In Pursuit of the Perfect, We're Overdesigning Our Lives

Looking into the refrigerator in a home in Lima, Peru I realized that I didn't recognize anything. Nothing was labeled: there were no brands. Different types of food were arrayed on plates or in bags. Consumerism had certainly reached this town -- there was a refrigerator, but the reach of consumerism was not as deep as it is in the United States. In the U.S., everything is designed: diapers, toilet paper, milk packaging; even encounters with customer service. There is almost nothing in our lives today that has not come under the scrutiny of a professional designer. We are conscious of the bright and shiny stuff like iPads, but they are a very small part of our day-to-day expenditures. We are often unaware of the reach of professional design into the most mundane products and services that make up our material lives and into the most intricate details of everything we buy. How did this happen? Briefly: larger markets and increasing discernment. Communication and transportation technology have enabled some companies to build national and then international markets, and with increasing market size it is possible to distribute the cost of design across ever larger volumes of products, making the design cost per product smaller. At the same time, as consumers we are getting accustomed to great design and becoming more discerning; our expectations are ratcheting up. We choose to buy the product or service that gets it right. And the companies that get every last detail right -- they win. McDonald's designs the way it serves its customers just a little bit better and grows more than Burger King, so it has more scale across which to distribute the cost of getting its service even better, and pretty soon they are the dominant global fast food company. It's a winner-take-most world.
Companies are examining the most trivial aspects of our lives, trying to find an edge.
In the battle between global corporations, design attention is being paid to aspects of products and services that used to be considered too mundane to bother. This is the counterpart to Adam Smith's division of labor story: it turns out that attention to detail also depends on the extent of the market. Today, companies are examining the most trivial aspects of our lives, trying to find an edge. I call this "fractal design." A fractal is a shape in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales. As designers, every time we look at an experience more closely, we see new opportunities to make it better, and in ways that will be appreciated by our ever more discerning consumers. And as consumers, our very lives are becoming designed to finer and finer detail. The reason I was in Peru was that this attention to detail is extending to emerging markets worldwide, where about 70 million people are joining the middle class every year and developing some of the same expectations that we have in the U.S. It is wonderful that shampoo, internet access and disposable diapers are accessible to more people, and a great business opportunity. Emerging markets are the last frontier of consumerism. Will this process go on forever? Fractals are infinite, but will there be an end in the design process when we realize that everything is, if not perfect, then good enough? This is the second in a series of observations at the intersection of democracy and design. Read the first here. [Photo of Romanesco broccoli by Jon Sullivan]

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