The User-Product Relation

Too often, sustainability is reduced to a matter of efficiency. “If we can reduce our energy use/our consumption habits/our footprint, we’ll be able to sustain our way of living.”

Design that is centered around efficiency features such as recycled content, energy-efficiency, or nature-based branding is the least-appealing to the average user, as it offers no real contribution to their world and rather justifies its cost on an altruistic basis which — given many people’s skepticism over the climate crisis — may not exist at all. Such a faith in reductionism omits a very important feature of ourselves — our ability to invest meaning in things. Our cultures — our art, music, sports, and literature — were not refined over thousands of years in the name of “efficiency.” They are not a means of returning back to the ecosystem or of lowering our footprint — and yet they are the very causes for which we sustain ourselves.

In many cases, the objects we possess we cherish because of what they represent to us. And very often, the culture these collective objects create — our material culture — plays a very strong influence on our character. Over time and use, each person’s custom material culture becomes highly prominent and cohesive, and outweighs any consideration of cost, utility, social appeal, and/or branding.

Psychological sustainability gives this user- object relationship careful examination in order to assist designers in crafting more meaningful products. It considers the role people’s experiences play in their decision-making process — particularly as it relates to product choices — and focuses on the well-rounded relationships between objects, emotions, ideas, and people. The importance of this relationship is arguably greater than considerations of product durability; creating a long-lasting product is not only about increasing its functional lifetime, but about cultivating a sustainable use for it.

Take the electronics industry: creating a smartphone that could be functional for 8 years would not be technically difficult, but who wants to own an 8-year-old phone?

The electronics industry, particularly as it propagates planned obsolescence through socially outdated products, is evidently unsustainable as it lacks respect for product- user relationships; the waste level of electronics today is a clear indication of this. Similarly, does the Internet help us foster connections with our day-to-day surroundings? Or does it leave us scanning for information and slight validation? Cyber sustainability, relating to the digital world, is the first step to acknowledging that the Web, though a powerful tool, may not be the most appropriate means for crafting sustainable environments.

The surroundings we find ourselves in from day to day can either contribute to the meaning in our lives, or they may degrade it in a strife for consumerism. Recognizing the influences of a product on people’s psychology allows designers to better approach users as complex figures capable of (a lack of) attachment and consciousness in object interactions.

Throughout its lifetime, a designed product will go on to design its surroundings by activating meaning in its surroundings; these products then become things that we find comfort in and that we customize our reality with. Our objects represent to us our identity, and we use them to think and remind ourselves of who we are; consequently, good design seeks to enhance the object’s meaning and the ways in which it is communicated.

The goal is now to reinvigorate a sense of conviviality in what is designed for the public; how can products encourage collaboration, pleasure, and an ultimately slower and more sustainable way of life? Objects that mirror these goals will facilitate self-sufficiency and contentment in the user while being honest in its presentation; good design should not seek to advertise a brand or feature, but rather should work as the user’s servant in achieving its function.

In the production process, the following principles should be integrated: product lifetime and maintenance should be optimized, perhaps
through guaranteed lifetimes; product reuse should be encouraged through reparation guidelines, a clear product-user relationship, and a timeless aesthetic; and minimum performance standards will ensure that the product lives up to the lifetime the user plans to invest in it.

Similarly, the following principles of value perception should be considered: heuristic knowledge — how does the object intuit basic psychological instincts; value innovation and creation — is the object able to contribute beyond its basic function; and sense making — how does the object follow basic logic in its functionality? Many products on the market today do not contain these basic principles, and it is because of this that the public continues to consume withoutfulfillment. Designing on an aesthetic, functional, commercial, or even sustainable or ethical basis will not suffice to change contemporary trends; a deeper sense of personal relevance will need to be incorporated into all products from now on.

Real sustainability in product development will seek to end the consumption cycle entirely by creating products that reduce the need for constant acquisition. It is this yearning strife for material fulfillment — known as the Diderot effect — thatcontemporary corporations depend on to maintain continuous growth, and the behaviors emitted from their material cultures are what teach us unsustainable ways of living. Whether these products are susceptible to trends, or whether they break down easily, the market system set in place requires us to implicitly approve with continued commitment. Sustainable design will seek to motivate the public away from the brief enchantment of purchasing by crafting fulfillingenvironments through a more meaningful material culture.

Understanding the different forms of consumptions and the different archetypes of users — such as the mainstreamer, the achiever, the aspirer, and the reformer — stands to become a key component of design education, as will contemporary socioeconomic trends.

Primarily, that of the “down-shifter,” he or she who voluntarily renounces purchasing power in exchange for liberation from the work-and-buy cycle. Recognizing and understanding the down-shifter’s motivations will play a key role in garnering momentum for a new material culture.

Finally, reducing waste can be achieved through a widespread reinvigoration of home economics, which will allow the restoration of social activities and communal bonding as it contributes on both social and ecological levels. It is truly this feedback between the social, economic, and ecological that stands to be the pathway for real sustainability, and once established, it becomes a tool for systemic change.

Designer and writer integrating multimedia design with systemic change