Positioning designers as ‘the shapers of society’ may seem a bit ambitious, I know. But what other single profession has a hand in creating the things we own, the vast campaigns which make us want to own those things, the cities we rush around in every day, and even in influencing who we vote for? The answer: graphic designers, architects, marketing agencies, and all the rest. In short: designers.
Sure, designers shape just about every physical object we interact with, and just about every thought and desire swishing around in our soft-and-squishies, but how does that “shape society”?
One explanation could be a neat quirk of the brain called the Benjamin Franklin Effect.
What is the Benjamin Franklin Effect?
The BFE is basically a trick your brain uses to avoid cognitive dissonance (that uncomfortable feeling you get when things don’t quite make sense). It reverses the misconception that you’ll be mean to people you dislike, and do nice things for people you like. You actually “…grow to like people for whom you do nice things, and hate people you harm”, says David McRaney in You Can Beat Your Brain. The things you do and experience often create the things you believe.
You can read more about it here. You’re probably busy, so I’ll just explain it briefly:
How does this work? It’s to do with our inner narrative, the storyteller inside all of us that keeps us sane by explaining to us the world around us in neat, short stories so that we can go on about our business.
Let’s say you do something nice for someone who doesn’t deserve it. Sure, it’ll feel weird. This is where the storyteller comes in. Your brain will task itself with explaining this seemingly nonsensical behaviour — in a simple way. And the simplest way to explain why you would do something nice for someone is that you actually like them after all. And so you begin to develop positive feelings for that person.
It works the other way as well: the asshole’s brain will have to do some explaining too. “Why is this person being nice to me?”, their brain might ask. The simple answer is, “We must have a positive relationship.” And so their brain pulls some levers so that the inner story better matches the reality it’s experiencing and presto, their feelings towards you are transformed.
Now you see that your attitude is predominantly a product of the reality that you experience, and less based on your intentions or beliefs or inner values.
How does this relate to design? We’re getting there. First, some new terms:
Look at me!
Impression management theory says that “…you present to your peers the person you wish to be.”
And that you “… are always thinking about how you appear to others, even when there are no others around.” Even when we’re alone we’re concerned about how we appear to others. This means that we’re constantly tailoring our appearance to reflect the person we aspire to be.
Look how cool I am
Signalling is the “…buying and displaying to your peers the sorts of things that give you social capital.”
Mash together impression management theory and signalling, and it becomes clear that we buy things based on what they say about what we aspire to be, not what they say about what we are. Meaning, we’re generally more interested in displaying to people the person that we hope to become than the person we are right now, and we do this with the stuff we buy.
“Whatever are the easiest-to-obtain, loudest forms of the ideals you aspire to portray become the things you own.”
Let’s call these aspirational goods.
“These things then influence you to become the sort of person who owns them”, says McRaney. This is the Benjamin Franklin Effect at work again — our attitude is a product of our reality. Now we have a positive feedback loop. The things you own influence what kind of person you become — we are products of the things we own. And, according to impression management theory, the things we own are usually decided by what type of person we aspire to be.
Another psychological phenomenon that says we’re products of our environments: Broken Windows Theory
If we buy things based on who we aspire to be, what happens when the picture of our aspirational self is painted by an external source? Mass media or our ideology could be examples of aspiration painters.
That means that the source of the things we desire, and ultimately buy, is possibly not within ourselves, but some external agency. So something outside of ourselves could be telling us what kind of person we should aspire to be, which influences the things we surround ourselves with, which go on to reinforce our supplanted aspirations.
How do we stop the cycle? Could we be more deliberate about our aspirations? How would we know if our aspirations were our own or borrowed?
We could also use this idea to our advantage: if we’re unhappy with who we are or who we’re becoming, we could hijack the cycle and choose to buy stuff that would nudge us on a different path. Like The Minimalists are doing. An example being buying a reclaimed or recycled chair instead of a mass produced, image based chair from that big-box store. Or maybe simply being deliberate about every object that we keep in our homes is the answer?
Wait, there’s a new one?
If we buy things based on what we aspire to be, why do the things we’ve bought lose their charm so quickly? Are our aspirations violently transient? Or does the symbolism of these things somehow fade?
Let’s consider this hypothetical scenario: I buy the latest smartphone because it somehow symbolises the person I’d like to become. I’m delighted by my new glowing rectangle. Then one day, around six months later, while scrolling through my news feed of choice, I see that a brand new model has just been released. Finding your next phone on your current phone seems like some kind of adultery — be decent, at least shop for your next phone on your tablet or something. The one I have still works perfectly well and does everything I need it to do. Then why do I feel compelled to rush out and buy the new one? And why do my feelings of fondness for my ‘old’ phone turn into feelings of resentment? — before seeing that ad, I would have proudly walked down the street with the thing stuck to my face, but now I think twice.
It seems the aspirational identity we’re trying to reinforce with the smartphone is somehow pinned to it being the newest and latest available model. As soon as we hear that a newer model is available, the ‘old’ (still perfectly useful) one engenders overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. We all aspire to be up-to-date, savvy consumers. Nobody wants to be the ball-and-chain that slows the thundering progress of humanity. We want our lives to resemble the sparkling showrooms of our favourite brands — and the point of any showroom is to display what’s current. No space is made for previous models — except at the landfills.
If only this obsession with staying current wasn’t butchering our social and natural environments…
I’m just a designer, what can I do?
This story is an example of how our designed environment affects who we are as people, and what kind of society we become collectively. This idea puts designers (of all types) in the immensely powerful position of the shapers of society. Because designers are involved in the process of creating the products which influence us daily, and they’re integral in the vast marketing campaigns which manufacture desire and discontent.
If you’re a designer, you have the privilege of being able to design products which make us better people, and inspire marketing campaigns which don’t encourage waste or inspire feelings of inadequacy.
If you’re a consumer, you have the power of voting with your wallet. Look around you if you’re reading this at home. Do the things you see belong to the person you want to be, or do they belong to the person someone else expects you to be?