Stuff. We are so surrounded by our stuff that sometimes we lose sight of the journey it has been on to get to our stores, our wardrobes, our cupboards or even our plates. Shopping centres, supermarkets and online sites seem to groan under the sheer volume of stuff — available instantly with free delivery and growing daily with more options, forms, colours and flavours to tempt us to open our wallets and fill our homes. 

By Claire Potter

This is not news though — the world as we know it has been slowly filling up with stuff for a very long time. Yet occasionally, we all have moments of cutting awareness where the world we have created, (particularly since the 1960s), suddenly screams into view, like Neo taking the red pill and suddenly seeing the Matrix for the first time. 

I had such a moment recently; whilst wandering down the cereal aisle of a supermarket. As well as the simple oats I went to find, there were instant oats, jumbo oats, Scottish oats, Irish Oats, organic oats, oats with added protein, oats with freeze-dried raspberries, instant cup oats, single sachet oats, chocolate oats, kid’s chocolate oats, a variety of oats with different syrups in and even vegan oats. I stood there aghast. There was no paralysis of choice, it was paralysis of fury — of how something as simple as goddamn oats could be split into so many sub-sections just to entice my novelty-craving brain into a purchase.  

‘So what?’ some people would say. ‘Oats are boring. Make them more exciting!’ And this is the point. As harmless as it would seem looking at a shop display of oats, our growing consumption figures are often driven through boredom — and brands use our desire for the new and shiny as opportunities to ‘innovate’. We lap up the more, the new, the limited edition, from cereals to shower gels to trainers. But as a designer and educator it makes me weep. For with every new novelty oat breakfast comes more packaging. More material use. More processes and more emissions. And someone, somewhere has made the decision for that to happen. 

A cog in the wheel

Of course, we cannot lay the blame for my oat fury solely at a designer — whilst we sit at the very start of the ‘new stuff’ journey, there are certainly many more stakeholders at play here. Still, it’s important to recognise that we are a cog in that wheel. It bring one statement that I use a lot to the forefront of my mind: ‘just because we can, does not mean that we should…’ 

As a Product Design lecturer, this is something that is essential to get across to students, but it is a thin tightrope to navigate. We encourage iteration and creativity, expansive thinking and innovative ways of making things, doing things and developing things for the world… but there has to be a point where we should look at any project and ask that critical question – ‘we can, but should we continue?’ Is a particular solution going to actively add to the world in a positive, regenerative way, or is it just going to become another box of freeze-dried novelty oats? 

For a student of course, this is a very hard lesson to learn, and certainly one that needs to be fostered in their lives at university in a completely different way to at school, otherwise they risk graduating and becoming another arbitrary, unquestioning cog in the wheel of ‘stuff’. University students need to be taught to identify if they really are creating something of true value for someone or something, or if it is just more stuff. Does the world really need another X?  Another variety of X. Another iteration of X. Or are we just creating stuff to fit the consumerist mentality that has been sold to us in the guise of better GDP?

“Whilst designers sit at the very start of the ‘new stuff’ journey, there are certainly many more stakeholders at play. Still, it’s important to recognise that we are a cog in that wheel.”

We also need to consider the parameters that the students are working within. If the outcome of the brief they have been given is to ultimately ‘design a chair’ for example, they are going to deliver — and design another chair. As educators we cannot get frustrated that students may fall into the practice of designing another ‘thing’ if we are giving them briefs that request just that. Instead of closed briefs with a pre-defined outcome, we should continue to foster expansive thinking and real-world research to seek out the real needs of our changing societies. In many cases, this will not be a chair.  

designing for better systems

Another element I think we all tend to lose sight of, regardless of whether we identify as a designer or not, is the fact that everything, everywhere has been designed by someone. Likely not just one person at all, but a collaboration of people who used their expertise to decide how everything manifests in this world. 

Wherever you are now, sit and look around you. Notice the variety of stuff you can see. Notice the materials — the natural elements, the synthetic elements. Notice the duplicates of the same thing. Take a minute to imagine the processes that each and every item has gone through to get to wherever you are now, from the very beginning to the very end. From digging something up, or growing it, to manipulating it into something that can be processed, to packaging it, transporting it and ultimately, delivering it to wherever you sit right now. Think about the systems that the stuff has gone though, and think about the systems that are in place (or missing) from the crucial end-of-life stages. Where does it go after its life with you, and who becomes the next custodian in its life of reuse, repair, remanufacture, repurposing, or as a last resort, recycling it needs to go through? Is everything connected in circular systems, or are there gaps? 

“We need to teach our design students that our creativity is better spent making better things, not reinventing and repacking the norm.” 

This is the responsibility we have as design educators — to open our young designer’s eyes to their responsibility and impact. We need to teach our design students that our creativity is better spent making better things, not reinventing and repacking the norm, which quite frankly, has got us into the mess we are currently experiencing. Designers are like magicians, taking something as intangible as a thought and turning it into something physical that could add true value to a developing world. We should not underestimate how beautiful a power that is.  

Of course, designers also thrive on asking and responding to complex questions. But we have to learn to ask the hardest of questions of ourselves too. So designers and design students alike, take a moment with every project to ask: ‘We could. But should we?’

Images: Unsplash and What Design Can Do.

About the author

Claire Potter is a Senior Lecturer and Course Convenor of the Product Design programme at the University of Sussex. Her first book, Welcome to the Circular Economy: The Next Step in Sustainable Living was published by Lawrence King in September 2021.


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