Pivot or Obsolescence?

Tucker Viemeister, FIDSA

Vol. 39 No. 1, p. 12

A Midwestern Maytag industrial designer who was famous for designing the first white appliances, Harold Van Doren, FIDSA, liked the term "planned obsolescence," coined by real estate broker Bernard London in 1932. The idea was to make style changes to convince owners they needed to buy new replacements each year in order to stay in fashion and keep up with the Joneses. That kind of thinking led designer Victor Papanek to brand industrial design as one of the most dangerous professions!

Now that climate change seems to be making even recycling obsolete, industrial designers need a meta-pivot—we need to use our “treacherous” skills to banish a lot of carbon to slow the climate crisis, making a quick sea change before we all roast or sink.

When our profession was young, the constant stream of new materials and processes challenged us to transform that new technology into locomotives and radios, plastic dishes and refrigerators, and other useful and popular things. It was working class, it was practical, and it was American. 

Circumstances have changed. We need to rewrite the supply chain algorithm.

Today we face a wicked climate change problem that demands newer technology. Instead of using fossil fuels to produce and power products, we need the opposite! We should make things that put the carbon back in its place—a new coal industry—to capture harmful materials and sequester them to reduce and eliminate their damaging effects. 

In 1924 GM’s boss, Alfred Sloan Jr., thought the car market was reaching saturation, so he used style changes to get car owners to buy a new car each year. This was an idea borrowed from his competition: the bicycle industry! By the 1940s, designers were doing a great job driving us to Utopia; they also worried about what would happen to jobs and industry when we arrived there. The post-World War II production boom was leading to the possibility that everyone would have everything they needed, which would cause the economy to sputter to a halt. Their solution was to make things with a built-in expiration date.

Gordon Lippencott’s idea was to take advantage of the natural manufacturing situation in the automotive industry, where sheet metal forming tools wore out every two or three years, requiring new stamping dies—thereby giving designers the opportunity to create new-looking cars without any special cost to the manufacturers (since they had to replace the dies anyway). Lippincott advocated the concept of design obsolescence for many consumer products in Design for Business (published in 1947 by Paul Theobald, who was a “Publisher with a New Vision” according to Victor Margolin) in a chapter called “Obsolescence: The Keynote to a New Prosperity.” 

At an advertising conference in Minneapolis in 1954, industrial designer Brooks Stevens made a presentation called “Planned Obsolescence.” The idea, he said, was “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” It became his catchphrase. It was a popular idea at the 1958 American Society of Industrial Designers conference, where Fred Hauserman, the owner of Sunar-Hauserman, maker of prefabricated steel houses and furniture, spoke on “Management Responsibilities and Planned Obsolescence.” In 1962, only four years later, Rachel Carson pointed out the consequences of industrialization on nature in her book Silent Spring. The threat was real. If we ignored ecological concerns, designers were all going to end up like the lonely Maytag repairman in the ads.

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few,” declared Victor Papanek in his seminal 1971 book Design for the Real World. Luckily (for us), he pointed out a worse profession: “Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today.” Making and marketing too much stuff wasn’t all our fault. About a decade earlier, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, saw that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles about every two years. Therefore, Moore’s Law caused obsolescence naturally as technology offered faster, better, and cheaper devices.

Today we have real problems caused by humans turning up the heat on our planet. We have already wasted 13 years since Al Gore made the inconvenient truth plain, and now scientists believe we have only 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage. There are no “unknown unknowns” about this. We need to cut net emissions of carbon dioxide by 45% (from 2010 levels) just to keep the warming around 1.5 degrees Celsius, says the UN’s report on climate change. Things are not going well. We are even losing the green energy race with China! The good news is, of course, they are going to win. This is because when they see a problem, they fix it—and that’s not the kind of problem our guy recognizes. We need a new plan (while we still can)! 

We're already seeing evidence that severe weather is ramping up faster than predicted. With the “perfect storm” of the heat dome this summer, the immigration “crisis,” and crumbling civility, we need to focus our efforts on not only reducing carbon emissions but also sucking them out of the atmosphere, if we have any hope of slowing climate change. Otherwise, who knows how fast the ice caps will melt and the forests will burn? What will we do?

How does a generalist profession pivot? (Now that’s an existential question!) How can designers who look at everything from all different views change their point of view? We need lateral doing. 

Obviously, we don’t stop recycling, reusing, and reducing. CO2 maybe necessary for life, but the extra carbon in the air is the major cause of the greenhouse effect. The main sources are burning fossil fuels in cars and power plants, methane released by cows (which has a 23% times higher impact than plain CO2), and making concrete—all multiplied by the feedback cycle of melting glaciers and forest fires. 

Besides reducing the number of cows—and since we don’t want to just turn off the lights—designers need to reduce our carbon footprint by creating replacements for burning fossil fuels with new things that use only clean power and with gizmos that harvest renewable energy. Concurrently, we need to clean up the mess we’ve made.

As William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart say in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle, we need to separate the good from the harmful. That means we need to remove most of the carbon we have put in the air since the Industrial Revolution. How? Build carbon sinks; store it in a safe place, like underground (ironically); make it back into coal or oil; or make it into new things. These new designs can be symbols of a better future. Back in 1850, Prince Albert was creating a new palace on the Isle of Wight for Queen Victoria called Osborne House. His art adviser, Ludwig Grüner, designed a garden bench made out of coal! 

Instead of recycling, let’s de-cycle—harvest the carbon in the atmosphere to make products. The manufacturing process will be funded by selling the products.

As 16-year-old Greta Thunberg said in her 2019 TED talk, “The climate crisis already has been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.”

In the past, our profession designed products that would magically become obsolete. We, therefore, can surely make products that actually reverse carbon emissions! That’s real Beautility!!



— Tucker Viemeister, FIDSA
President, Viemeister Industries 

Tucker Viemeister, FIDSA, is a distinguished industrial designer and innovator. He is most famous for OXO Good Grips kitchen tools that conceived “universal design” at Smart Design, the company he helped found in 1979. He opened frogdesign’s New York City office, Razorfish’s physical design capability group, and Springtime-USA.

Viemeister was the founder and lab chief at Rockwell Group and director, special projects with Ralph Appelbaum Associates and Thinc. His work is in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and other permanent collections.

Viemeister holds 32 US utility patents. He is an adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design.

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