Innovative design in response to social needs and social conditions

The creativity in innovative design doesn’t come emerge from a vacuum: one academic explains how it is related to social forces.

“The ADA totally changed transport, architecture and every area where accessibility is important,” he says. “Design also develops out of a sense of social needs.”…

At a time when Jony Ive’s creations for Apple are as much status symbol as a technological advance, Margolin believes that the discipline’s potential lies in solving big problems and the creation of culture, not just the newest products…

He sees system design and a systemic perspective as key to innovation. Numerous modern inventions, such as Peapod and mobile banking, are built upon pre-existing infrastructure and only work well when they encompass different behaviors and user cases. Failures that ignore these perspectives are apparent every day…

Margolin also believes that innovation on a disruptive scale often requires a concept that creates a community of people around a common cause, such as the American mobilization of industry during WWII, the growth of research laboratories of mid-century American industry or the Silicon Valley of Steve Jobs’ era, inspired in part by the innovations of Xerox’s PARC research division.

This is related to one thing I try to impart in my Culture, Media, and Society course: despite our images of lone geniuses developing great novels, music, art, technology, etc., objects come out of a social process. This is the argument of a number of sociological works on cultural production and includes famous ideas like Becker’s idea of “art worlds.” You can also this in case studies of certain objects that once were not very popular but became popular through a series of events, such as the Mona Lisa whose stature was heightened by theft. Of course, social forces can also limit creativity whether we are talking about Babylonian culture in the first century BC where they were more interested in preservation of their past or in current copyright law that places restrictions on using created works.

Should new “Buy American” pushes be lauded if they occur because goods are now cheaper to make in the US?

Walmart is purchasing and selling more goods made in America – primarily because making some things in America is now cheaper:

In many cases, Wal-Mart’s suppliers had already decided to produce in the United States, as rising wages in China and other emerging economies, along with increased labor productivity and flexibility back home, eroded the allure of offshore production.

Though wrapped in the stars and stripes, the world’s largest retailer’s push to bring jobs back to the United States also makes business sense both for suppliers and retailers.

Some manufacturers are finding they can profitably produce certain goods at home that they once made offshore. And retailers like Wal-Mart benefit from being able to buy those goods closer to distribution centers and stores with lower shipping costs, while gaining goodwill by selling more U.S.-made products.

“This is not a public relations effort. This is an economic, financial, mathematical-driven effort. The economics are substantially different than they were in the 80s and 90s,” Bill Simon, chief executive of the Walmart U.S. chain, told the Reuters Global Consumer and Retail Summit earlier this month.

To restate, this isn’t because of some commitment to the United States or patriotism or creating American jobs. This is because the goods can be made more cheaply in the US due low-wage workers in other countries now earning more and rising transportation costs. Thus, if items could once again be made and shipped more cheaply overseas, businesses would likely chase that again. Granted, profits of American companies might be good (shareholders, for example, might be happy) but is this the only way to assess manufacturing and sales decisions? Is selling products partly on the fact that they are made in America then somewhat deceptive?

The age of “neophilia”

A new book cites a sociologist who says we are in a world of “neophilia”:

We are addicted to new products, say Botsman and Rogers. They cite Colin Campbell, a professor of sociology at the University of York, for the diagnosis – that we suffer from ‘neophilia,’ where novelty seeking is the new phenomenon. “Pre-modern societies tend to be suspicious of the novel. It is a feature of modernity that we are addicted to novelty.”

As a stark example of how obsolescence was built into our minds, the book traces the tale of how GM’s Alfred Sloan launched Chevrolet by convincing his team ‘to restyle the body covering of what was essentially a nine-year-old piece of technology under the banner of product innovation.’ The Chevrolet was a remarkable success and the idea of ‘perceived obsolescence’ and ‘change for change’s sake’ was born, the authors note.

“GM went so far as to define its strategy as choreographed cosmetic ‘upgrades’ to ‘Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.’ In 1929, Charles Kettering, director of research for Sloan, wrote an article declaring, ‘The key to economic prosperity is the organised creation of dissatisfaction…’”

Of course, this obsolescence means more products are sold. It would be intriguing to be privy to some of the conversations corporations must have about particular products: “do we make it a little cheaper so the consumer has to buy a similar product sooner or do we aim for a higher reliability rating in Consumer Reports“? (Do the reliability rankings in Consumer Reports necessarily correspond with the longevity of products or how long consumers hold on to them?)

The contrast between the pre-modern and modern world is interesting: we moderns are skeptical of tradition and conservatism. Does this mean “neophilia” is a product of the Enlightenment?

