After the wild party

Diversity in the shops is all very well, but an overabundance of choice is just likely to be counterproductive, rendering us frazzled and indecisive. Adrian Shaughnessy urges restraint

It is accepted wisdom that choice is a good thing. It doesn’t matter whether it is governments, schools or handbags, most people claim to want to have lots of options. But do they? Perhaps we have reached a point where the question is no longer do we have enough choice, but have we got too much?

A recent posting on the Fast Code Design website made me realise that maybe choice wasn’t the fundamentally good thing I’d always unthinkingly believed it to be. In an article called Over-Branding Kills Profits And Scares Off Consumers by Graham Button, he notes, ’The average US supermarket, one right down the road from you, sells as many as 50 000 products. There are 16 varieties of Tropicana Pure Premium juices alone, for example, and Pepsi Co will probably up it to 30 before long. That’s over-service. We don’t need it.’

Button cites psychologists who have observed that ’too much choice doesn’t free us, it numbs us. We cope by opting out, making disinterested decisions… The consensus is that while the “pursuit of happiness” requires freedom of choice, too much freedom seems to cause anxiety and unhappiness’.

Noting the excesses of consumer capitalism is hardly new, but Button is no neo-Marxist. In fact, he is a partner in a US brand, strategy and communications consultancy, and this gives his comments an added piquancy. So rather than calling for a rejection of materialism, he puts forward a case for a decrease in choice and an increase in quality. ’There’s a point at which new product development can destroy more value than it creates,’ he writes. ’Innovation for the sake of revenue just degrades the equity that the core brand has built up. Marketers call it “overshooting”. In the end, customers like you and me max out on “new and improved”, and just stop buying.’

But if the way forward is less but better, where does this leave designers? The livelihood of all types of designers is dependent on manufacturers, producers and retailers generating an unending supply of ’new and improved’ things. The ’16 varieties of Tropicana Pure Premium juices’ is a good example. Each pack is designed, promoted and advertised, so if we only have one or two varieties (which most sane people would agree is all we need), then designers will have to find other ways of working than creating newness over and over again.

Yet even if, as consumer junkies, we all decide we still want a superabundance of goods in the shops and an unending supply of new car models, this way of living is unsustainable environmentally. The world’s resources are finite, and at some point there will be an eruption of that great enemy of choice shortages.

Despite what our governments and big business tell us, continuous growth is unsustainable, and at some point the world will be forced to reinvent itself. That process has already started: the recent financial crisis has brought lasting changes; it has bred a new social realism and a recognition that the wild party of the past two or three decades is over. Or to put it more bluntly, people have less money (hard to believe if you live in London, but it soon becomes obvious elsewhere).

So if an enforced appetite for less consumption is one of the effects of this stage in our evolution, then designers will have to reinvent themselves too. Personally, I’m optimistic about this. Designing a new future for design seems an ideal job for, well… designers. Who else is better placed to do it?

Adrian Shaughnessy is an independent designer, writer and broadcaster, and co-founder of publishing company Unit Editions

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