The Betty Crocker Cruiser May 28, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , trackback
I have been reading Shop class as soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. So far, I have found it both a compelling read and an insightful critique of the supposed opposition between manual work and the good life.
The book touches on a number of interesting subjects but one in particular struck me as relevant for a design audience. Let me quote from Crawford’s remarks on how companies now encourage people merely to consume their “stuff” instead of mastering it, while deliberately conflating the two situations (pp. 66-67):
An ad for the Yamaha Warrior in the July 2007 issue of Motor Cyclist carries the caption “Life is what you make of it. Start making it your own.” The picture shows a guy in his home shop, focused intently on his Warrior. There are motorcycle parts on shelves above his ancient workbench, and a full stack of grungy, obviously well-used tool boxes in standard mechanic’s red. He’s not smiling for the camera; he’s lost in his work. A smaller caption reads, “The 102-cubic-inch fuel-injected Warrior. We build it. You make it your own.” Smaller still, it reads, “You only get one shot at life–may as well make it mean something. And when you start with the four-time AMA Prostar Hot Rod Cruiser Class Champion Warrior, then add your choice of Star Custom Accessories, the result is very powerful. And very personal.”
So it turns out, in the small type, that what the guy is actually doing is attaching some accessory to his bike. This is a little like those model cars where the child’s role consists of putting the decals on. Motorcycle culture retains a dim remembrance of the more involving character of the old machines, and the ad seems to gesture in that direction. Back in the 1950s, when the focal practice of baking was displaced by the advent of cake mix, Betty Crocker learned quickly that it was good business to make the mix not quite complete. The baker felt better about her cake if she was required to add an egg to the mix. So if the Warrior were to be christened with a street name, an apt one might be the Betty Crocker Cruiser, forged as it is in the Easy Bake Oven of consumerism.
Crawford’s comment is relevant for any designer and, indeed, for their educators. To my knowledge, many classes in engineering and other design fields emphasize ease-of-use. Students in a Human Factors class learn techniques for making devices intuitive for their users. Crawford points out that this emphasis serves the purposes of a broader design ideology, namely consumerism. Consumers use their gear until it breaks down or they get bored with it. Then, they turf it out for something else. This process is supposed to make users happy and producers happy. Consumers, in this sense, necessarily have a flaccid and passive attitude towards the things they own.
Contrast this attitude with one that Crawford calls spirited. The spirited owner develops an attachment to his gear and desires to find out how it works and how to fix it when it breaks down. This attitude inhibits the urge to throw stuff out when it does not behave properly or goes out of style. Thus, it is vastly different than consumerism, and has different implications for the environment, obviously, but also for designers.
Designing a machine to be easy-to-use often means making its inner workings opaque and inaccessible to the user. If all goes well, then the user can make the machine work without spending time understanding its workings or strengths and weaknesses. However, when the machine breaks or misbehaves, the owner is at the mercy of “service representatives” or simply finds it cheaper to buy a new one.
Crawford argues that the passive attitude encouraged by consumer items is bad for owners. Whatever its economic rationale, consumerism stunts people’s growth and self-realization. It makes them stupid. If so, then designers of people’s gear face a question: Is it always a good idea to make things so easy-to-use?
There must be some balance between challenge and ease-of-use in design, and I do not yet know what resolution, if any, Crawford has to offer. However, this issue strikes me as an excellent one to raise with students who are learning one or another of the design disciplines.