American industrial designer Brooks Stevens (above) is credited with popularizing the term ‘planned obsolesence’ and recognized for bringing modern design to the ordinary objects of American life. His streamlined transformations of outboard motors, motorcycles, and clothes irons in the 1940s are significant for their formal beauty and marketing savvy. Is planned obsolesence the greedy corporate sin we make it out to be—a capitalist cancer that has metastasized into a full-blown cultural catastrophe, choking waste dumps and polluting air and water? Or is it a reality of post-industrial design life and a necessary approach to product design and architecture in an uncertain time?
In Made to Break, Technology and Obsolesence in America, (Harvard, 2006), Giles Slade describes three types of obsolesence: technological, where a product retires or dies due to technological innovation; psychological, attributed to a product’s change in design and style as a way manipulate consumers into repetitive buying; and planned obsolesence, in which companies intentionally choose materials and manufacturing processes that keep costs down but limit the product’s life. We’ve probably experienced all of these conditions in our relationships with things and should prepare ourselves for the reality that when the latest new gizmo is introduced it will only be a matter of time before its shine begins to fade. A few years back the Onion published a piece about GM’s new disposable car. It’s sold with a full tank of gas and you drive it until it’s empty, then leave on the side of the road and buy a new one. It’s hard to imagine that today’s iPhone will soon be found in second-hand shops and recycling bins. When something new and young and sexy comes along who will be able to resist?