Rick Dees World

“I’m a Spalding Gray in a Rick Dees world!” – Homer Simpson

I’ve had lots more thoughts about the coming-together of America in the few days since my last post on it. My brother is in town and so we’ve been seeing the sights together–the commercial district of San Francisco, the commercial district of Palo Alto, the commercial district of San Jose . . . did anyone else notice when all of America went commercial? I suppose it’s inevitable when the rest of the world finds out that they’re better at manufacturing than we are–all we’re left to do is purchase.

But what to purchase? Don’t worry, someone else is taking care of those nasty “decisions”. Just as our political and ideological minds are made up for us by our media outlet of choice, our pocketbooks are led down a primrose path as the puppeteers of commerce see fit. In San Francisco, my brother and I took in all the famous sights–the Old Navy store, the Virgin Megastore, Abercrombie & Fitch, Urban Outfitters. In each store, we saw exactly what they wanted us to see. Old Navy had not one, not two, but FIVE styles of boot-cut jeans up for sale (temporary link, I’m sure)–and the only other styles I found were in the basement “closeout” section. At Virgin, we were inundated with imagery of Norah Jones, Ben Harper, and 50 cent. The beauty of Virgin is that they own music, and book divisions–so you no longer have to go to separate stores, or (oh no!) separate companies to be entertained. Just hop on the Virgin train (or plane, if you prefer), and you don’t have to make any more decisions. And don’t worry, they’re allied with Amazon too, so you don’t have to worry about competition from them.

In fact, Amazon seems to be partnering with many of today’s successful retailers–Target, Toys “R” Us, and Sony are among those who have deals with the online giant. This leads directly to lower prices and greater selection for consumers, which I am happy to exploit whenever I can. My most recent order from Amazon even included a deal for a Visa credit card that would give me back 1% of my purchases at any store–or 3% of my purchases from Amazon. So beautiful and seductive, this business model forged in the inferno of capitalism . . .

So? Yeah, I’m wondering that too. I just get a feeling when I see this system devouring everything in its path that there must be some drawbacks–and I think much of it lies in my design philosophy. See, in Stanford’s design program, I always butted heads with profs and other students over the idea of product personality. I long for the days of craftsmanship to return–where a product was made individually for a person, built to last and where a relationship formed between object and owner. Today’s products are built to serve masses of people, diluted until they fit the least common denominator, and their square edges are sanded off to slide nicely into round holes. Mass marketing is king, and he sits on an taupe throne from the Philippe Starck collection at Target.

That’s my concern–that no one loves their “things” anymore. It’s not that the products today aren’t well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing, because they are. I also appreciate the democratization of design and the possibilities created by making goods available to all, especially the poor. But I think we’re opening up a Pandora’s box of as-yet-unrealized dangers by flooding the world with objects that are soulless, impersonal, and disposable (either by design or by mass availability–why fix your printer when you can just buy another!).

In the dawn of the telephone industry, if you wanted to have phone service, you signed up with the company and they gave you a phone. Their responsibility was getting the other person’s voice to you and yours to them, and that included the physical telephone. So it was in their best interest to give you a phone that lasted forever, was maintenance-free, and that they would never have to worry about again. What you got was a heavy, sturdy telephone with very few features and a permanent, unchanging appearance. Over the years, you would use this phone and this phone only for every call you made. This built a relationship between you and the phone, and when finally the government killed Ma Bell and opened up the marketplace, you were sad to see it go–and maybe you kept it just for fun, like my family did.

Today phones are free again–but we change them at least once a year, depending on which service provider has the best deals and what the colour du jour happens to be. They boast “show your individuality” and “let them know who you really are” with a bevy of accessories, from faceplates to holsters to headpieces, oh my! But what we’re really doing is just joining another, smaller group–sure, you don’t have the same phone as everyone else, but you have the same phone as 15,000 other people in the country, and when the time comes to join another, arbitrarilly-formed group, you won’t hesitate for a second.

A line from an episode of Friends keeps bouncing around in my head, so I’d better get it out. When Rachel and Ross both buy the same “apothecary table” from Pottery Barn, Rachel knows she has to hide it from her roommate, Phoebe, because “She hates Pottery Barn . . . she says it’s all mass-produced, nothing is authentic, and everyone winds up having the same stuff.” This woman thinks that’s no problem; therefore, I think it is.

In the world we live in, it’s neigh onto impossible to completely build your own life from scratch. If we want to function with other human beings we need to allow some things to simply be used–without every little thing needing an absolute, air-tight fit to an individual situation. But as a designer, I feel a very real call to use the personalization abilities of today’s manufacturing and design technologies to do that as much as possible. Maybe you can’t reinvent the stuffed animal when you want a toy for an individual child–but you can certainly hand-make one, or at least take the time to give it a unique personality at one store we saw in San Francisco, Build-A-Bear.

Anything that elicits just a little creativity out of the eventual owner will result in a relationship starting to form–and that is the first step toward caring about a product. Rick Dees, thanks for your help–but it’s worth a few minutes for me to spend thinking about what I’d like to listen to.

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