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Thinking the Way we Think

I walk into Borders — depending on my mood I will go for the design section, the psychology area or some form of literature. No matter what I choose I can’t help but wonder if my selection will be based on my preferences as a designer or my preferences as a consumer. Am I judging a book by its cover, its title or its good layout? Its possible content maybe? Or its “beautiful” type treatment?

I have found that this is something that happens outside of the bookstore as well. Am I suffering from an overwhelming designer mindset? My office is located on the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and as I step out I am surrounded by brands up and down the street, several stories high. Virgin, Intercontinental, Gap, Guess, Borders, Saks, Chicago Tribune, Wriggley’s, Crabtree & Evelyn, Gucci, Tiffany & Co., and the list goes on and on and I become dizzy with the thought of analyzing my reasons for buying or not buying from each place.

How do you view the world and its consumer brands/items/products/everything? Do you see things for what they are, or do you stand before them and wonder what the designer was thinking, what you would have done had the client come to you instead? Do you praise “beautiful” work, and take it home? Is the designer in you regulating (for better or for worse) your decisions as a consumer?

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PUBLISHED ON Feb.10.2004 BY bryony
marian’s comment is:

The designer in me is totally, rampantly out of control when it comes to consumer decisions. Not only does it steer me towards beautiful, elegant things I don't need, it sometimes makes it difficult for me to buy things I do need (or prehaps want, in the case of books) if they are badly designed or packaged. I have bought things for their packaging alone. I have bought things in stores because I had to have a bag from the store. Last time I was in New York I bought several things in a Japanese sweet store because every single thing in the store was exquisite, including the sweets, which I had no intention of eating. This, I know, makes me an atypical buyer and completely incapable of judging what the "average" consumer really wants.

On Feb.10.2004 at 11:14 AM
Jason’s comment is:

What bryony calls overwhelming designer mindset is unavoidable. It's in your nature, like the scorpion that stings.

Sitting in Starbucks on Friday, my thesis advisor told me that most consumers think they make informed decisions about their purchases. What informs those decisions? The designer in me regulates my consumer decisions. Beauty in form, packaging, and logo isn't always a pretense; utility and function play a role, so do cost. I research a product to death, for the most part.

In terms of computers, I will always bow to the Apple gods. Those machines look better, feel better, and sit better on my desk. They're sculpture. No Dell, Compaq, or HP can do that--be sculpture. Overall, if I'm happy with what I buy and it serves its purpose, that's a good thing. But there's always cognitive dissonance to make me want to buy again, and again, and again...

Even the overwhelming designer mindset can't overcome the obsessive consumptive.

On Feb.10.2004 at 11:16 AM
eric’s comment is:

ah, the joys of the "post-modern" hell.

nice to see you writing Bryony. first thread, or first for me?

On Feb.10.2004 at 11:43 AM
Scott d’s comment is:

I usually try to look at products from the standpoint of form, function and cost. Obviously as a designer I'm obsessed with form and function, but as a recent college grad, cost is a big part of the decision. I generally find that my designer mindset is most prevalent when I'm shopping for something as simple as t-shirts. I just can't help it; I look at many t-shirts and can't get past the fact that they've got an bad color combinations or ugly fonts. (Let me guess, this dilemma with buying t-shirts wouldn't happen if I just bought a few Speak Up t-shirts.)

Also, when I was recently shopping for a new stereo (still haven't bought one, the economical side of me won that battle-for now) I wouldn't even consider buying some of the stereos because of their appearance. These stereos featured obnoxiously large, quasi-futuristic plastic parts that were in a some ridiculous color. I'd prefer to hear my stereo, rather than have it be some eye sore that belongs in the year 2050.

I generally feel best about buying something when I can justify the added cost, which frequently comes with the better design, by telling myself that I'm paying for a better product that will last longer.

On Feb.10.2004 at 12:23 PM
bryony’s comment is:

nice to see you writing Bryony. first thread, or first for me?

Indeed my dear, my first in this new venture I have decided to take.

On Feb.10.2004 at 01:25 PM
Armin’s comment is:

For me (as well as Bryony) the iPod has presented the biggest challenge. I rarely listen to music on the train or wherever you might need portable music to warrant an iPod. Yet it is so damn good looking, so damn well functioning, so, so, so… designey that I feel like I must have it even though I don't need it.

I guess it'd be the same with any profession, like a… plumber going to Home Depot and buying the ugliest plunger but that he knows is the one that will do his pulmbing job easier.

That wasn't such a great analogy, was it? I guess the plumber would go to Target and buy based on his… um… damnit! I thought I had the analogy all figured out.

On Feb.10.2004 at 02:29 PM
Rob Bennett’s comment is:

It isn't interesting how the design of something can actually cause us not to purchase it. (This thought being influenced by Scott D's post) I myself was caught up in looking for a portable CD/DVD player and when I went shopping, I was aghast at the over-the-top, miliatristic and futuristic designs that were out there. What happened to those clean, slick lines of shiny metal? These things were a nightmare happening right on the shelf in front of me. Had the demographic for such products really been pushed past me into an age range where I have no appreciation for their style? Really, I would even expect the boys of Outkast toting around one of these machines. For now I'll stick with my little speakers from my G4. Next on my wish list, my own IPOD.

On Feb.10.2004 at 02:52 PM
Scott d’s comment is:

As far as the iPod, I could resist no longer, and I bought one a month ago. And it's so damn cool.

