In 1879, Edison created a light bulb capable of operating for 2500 hours before the end of its useful life. In 1925, the Phoebus Cartel created a standardized lightbulb with a life span of 1000 hours. This innovation enabled greater profits through product repurchase. The light bulb is one of many examples where companies have limited a product’s lifespan to increase overall sales and profit. This practice is referred to as planned obsolescence.
By encouraging consumer dissatisfaction, offering unnecessary upgrades or re-designs and reducing accessibility for repair, manufacturers can bias their consumer base to view a product as “undesirable, useless and unwanted”. This control of product life span enables companies to dictate the purchase of goods and services and as a result increase sales.
Designing with product obsolescence has been critiqued due to its linear utilization of materials and manipulation on consumer behaviour. As the world strives toward a more circular economy, designers are implementing strategies to create durable, high-quality, repairable products while facilitating consumer habits to be more conscious of shortened-life products.
There are different types of obsolescence:
1 – Functional
This refers to products that, after completing a certain number of operating cycles, cease to be useful. Often the result of new technology, functional obsolescence occurs when an asset becomes less desirable due to an outdated design that cannot easily be updated or changed.
2 – Technological
We know that technology inspires constant innovation and that often when you think you have the newest and greatest product, something better has come out. We see this case very often with smartphones, when there comes a time where you are no longer able to have the latest operating system or updates of your favourite apps. The result is an object with thousands of different components and very varied materials, that is highly complex to recycle and whose degradation will take many centuries when its useful life was only a few years.
3 – Design
The aesthetics of products change all the time, but perhaps nowhere is this more evident than the fashion industry. Defined by a culture of constant change, the industry has fostered a practice of making clothes of poor quality that are seen as disposable. With new products emerging each week, consumers are encouraged to engage in a cycle of needless consumption, with devastating impacts on our planet.
While there are other types of planned obsolescence, the three outlined above represent the most relevant concerns for us today. The reality is that this idea of planned obsolescence has come to dominate almost every area of our lives, and working to shift this practice is no small feat. But together, as both designers and consumers, we can inspire change.
From the designer who creates well-thought out products with low environmental impact, to the companies prioritizing products of higher quality and durability, and to the consumers who strive towards more conscious purchases, there is a role for each of us in this battle.
But action must be taken from a legislative standpoint as well – governments bear a responsibility to regulate these wasteful practices. This can be done via the enactment of new laws that encourage the mandatory extension of warranties and regulate the use of materials and product quality by carrying out certified tests before a product is allowed to enter the market. Many governments have already started to tackle planned obsolescence by creating “financial incentives for companies to make durable, high-quality products”.
The objects that we invite into our lives should have value, and not just for the first couple of months. We should be able to count on our everyday items, from our microwaves, to our phones and our clothing, to be designed thoughtfully and with durability in mind. Moving beyond our collective wastefulness, made to last should become the norm that we aim to seek out and uphold.
This article was co-authored by Marco Barba and Nyariara Njoroge, two members of WDO’s 2022-2023 Young Designers Circle.
Marco Barba is a Mexican industrial designer and the founder of a studio specialized in product development, packaging and experiences. Its objective is to achieve greater impact, making empathetic and unique products that meet the bases of sustainability. His work has been awarded over 20 international design and innovation awards.
Nyariara Njoroge is a Human Centered Designer based in Nairobi (Kenya). Passionate about healing systems to work well for those they are created for, she refers to herself as a Systems Doctor. With diverse experience in working in healthcare, education and climate change design she has worked with organizations such as ThinkPlace and Equalize Health. As a Certified Professional Coach she brings meaningful behavioral science insights in design through connection of the invisible line between the obvious people behavior and their true systemic drivers.