Planned obsolescence

03rd December

I chanced across this vintage Pelican book cover in one of yesterday’s Sunday papers and was intrigued to find out a bit more about it. The author Vance Packard was on my college reading list back in the 80s for his by then classic, The Hidden Persuaders. The publication listed the 8 ways in which advertising covertly bought our desire. I guess it was the No Logo of the 50s. Similarly, his book The Waste Makers from 1960 was an early analysis of the practise of planned obsolescence. It was an expose of ‘the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals’. Here I quote from the Wikipedia run down of the book:

‘Packard divided planned obsolescence into two sub categories: “obsolescence of desirability” and “obsolescence of function”. Obsolescence of desirability, also called psychological obsolescence, referred to marketers’ attempts to wear out a product in the owner’s mind. Packard quoted industrial designer George Nelson, who wrote: “Design is an attempt to make a contribution through change. When no contribution is made or can be made, the only process available for giving the illusion of change is ‘styling!’” The rationale behind the strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases (referred to as shortening the replacement cycle). Firms that pursue this strategy believe that the additional sales revenue it creates more than offsets the additional costs of research and development and opportunity costs of existing product line cannibalisation.”

I half remember all of this from design lectures decades ago, when politicised lecturers aimed to awaken our own consciences (do they still?). And so to today, where perhaps we have become so opiated by the practise of planned obsolescence, we no longer really notice that the Apple Mac we bought two years ago does not work with the new Apple screen we bought this week. And where it isn’t considered weird that every generation of iPhone or iPad is reviewed by whether there are any significant differences with the previous, now outmoded, model.

Back in the sixties, the notion of planned obsolescence got this riposte from VW. Not something they could really run today. We get the design we desire and deserve. To look for the bright side, I think that with an increasing need for FMCG design to be sustainable, we might see a few changes to this general curve. For example, with refill packs for bathroom lotions where the primary pack is not thrown away. This is happening already but to give the idea real traction, perhaps primary packs will become more and more designed to become objects of desire and beauty that can look good in our homes for years to come. Just a notion, but it would be nice to think that packaging design might, in time, be less ephemeral and more ‘built to last’.

1 Comment

  1. Richard Baird

    April 24, 2013 6:06 am

    I purchased copy of this on your recommendation – managed to bag an early 64 edition – and wanted to thank you. Only 100 pages in but feel it’s already positively influencing the way I think about my own design practices and the projects I take on.

Post a Comment

Required (will not be published)

Buy the book

    All our books are now available on Kindle.
    Click here to buy...

About Design Gazette

We're taking a little break from our daily design gazette - we'll be back soon.

Champions of Design


Follow Us