The similarities between selling kitchen appliances in the 1950s and today

Selling the kitchen has been a key component of the sales pitch for homes for decades. Adweek takes a look at how the sales pitch from the 1950s is similar to today’s pitch:

It goes like this: If you want to make that new fridge and stove desirable, advertise it as part of a kitchen that’s desirable. So long as homeowners blush with shame over their cracked linoleum and dated cabinetry, showing them the meal-prep space of their dreams is likely to spur them into buying the new appliances that go with it. Want proof? Take a look at both of the appliance advertisements below.

“History repeats itself because these ads are really quite similar,” observes graphic designer Ken Carbone, co-founder of the design and branding company Carbone Smolan Agency. “In their own way, they both say ‘modern’—and they both promise bragging rights, as in, ‘you too could have this!’”…

Move to 2011, and Jenn-Air appliances are using the same kind of dream-kitchen sell GE did 56 years before, but with key aesthetic variations. “In the old ad, color itself says modern, and stainless steel is the secondary element,” Carbone notes. “Today, it’s inverted. Stainless steel is the hero.” He’s right. We’ve entered the era of the home chef and industrial chic. It’s also obvious that the Levittown ranch house’s 32 x 25-ft. footprint has morphed into McMansion proportions. (How else to fit that granite-topped kitchen island?)

Thematically, however, it was the same old pitch about the same new kitchen. “Both companies knew their audiences, and both were selling bragging rights,” Carbone says. “It’s just that the first ad suggests macaroni and cheese and the second fusilli al pesto.”

As a bonus, you can look at the original 1950s Levittown kitchen advertisement below the story.

Doesn’t this suggest that Americans are still falling for (or attracted to, depending on your perspective) for the same pitch based on “bragging rights”? Is this a good or bad thing? The pitch is still the same: get the right appliances to portray a certain image to others. The content of this image has changed, domesticity in the 1950s versus “professional” cooking today, but it suggests advertisers correctly tapped into the American psychology.

Are there other effective ways to sell kitchen appliances?

Thinking about kitchen appliances, I wonder how many Americans replace them while they still function just fine in order to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Become friends with your Toyota

Companies are looking for ways to leverage social networking sites for their own purposes. Now Toyota announces plans to create their own social networking service where you will be able to become friends with your car:

Toyota is setting up a social networking service with the help of a U.S. Internet company and Microsoft so drivers can interact with their cars in a way that’s similar to posting on Facebook or Twitter.

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. and, based in San Francisco, announced their alliance Monday to launch “Toyota Friend,” a private social network for Toyota owners…

With the popularity of social networking, cars and their makers should become part of that online interaction, [Toyota’s president] said.

“I hope cars can become friends with their users, and customers will see Toyota as a friend,” he said.

There is the whole purpose of this: strengthen the relationship between customer and product. I wonder if Toyota owners would really flock to this concept. They might be loyal customers because of the value and reliability of Toyotas but is there a fervent fan culture that would want to be part of a social network?

But there is an interesting phrase in this article: “cars can become friends with their users.” Perhaps it was not intended this way but it implies that cars have agency. The article talks about how newer cars, such as plug-in electric vehicles, need more monitoring and so users will be open to getting more information from their cars. But in the end, these cars are just cars, machines that help people get around. We are a ways from having cars that could hold human-like conversations with their owners (see this recent piece on progress in tackling the Turing Test).

While some commentators have lamented the difference between off-line and online friends, perhaps this is the next controversial step forward: friendships with products. Right now, you can be a “fan” on Facebook but a friendship implies a closer and more interactive relationship.

How Wal-Mart plans to regain its edge

Here is an interesting summary of Wal-Mart’s corporate plans for the near future. The headline of the article says it all: “Wal-Mart, humbled king of retail, plots comeback.”

Three years ago, Wal-Mart ruled for convenience, selection and price. But today it is losing customers and revenue, and smarting from decisions that backfired.

Wal-Mart is not in danger of ceding its place atop the retail world. But competitors have begun to chip away at its dominance.

Over the last year, revenue at Wal-Mart stores open at least a year has fallen by an average 0.75 percent each quarter, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Revenue rose by an average of nearly 1.7 percent at Target, 8 percent at Costco and 5.9 percent at Family Dollar.

To fight back, Wal-Mart is again emphasizing low prices and adding back thousands of products it had culled in an overzealous bid to clean up stores. It’s also plotting an expansion into cities, even neighborhoods where others dare not go.

