Inspiration, Design    |    August 24, 2021

Sustainable Design Requires more Focus on Quality

By Herb Bentz
Our economy is based on producing as much as possible. This has led to a proliferation of lower quality products and unsustainable use of resources. User-centred design is often used inappropriately to improve the experience of buying a product while other less apparent qualities that would increase durability are minimized in order to reduce costs and increase profit. The focus of design must shift to producing products that are more durable and more useful.

The phrase “Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic,” known as the three Rs, was apparently derived from a speech made by Sir William Curtis, an English Member of Parliament in the late 18th or early 19th century. In the speech, he listed reading and writing, reckoning and figuring, and wroughting and wrighting as elements of a balanced education. To wrought is to form a material with a skilled and artistic hand, while a wright is someone who makes or repairs something. Thus forming, making, and repairing was considered, along with language and mathematics, to be an essential part of a well-rounded education. How we ended up with the modern form of the three Rs is unclear. Some say it was Curtis himself who, in a speech made to the Board of Education, referred to the 3Rs as the now familiar phrase, perhaps as a joke, since only one of the terms actually starts with the letter R. However, the phrase stuck, and since then “doing and making” is no longer perceived as important to a full education.

The ability to make things was still an important aspect of society in the 18th century. But as the industrial revolution gathered steam, manufacturing took over much of this responsibility. Industrial Designers became a vital but somewhat obscure profession responsible, not for making, but for generating the plans for making. But whereas the quality of the work was a primary focus of the doing and making profession, design, emerging from a formal education system based more on language and science, focused more on formal aspects of products such as aesthetics and ease of use.

Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, laments the loss of quality in our western civilization. A sense of quality, what is good or bad, is a primary focus of the doing and making professions. He describes the difference between repairing — a primary skill required by the making profession — and science, “Actually I’ve never seen a cycle-maintenance problem complex enough really to require full-scale formal scientific method. Repair problems are not that hard.”

Doing, making, and repairing all require a special form of thinking. What distinguishes this thinking from the scientific method is not the difficulty of the problem but the degree of definition. In order to apply the scientific method, it is necessary to understand exactly what the problem is. The problem is clear; the solution is difficult. With repair, it is the problem that is obscure. Once the problem is known, the solution is generally fairly obvious. But what is more important than a formal process, used to get to the right answer, is a judgement that can be evaluated as either “good” or “bad.”

Science is the discovery of some Truth in the universe; Design, like doing and making, is a series of judgements that results in a solution that, if successful, has Quality. 

A good knife is not so hard that it is brittle or so soft that it bends. Rather it is tempered to the right amount. The right amount is a judgement that has Quality. This condition is readily apparent when making something. A screw is not tightened so much that the threads strip or left so loose that the parts held together rattle.

Robert Pirsig notes how Jules Henri Poincaré came to the conclusion that scientists, even while using the scientific method to discover some truth, had to preselect facts in order to make breakthrough scientific discoveries. This preselection of facts is not arbitrary but also guided by judgements of Quality. Pirsig writes: “The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of Quality.”

The scientific method cannot help us when no solution is apparent because we do not know precisely what the problem is. Pirsig refers to this as being stuck, “If you want to build a factory, or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then classical, structured, dualistic subject-object knowledge, although necessary, isn’t enough. You have to have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what’s good.”

Robert Pirsig does not even mention Design in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I think the book did become a sort of manifesto for industrial designers in the 70s and 80s. We strove for “Good Design,” but too often it became almost a style — simple forms with radiused corners. There was a focus on the user experience. Industry was all too happy to comply. By focusing on providing a good user experience, they could sell more products while working behind the scenes to minimize cost by reducing other less apparent qualities. Reducing product quality was not the goal, but it was the result. User-centred design has focused more on the experience of buying the product and less on long-term, less apparent qualities.

When products are made by hand, determining the quality is easy and there doesn’t seem to be a problem with user experience. But when a product is made by machine, reproduced precisely, thousands of times, the quality is less obvious. Quality is abstract and wholly dependent on the judgement of the designer. Quality exists only because of Design. If the designer chooses a material that is not durable, quality is less even though it may look exactly the same.

Quality refers to human decisions, human judgement, and skill. A manufactured product has quality according to the decisions made: Quality by design. Without this quality, high volume manufacturing only offers consistency and precision.

Designers are often discouraged from adding quality to products by a wall of austerity in our economy. Unjustified economic austerity is preventing an environmental austerity that is justified. Austerity in the general population, necessitated by stagnant wages, has motivated the production and consumption of low-quality products.
Industrial design has been an unwilling accomplice in this movement, with the focus on user-centric design. Improved aesthetics, appealing point-of-sale displays, and appealing packaging has encouraged people to buy apparently higher quality, but actually lower quality products.

Unnecessary features are added to products only for marketing purposes. For this reason, many products are thrown away before they wear out. Furniture is made of non-durable materials; houses are torn down before the end of their useful lives; single-use plastic products are ubiquitous.

Industry has focused on reducing production cost, increasing the volume of production, and using the cheapest materials possible. For every high-quality expensive product, there are hundreds of lower quality options. Corporations compete to provide the cheapest product, motivating an economy of steadily increasing quantity of production without real increases in the prosperity that improvements in the quality of products would bring.

It is true that many things are better. We have televisions with better quality pictures; we have computers, the internet, and social media. Automobiles are arguably safer. But what has improved is technology. In almost every case, the quality of the underlying hardware tends to diminish over time. Even though we have a service economy, the quality of service is now often less; it has even disappeared entirely at self-service gas stations, bank machines, and automated check-outs.

The three Rs is now just as likely to refer to the useful mantra: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Designers, while recognizing the ongoing importance of user-centric design, should also use their judgement to increase the quality of products, to make them more durable, more repairable, and less toxic to ourselves and to the environment.

Our economy has been based on producing as much as possible while using as little labour as possible. In recent years, this has meant lower quality products and unsustainable use of resources. How do we work to increase wealth while at the same time reducing consumption? By increasing the quality of what we produce with better design. By design, we can produce products that are more durable, that are more useful, that do not become obsolete, and that are forever beautiful. By design, we can choose materials that can be sustainably harvested or are already available as technical nutrients. By design, we can choose technologies that more efficiently utilize available energy sources that are less damaging to the environment. By design, we can choose materials that are less toxic to ourselves. As consumers, we can use less and be happier with what we have. By appropriately rationing what is scarce on Earth, we can ensure that wealth defined by our satisfaction can increase indefinitely. (From Rationing Earth, 2016 by Herb Bentz)