Emily Dickinson is disturbing me. It seems that whenever I pick up my Kindle, there she is staring back at me. And when I think of the thousands of other readers with the identical Kindle and the identical screen saver I feel diminished. I have nothing against Emily Dickinson, but I am reading David Mitchell. The different covers of the books I used to read, with their different typefaces, designs, and colors, added to the richness of my life and connected me to others. I want to show off what I am reading; it is one of the ways I express myself. We all express ourselves in the products and services we use. The most obvious forms of this type of material expression are the clothes we choose to wear, clearly showing off our tribal allegiance. Clothes are even part of the language we use to describe people: "he is very buttoned-down" or "she is straitlaced." Similarly, the car we drive sends out clues about us, as does where we bank, whether it's with Chase or Belmont Savings Bank. Even our breakfast cereal has implications about who we are ("she is so granola," we'll say). When we are choosing a product or service, we do so not just for its intrinsic benefit or its utility, but also because of what it says about us. We are all looking for ways to both show our uniqueness and connect with others. As products are produced on an ever-larger scale and as competing designs converge on that sweet spot in the market, the things we buy become more alike. The ubiquity of technology is only accelerating this trend—my iPhone used to make me feel cool, but now everyone seems to have one, and to make matters worse, at a distance I can’t see the difference between it and a Samsung Galaxy. Antitrust laws protect us from monopolies that limit our choices, but the convergence of design is equally limiting.
Personalization becomes more important as more of our world goes digital.As a way to address this challenge, some companies have come up with clever ways to allow consumers to personalize their products. You can choose among more than 100 different cases for your iPhone and you can order the Mini in a gazillion different combinations of colors, trim, and features. Personalization in this way increases the value of a product not only because it makes it more unique, but also because most of us like things that we have helped to design. The effort we put into deciding what color roof to get for our Mini increases its value to us—it is a way of self-actualizing. The meal I cooked tastes better to me, the compilation of my playl ist is more meaningful to me, and even the simple arrangement of my apps on my iPhone adds value to me. This is design genius, because as consumers, we do the work and we are then willing to pay more for it. Personalization is going to become increasingly important as more of our world goes digital because customizing in the digital space is so much easier and cheaper. Smart companies are looking for ways to facilitate digital customization. Which brings us back to the Kindle: A paperback is personalized, with a cover specially designed to showcase the book I am reading. Why can’t my Kindle do that? Using its E Ink screen, it wouldn’t cost more and it would add a lot of value. I love being able to have War and Peace and Freedom in my pocket, all on my Kindle, but I wish the experience were more personal. [Top image: A detail from A Young Woman Reading by Gustave Courbet]