the significance of the questions they are asking: modernists, inventor, tale-tellers, entertainers. This form of categorization is intended to consider current design developments in the context of the way in which they emerge, and to find patterns to explain what themes are being acted out by the different designer personalities, why a design looks like this and nothing else, and – presumably much more importantly – why and for whom this design represents an object of desire. For there is one thing we should not forget: in the 2.0 economy of desire, designers have taken on the role of advisers and chairpersons who place their skills at the service of the individual and mediate between their requirements and those of the market.
The desire of individuals is just as powerful as the desire of groups.
Design has the capacity to create images and lifestyles.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Integrate your audience into your processes
Be intimate with your supply chain
Consider tailoring your product range
Understand the limitations of mass customization
Contribute to an environment worth living in
Identify your design personality
About the Author:
Andrej Kupetz is the Chief Executive Officer of the Rat für Formgebung/German Design Council in Frankfurt/Main, Germany. He studied industrial design, philosophy and product marketing in Berlin, London and Paris. In 1997, after various positions as a design manager and university liaison, he joined German Railways (Deutschen Bahn AG) where he was responsible for brand management in the Deutschen Bahn Group and for the implementation of various corporate-design processes. Kupetz is a member of the advisory board of the Design Management Institute and has taught as a visiting professor at the University of Arts Berlin. From 2006-2007 he was president of Zollverein School of Management and Design in Essen, Germany.
German Design Council: http://www.german-design-council.de/en/rat-fuer-formgebung/uebersicht.html
U.S. National Design Policy Initiative: http://www.designpolicy.org/
The Memphis Group: http://www.design-technology.org/memphis1.htm