A thought about choice…

Via Flickr

As a design student, I was constantly being reminded that my intended future career is to be the engineer of desire.  The designs I will bring into the world will shape what consumers think they want.  Those who know me know my concern with the environment and interest in sustainability.  It’s daunting to the point of occasional panic attacks to know that I have a future in adding to the waste stream.

Though my program at UArts was focused a bit differently than other industrial design schools, the emphasis being on research based, appropriate, low impact and earth friendly design; we’re still designing items for mass distribution.  I’ve seen the portfolios of students from other programs and see 100 different sketches of pencil sharpeners.  I walked into Staples noticed an array of pencil sharpeners, from a single blade to a mechanized, whirring beast. Looking to the future, countless more students and working designers will also be tasked with continuing to design a new and better pencil sharpener.

Now, this isn’t just about pencil sharpeners, (though I honestly don’t know why we need so many different sharpening options) this is about all products.  I, like everyone else, benefit from having so much choice. Choice is freedom.  But, it makes my head spin to walk into a store or the market and be bombarded with too many options.

Last night while perusing through TED.com I came across two wonderfully interesting talks that I continue to watch from time to time from a 2005 conference on happiness. The first one is Malcolm Gladwell discussing the work of Howard Moskowitz during the 1970’s. 

Moskowitz is the person to thank and blame for having too many choices. He is the man who fundamentally changed how market researchers viewed consumers and make them happy.  Before Moskowitz, researchers relied on “universals,” there was just one perfect flavor of sauce, and one perfect way to enjoy coffee.  Researchers would just ask us what we want and make that; and as it turns out, we don’t know what we want.  If we’ve only known one way and no other, our expectations are low, leading to pleasant surprises.  Moskowitz discovered there is no such thing as a “perfect one” anything for everyone, there are only “perfect ones” because everyone has different tastes.  Once his message was out and other companies began to see the profit in his research, we started seeing a variety of prefect sauces, yogurts, computers, stereos, cellphones, and pencil sharpeners for everyone.  I actually idolize that man and his work.  He was revolutionary and still continuing to do amazing work.

The other video was Barry Schwartz talking about the consequences of too much choice:

Schwartz’s argument is basically that having too many choices is actually distracting, paralyzing, and endangering us.  He speaks of a “simpler time” when there was only one option for a phone service, phones were rented instead of bought and the phone never broke.  Now we have cellphones with too many unnecessary functions and a variety of different fits for denim jeans (ie. relaxed, bootcut, etc).  Schwartz says living in a simpler time led to lower expectations which led to happiness because expectations can be surpassed.  With the rise of choices comes an escalation of expectation, we expect there to be a “perfect one” (sauce, computer, pair of jeans, etc) for us and when there isn’t, we’re disappointed. As and aside, going forward I would love to see a return to a rented services industry. With the technology we have now, I don’t see why we can’t. There are technologies in place that make interchangeability so easy and are being under utilized.

Though I am glad for what Moskowitz did for us and I’m not suggesting we get rid of all choices, I have to stand with Schwartz on this.  I often feel overwhelmed by decisions to the point of becoming numb and just pointing and saying, “Whatever, that one. I guess, that’s fine.”  I’m too young to remember a time when I didn’t have a choice of 70 dressings and 120 sauces at the supermarket.  Like I said, I don’t want to lose all our choices, but I can’t help but hope for a simpler, slower future.  For now I guess all I can do in my design work is stay the course, opting to make quality, well-crafted and considerate products instead of making money on a one-of-a-million item I’m not proud of.


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