What will it take for brands to design products that aren’t disposable?

In a throwaway society, we take it for granted that products aren’t designed to last. If an electric toothbrush or a cheap sofa breaks, it ends up at the curb, not repaired. When the latest smartphone comes out, the model you spent hundreds of dollars on 18 months ago feels dated. When a new pair of running shoes wears out after a few months, it goes in the trash.

For companies, there’s little immediate motivation to change, since short product lifespans mean that people end up buying more. But just as designers a century ago pioneered planned obsolescence—the idea that products should rapidly need replacement, either because of frequent upgrades, cheap materials, or because they’re intentionally made impossible to repair—it’s possible for businesses to embrace a new paradigm and redesign products that people want to keep for years or decades or longer.

In a new book called Meaningful Stuff: Design That Lasts, Carnegie Mellon design professor Jonathan Chapman explains how product design can change course. Chapman started thinking about the problem as a design student at the turn of the millennium. “I would see things like a dumpster full of bricks and construction rubble, and then on top of it would be a Dyson vacuum cleaner that someone threw out,” he says. “Isn’t it strange that a couple of years ago, that product would have been in a showroom window, and now it’s sitting there with this completely worthless crap? It just got me thinking: Why does that happen? Why do things make that transition so quickly?”


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