Users or Consumers: Relationships with Design
by Andrea García Cuevas
September 1, 2015
The Salone del Mobile in Milan takes place every April welcoming more than 300 000 visitors.
The ICFF furniture fair in New York City is the largest one in America.
Textile Field by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec at the 2011 London Design Festival.
Double Space for BMW by Barber & Osgerby at the 2014 London Design Festival .
Installation by El Último Grito during the first edition of the Mexican Design Open in 2013.
In a shop window there is a cup, seductively sculpted with an attractive color. Aside, there is an irregular but functional spoon, a number of small glasses to serve just a sip of any given drink, some plates and various utensils. Opposite, on another shelf, there is a bag, pencil holders, lighters, mirrors, etc. Anything that could may come to your mind. But none is just a cup, a spoon or a plate. At least not the kind that are sold in the market to replace their equals when they are no longer useful. They are designed objects, products of a creative process and the result of the imaginative minds of their creators. They are auteur pieces.
How many –spoons, cups or lighters- I have at home? The question resonates while a person examines the cup between his hands, which is just conquering his gaze. The answer is worthless against two possible scenarios: a) buy to satisfy a desire, although it will become a forgotten piece b) not buy it and ... nothing. Both resolutions, however, reflect a condition that not only the design industry suffers but also the buyer: consumption. This scene is much more common than you think.
The above example works to draw two characteristics commonly attributed to everything that, in a sense, is understood as a solution to a need of any kind. Namely, the function and appeal; both essential in designed objects, but both absent in many cases. But the truth is that design is not only an attractive feature or form, it is not a simple product that satisfies desires.
Last April, the designer Hella Jongerius and the theorist Louise Schouwenberg launched their manifesto Beyond the New. A Search for Ideals in Design which set out a series of principles that seek to direct current design, immersed in a production stage obsessed with newness and based on dynamics of wasteful consumption. Jongerius and Schouwenberg are clear: "Design is not about products. Design is about relationships. "[1]
There are many products that are produced every year with no sense at all. Most of them are of questionable functionality which is hidden behind a visually appealing aesthetic that, in turn, conquest and awakes the interest of consumers satisfying their desire to buy or rather their consumption interest. In this context, design loses its essence to become a mere seductive image. Therefore, although they are dissimilar in terms of their characteristics, examples such as the cup and a simple glass cup found in a market place put themselves far away from the first sense of the discipline.
Without wishing to fall into the naive, and aware of the importance of a social and economic context of greater depth, it is true that the furor over the new is largely responsible for the consumption relationship regarding design. Critics like Alice Rawsthorn or Lucas Verweij attribute this to the growing popularity of design fairs focused on supply and demand, even the designer Jasper Morrison named the Salone del Mobile in Milan as the Hall of Marketing.
Meanwhile, designers play a major role in this phenomenon: they create beautiful objects  that end up being designed waste. But beyond politically correct speeches, usually aimed at sustainable design, the design process must consider the life cycle of an object and move away from pure aesthetic interest. Jongerius and Schouwenberg point out that "by addressing the “afterlife” of every product, designers contribute to a change of mentality in both users and producers. An all-encompassing approach requires designers not to focus exclusively on the functionality and expressive power of a design, but also to investigate how maintenance and repair can be integrated into the final product. Designers should be aware of the circular economy they are embedded in."
As objects and designers are essential, the end customer is key in the networks established by the discipline. But do we consume, use, or relate to design? Are we consumers or users? [2] In an interview, Paola Antonelli showed her animadversion for the concept of "consumers" and stated that the title of "users" accurately describes the relationship established with design objects. Both words point out a fundamental difference in how we conceive design: while the first word is an obvious reference to a wasteful consumption of not needed products the second projects a functional and symbolic link with objects.
Relationships and not products, as indicated by Jongerius and Schouwenberg in their manifesto, in which they also make special emphasis on the potential of materials and their expressive qualities to detonate and establish symbolic communication and relationships with users. Therefore, better to use than consume. Better support designers interested in building relationships, not products.





[1] Hella Jongerius, Louise Schouwenberg, “Beyond the New. A Search for Ideals in Design.” (2015).
[2] "The scope of digital design" (2014).). Interview with Paola Antonelli: