The consolations of branding

by Rob Horning

6 October 2008


PSFK linked to this essay from Design Week by Ben Terrett about creating “unproduct,” which seems to mean consumer goods that are more idea than substance.

A concept I have been thinking a lot about recently is ‘unproduct’. Originally coined by the designer Matt Jones and built upon by the strategist Russell Davies, among others, unproduct is basically maximum idea, minimum stuff. It is an idea that offers some suggestions as to how brands and designers could help combat climate change. You get more value, but you produce less stuff.

This seems like an argument for more commercial control of intellectual property, with the logic being that the more capital is tied up in virtual things, the less environmental damage will be wrought in supplying the economy with physical goods. Or in other words, we should pay to participate in brands rather than accumulate goods.

Could brands be adequate consolation for not having actual material goods? Could they be something we could claim a kind of ersatz ownership of to satisfy our innate desire to possess things while our physical stock actually dwindles? It seems plausible, I guess, but would require an exacerbation of identity politics, as we would become far more invested in the symbolism of goods rather than the usefulness we derive from them, since the physical use would be gone and the social-symbolic use would be all there is.

Terrett, who seems primarily interested in making better signage, argues that adding information to existing goods enhances their value and thereby precludes the need to manufacture replacements. This in turn “slows down consumerism”:

One important factor in unproduct is data. Because software is now everywhere, you can add and collect data easily and often. We have long realised that adding data to things often makes them more valuable; for example, the way houses become more expensive with added history - from ‘this used to be a fruit warehouse’ to those ceramic blue plaques. Those little bits of data are increasing the value without creating new stuff, keeping the wheels of capitalism turning while slowing down the treadmill of consumerism.

I tend to draw the opposite conclusion about the proliferation of data. I think it works to allow us to consume more quickly, and therefore consume more in a limited amount of time. In our individual lives, we may be aware of environmental limitations to our consumption in an abstract way, but the limit we understand deeply and intimately and react to almost instinctually is the time constraint. We know that there is lots of stuff out there (thanks to marketing’s ubiquity and the penetration of entertainment with salesmanship) but we don’t have the time to take advantage of it all. But consuming it vicariously through its metadata—coming to an understanding of it, processing it, whatever you want to call it—allows us to move on more rapidly to the next thing. Signage potentially cannibalizes on the intrinsic worth of the thing, encouraging us to skim over what is being signed.

But the strategy Terrett advocates also evokes a different problem—if the data applied to already existing goods works to make them appear unique, these goods become positional goods—goods whose scarcity is irremediable and whose function is generally to exacerbate class differences. The houses with added history do indeed become more expensive, but no utility is added to the economy along with this enhanced value—houses are worth more, but no more people are housed. Capitalism would be working to distribute more of the stuff available to fewer people (by means of data manipulation), as it will have ceased to make new stuff.

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