Obsolescence and Design

It’s an interesting comparison with visual art, a world in which objects are valued for their permanence. A great painting never changes or undergoes annual updates, yet it manages to remain relevant. High design pieces like Eames lounges or vintage wristwatches are things that can be passed down to children and grandchildren, gaining significance as they age. In comparison, a ten-year-old computer or  five-year-old PDA is basically unusable. In the realm of technology, permanence has very little value. It would be to our benefit to value it more.

Apple’s iPhone 5 and
Getting Angry at Planned Obsolescence

by Kyle Chayka

Very few artists even consider how their work will age. As a result, the question of how to preserve a piece is one of the most important debates you can have in art. Should a piece look its age? Should it always look brand new? Are previous conservation attempts worth preserving as part of the piece’s history?

—My Post Archival Life

frontBabbage Engine
1890 CensusHollerith 1890 Census Tabulator
QWERTZEnigma Machine
curtaCurta calculator

As a self-confessed design geek whose primary thought for much of the Dieter Rams exhibition involved thinking and worrying about how we would be able to understand the designs once we had forgotten how to use the products, I should have realized that the answer to my question had already been addressed by technology museums. In fact, I had even seen an exhibition of completely-obsolete technology done in a very good, completely fascinating way.

I visited the Computer History Museum over three years ago to see the Babbage Engine but also took in their Visible Storage exhibition. Both exhibits were fantastic examples of how to mix technology with use and really explained the long-obsolete technology specifically from a use point of view.

And these objects were, in many ways, much more abstract than any consumer product. This was about data storage/entry/retrieval. Sounds boring. But completely fascinating because the exhibit emphasized exactly how the function mattered to us.*

*Especially how the data we collect and find interesting runs hand-in-hand with our ability to enter, store, and retrieve that data. Compare the difference it took to tabulate the 1880 census (8 years) and the 1890 census (1 year) and you can extrapolate that out to the massive amounts of data being collected and processed today. And how it matters. And why it matters. 

Instead of this being a liability for design, this is a strength. It’s often difficult to present art with its function in mind whereas design is, by definition, concerned with use at some level. When displaying design, telling the story about the problems it solves and why it eventually went obsolete actually helps us understand the user, and thus the design, better.

In 20 years when records and reel-to-reels are long-forgotten, people will still be listening to music. We’ll still need power switches and volume adjustments* and so seeing how we interfaced for this functionality will be both familiar and interesting. What will be added is that the technological details of how we recorded the sound will be displayed as well. In 20 years, it’ll be necessary to show a reel of tape or an LP with the explanation that this object stored 45 minutes of stereo sound on each side. And we’ll look at the record and the record player and start to see how it had to be used and understand the problems it solved.

*Both of which will be difficult to do with voice controls. An object which is off may not have the juice to wake up to a voice command. And adjusting volume with voice controls amounts to shouting, “louder, louder, louder, too loud!” at a machine.

Whereas in the art side of things, we’re going to be dealing with how to preserve and display all kinds of deteriorating modern art. How long is a vivisected shark supposed to last? Are all those color photoprints really archival? How do we handle low-resolution digital ipad-generated artwork?

Design—even planned obsolescence—considers the future. And in our current cradle-to-cradle world, designers shouldn’t be considering that their designs will be permanent. Good design now should break down and have its lifecycle completely considered. It’s only the rare product which should be expected to last forever. The iphone is not such a product.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

4 thoughts on “Obsolescence and Design”

  1. Keyboards and typing technology have come a long way over the past couple centuries. The first typing devices were designed and patented in the 1700s while the first manufactured typing devices came about in the 1870s. These machines featured “blind typing” technology, where characters were printed on upside-down pages that remained unseen until completion. Since then, we have seen several updates in design, layout, technology, and function that are more efficient and user-friendly. The type-writer has changed shape dramatically over the years, eventually becoming electronic- then practically obsolete as we moved into the age of computers and the birth of the keyboard. The keyboard is the number one computer interface used around the world, and an integral object for many of us that most people take for granted. This paper will explore the history of typing, detailing the innovations across time that have accumulated into the definition of today’s standard for the ultimate typing experience.

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