Architecture & Design versus Consumerism

The design professions are at a crossroads, struggling to reconcile design’s role as an engine for consumer-driven economic growth with its role in imagining and implementing sustainable lifestyles and businesses. There’s a “meaning” gap between architecture and design’s potential for social good and the ruthless commercialism and consumerism that serves as the context for the professions.

In my new book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism: How design activism confront growth, I explore this gap and present examples of how designers are confronting key problems of consumerism. Here are just four of those many ways:

1. Designers can help slow the pace of consumerism by devising goods and spaces that offer alternative societal narratives about ownership and sharing.

The Neptune Foundation’s floating swimming pool. Design by Jonathan Kirschenfeld. Photo courtesy of Timothy Schenck.

An emerging class of mobile structures suggests how we might share resources at the community level. One example is the Neptune Foundation’s barge-mounted floating swimming pool, aimed at underserved communities in New York City. Another example is the nomadic prayer space, which enables communities to temporarily appropriate parts of the city for religious services or other community gatherings. These examples show that conscious design for shared use can make artifacts considerably different than conventional models.

2. Designers can slow the pace of consumerism by linking sources of novelty and stimulation to slower natural cycles.

An example is the Lunar-resonant street light (by design collective Civil Twilight). Instead of simply making street lights more efficient, the proposal has street lights responding to the brightness of the moon, dimming when the moon is bright, possibly turning off completely. The aim is to save energy and reconnect people with the night sky and with lunar and tidal cycles. This example ties novelty to (slower) natural cycles and to public goods (moonlight). The proposal also challenges current lighting standards, which call for bright light when studies show that even light is more important. The designers ask, “Do you need to be able to read a newspaper outside in the middle of the night?”

What if streetlights could become brighter or dimmer depending on the brightness of the moon? An idea proposed by the Civil Twilight Collective.

3. Designers can explore avenues for producing goods that strengthen the commons and lessen our reliance commercial consumption to gain status or meaning.

Consumerism provides a form of social language based on private consumption. Using this language we gain social status, avoid shame, even shape our identities. This consumerism-based language puts profit-seeking entities in charge of some important aspects of societal meaning. The challenge is to define alternative social languages.

Designers are starting to address this issue particularly through processes such as co-design, hacking, and personal fabrication or self-assembly. In these cases designers, individuals or small groups of design practitioners conduct studio activities that provide communities with the tools and skills to make, change and repair items for themselves. MIT’s fablabs, pioneered by Neil Gershenfeld, are one example. Fablabs bring not only tools, but also non-commercial spaces where communities often choose to make locally relevant objects. The focus on developing and applying “maker” skills potentially offers a social language around making and doing, rather than owning and displaying.

People working in a Fabrication Laboratory or “Fablab”. Image by Fablab Amersfoort, Netherlands, under Creative Commons Attribution.

More broadly, a recent review of digital fabrication suggests that, “a transition from centralized production to a ‘maker culture’ of dispersed manufacturing innovation is underway today.” Collaborative, distributed communities that constitute “maker culture” perhaps offer further opportunities to put products and goods back into a commons, at least partially.

4. Designers can enhance the quality and availability of public, or social spaces to offer alternatives to commercial spaces.

With the contracting out of public space, the public realm has shrunk. But designers are increasingly mining and re-inventing existing public spaces. Here the role of design is to contribute directly to providing novelty and stimulation through public and community mechanisms.

The UNI project Pop-up Reading Room deployed on the street. Design and photo courtesy Howeler + Yoon Architecture.

Designers are exploring underutilized spaces with pop-up projects that add social dimensions to otherwise “vacant” spaces. An example is the UNI project by Streetlab. The UNI is a portable reading room that can “temporarily transform almost any urban space into a public reading room and venue for learning.” Inspired by a call for lighter, cheaper, quicker solutions (from the Project for Public Spaces), the Streetlab project developed UNI in response to the fact that the commercially dominated offerings in many city neighborhoods don’t reflect the broader goal of creating a well-educated society; spaces for learning should be more prominent, accessible and enjoyable.

This post is part of a virtual book tour for the book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism(Earthscan/Routledge 2012), available from or use the 20% discount code BRK96 at Routledge. Follow the tour on twitter #DvC12 and at these tour stops during October and November: Oct 2 and 4 —Shareable; Oct 9 —PolisOct 16 and 18 — Green Conduct; Oct 23 — Transforming Cultures (Worldwatch); Oct 30 — Post Growth Institute; Nov 6 — no tour stop so get out and VOTE; Nov 13 — The Dirt (American Association of Landscape Architects); Nov 20 —Proto City.

About the Author

Ann Thorpe (Ann at designactivism dot net) is a Seattle- and London-based collaborative design strategist known for her generously illustrated talks that audiences describe as “brain-opening,” “intriguing and insightful,” and full of “unusual angles.” She currently serves as strategist with a Seattle-based startup, a social enterprise called luum. She also authored The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability.

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