Even as the article talks about stagnant or slightly declining sales at existing stores plus some questionable decisions (like reducing the number of products on the shelves), the main issue seems to be perceptions. On the business side, Wal-Mart has been challenged, particularly on the lower end by dollar stores. But business has not tanked and Wal-Mart still thinks it has new markets to tap in the United States, particularly in urban areas. What do investors and shareholders think – is it just about stronger growth right now? On the public image side, stores like Target have offered an enticing alternative. And yet Wal-Mart has changed the layout and design of its stores to look more like Target and this seems to have helped. Ultimately, the article says Target’s revenues are still one-sixth of that of Wal-Mart.

It sounds like Wal-Mart thinks they need to make some changes. There is no guarantee that any business, even a behemoth like Wal-Mart, will continue to expand or even be profitable. And just by virtue of its size, Wal-Mart’s actions will continue to be scrutinized.

A sociologist offers a short history of dieting

If you partake of any advertisements in any media form, you will inevitably hear pitches for different kinds of diets. Eat less carbs! Count your points! Take this pill! Get this exercise machine! These sorts of diet pitches are not just a recent phenomenon; a sociologist suggests our ideas about dieting stretch back several hundred years.

Thin has been in much longer than most of us realize, says Ellen Granberg, an assistant professor of sociology at Clemson who studies the history of weight loss…

Moderating the experts will be David Kirchhoff, president and CEO of Weight Watchers International. His organization is just about 50 years old, but Granberg says the very first documented “weight watcher” was an Italian guy in the early 17th century who took notes about his caloric intake and weighed himself daily on a crude scale.

Diet and exercise really took off in the mid-19th century in Europe and migrated over to the U.S. by the 1890s. Why then? Granberg suspects it has to do with the introduction of commercially developed food. And early health gurus, including Sylvester Graham (of eponymous cracker fame), were worried from the get-go about adulterated products.

What Granberg finds most surprising is that modern diets look a lot like the first ones. People were eating low-carb in the 19th century, way before Atkins came along. Sweets were shunned. Just about the only slimming method you won’t hear about today is the suggestion that you smoke cigarettes.

To Granberg, this history proves weight loss has never been easy — and it may never be. “The idea that there is a single, perfect plan is a very old idea. People were thinking about this in the 1600s,” she says. “But it’s always difficult and frustrating. It’s not the fault of the individuals struggling.”

It is interesting to note that the rise of diets in the 1800s seems linked to particular products, such as Graham crackers or corn flakes, that their makers deemed healthy. I wonder if this sociologist could comment on  how much ideas about dieting are tied to capitalism and making money.

And for those who dieted in past histories, which segments of the population were interested in this? Was it a widespread movement or did this come later with the rise of mass media?

Defining “green” products

When a consumer goes shopping, there are many products that claim to be “green.” Unfortunately, what exactly this means is unclear and may be just plain wrong. This process, which has come to be known as “greenwashing,” might be limited once the Federal Trade Commission develops new guidelines:

The guides originally were developed in 1992 and last updated in 1998. For the past two years the FTC has worked to revise them to account for consumers’ increased interest in environmentally conscious products and product-makers’ increasingly noisy marketing claims, a practice that’s come to be known as “greenwashing.”…

Some companies have complained in the past that the government did not strictly enforce the existing Green Guides, leading to more consumer confusion. So the more specific rules are welcome.

If these new guidelines are enacted soon, consumers may discover fewer “green” products on the shelves.

While it may not be the most ethical activity, is it a surprise that numerous companies have claimed to have “green” products when these sorts of items draw extra attention from some consumers?

The noisy biodegradable SunChips bag dies a quiet death

The biodegradable SunChips bag has been pulled from the market because it is not convenient enough for customers. The issue? It is too noisy:

The noise of the bag — due to an unusual molecular structure that makes the bag more rigid — has been compared to everything from lawnmowers to jet engines. There’s even an active Facebook group with more than 44,000 friends that goes by the name of “Sorry But I Can’t Hear You Over This SunChips Bag.”

“Clearly, we’d received consumer feedback that it was noisy,” says Aurora Gonzalez, a Frito-Lay spokeswoman. “We recognized from the beginning that the bag felt, looked and sounded different.”

The bag illustrates the sometimes unexpected bumps that can trip up companies trying to do the right thing environmentally. SunChips sales have declined more than 11% over the past 52 weeks (excluding Wal-Mart, which doesn’t share its data), reports SymphonyIRI Group, the market research specialist.

A little noise doesn’t seem to be a bad price for having a compostable bag. If products have to be convenient to be successfully green, then one might suggest many consumers aren’t terribly serious about being green.

Also, what is with the journalistic trend of using the size of certain Facebook groups to lend weight to certain “movements”? “Even” 44,000 Facebook users are against the product – is the company reacting to this group or other consumer pressure or data?