On Feb.10.2004 at 02:58 PM
Greg’s comment is:

This is a fun post/thread. I am like marian in this respect...so much of what I buy and enjoy is due to my predisposition to it when I see it in the store. There are limits, though...cost being a major factor.

I don't know if this is a designer thing, or an overall consumer thing, however. Designers probably recognize better what gravitates them to a specific product, but well-designed stuff attracts everyone.

On Feb.10.2004 at 03:13 PM
Su’s comment is:

I go back and forth on this, depending on what the thing is. Unless it's the only edition available, I will not buy an ugly--or worse, badly made--book. These are things you have to look at for long periods. Computers, on the other hand, are largely to be ignored. I like my silver-gray VPR box. It stays out of my way. Ideally, I could embed the thing in a wall and never have to see it, and am currently lusting over the new small form-factor cases that are about the size of a fat lunchbox.

For fairly inconsequential things(my gym lock), yes, a more attractive item is always nice, but if it hampers actual use(ie: expensive, pretty flatware that cramps your hand in five minutes), then function wins.

On Feb.10.2004 at 03:28 PM
bryony’s comment is:

Alessi. This is one collection we have all encountered at some point, be it at the Moma store, Chiasso or any store of it’s kind. Never mind price, never mind function. If you happen to be in such a store with your mother, your cousin or your non-designer friend, they will quickly decide you should be the proud owner of the foreign looking object in your hands (they would never allow something like that in their own homes).

Can we really compare consumer value between Alessi’s Anna G. Corkscrew and Oxo’s GOOD GRIPS CorkPull?

Which leads me to wonder if this is a designer designing for designers? And if so, was this self-done or was Alessi one of the first to be pushed into this by us consumer/designers?

Why do we fall for it?

On Feb.10.2004 at 03:40 PM
barry mcwilliams’s comment is:

book shopping the other day i found a book that seemed pretty interesting (general fiction/literature - can't remember the title) until i opened it up & was shocked at how ugly its typesetting was.

i put it down & bought something else - this one with a crappy cover but much more attractively laid out inside.

geeky, yes, but hell, if i'm going to be staring at it for several days i'd better like it.

On Feb.10.2004 at 04:35 PM
krs’s comment is:

I am in a similar situation to Scott d, being a recent grad and all. I am a sucker for beautiful books, I always prowl through as many second hand bookstores as I can!

But anything else, well, by goodness I am severe. Because I like to think I have fairly well-honed �sthetic taste, things have to perform well and look decent. I also take into the want/need factor. "Need before greed" I try to say to myself! It is quite hard to remove oneself from the purchasing moment and think "am I going to be using this for a long time to come?" I try for ethics as well, I almost always insist that things I buy were manufactured properly and ethically. Not really into exploitation myself.

These stereos featured obnoxiously large, quasi-futuristic plastic parts that were in a some ridiculous color. I'd prefer to hear my stereo, rather than have it be some eye sore that belongs in the year 2050.

*shudder* They all look like set pieces from bad sci-fi movies. I hate them! But I reckon that it is probably a 'good' move on the part of the electronics companies, they look shiny and 'futuristic' and lots of people find them 'cool' and are happy so there you go.

geeky, yes, but hell, if i'm going to be staring at it for several days i'd better like it.

I agree. When you stop reading and start noticing the type (which happens way too often dammit!) it is nice to know that it is well set and someone gave enough of a damn to make it so.

On Feb.10.2004 at 05:04 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Okay, I do hereby admit to being completely seduced by pretty things, from time to time. The designer in me affects my decision-making process. This is why it's good to have a non-designer wife (although she can sometimes be drawn to pretty things herself). But I would say that some things are more tempting than others. And given my current employment-challenged status, I've learned to really cut back to the bone with frivolous purchases.

In the past, I had frequently bought used CDs because of a cool-looking cover. Happily, some of these have been decent and a few have been great. (Thirty-Ought-Six comes to mind.) But, if they're bad, I just trade them in for another choice. So it has a low risk factor.

I am also drawn to a nicely designed book over an uglier one, with the exception of gardening books. Sometimes "pretty" gardening books are short on content and over-indulge in ornamentation. And design books must be nice, in order for me to purchase them. Why shell out a big chunk of change for an ugly book about design? It doesn't make sense, unless the book's content has significant value of its own.

And, I used to buy wine sometimes by how nice the label was. But my wife, the very knowledgable connoisseur, has shut this practice down. A lot of great wines have mediocre labels. A lot of nicely-labeled wines are disappointing when it comes to actual content.

I think my most indulgent, designer-sensibilities-driven purchase was my motorcycle. This picture is from the BMW motorcyle brochure that I had propped up on my desk for nine months before I finally broke down and bought the bike. Before I bought it, I would go into the showroom and visit it, caressing its sleek and sexy lines, testing the throttle. It was so alluring, so seductive. It was just the most incredibly, awesomely cool bike to behold. Every "designer" synapse in my brain fired ecstatically. I was transfixed. And then one day it was sold! I was crest-fallen. How would I find another one? (It was a limited-edition version of the last year of that model.) But, by fate, she would come back to me. A few months later, the loser who'd bought the bike wanted to trade it in for the newer model, being the poser, loser, wanna-be-hipster that he was and not seeing the value of what he had. So I was able, through a strategy with the dealer, to buy the bike with only 4K miles on it for $3K less than the original price. I enhanced it further with after-market �hlins shock, Staintune exhaust, and a Corbin seat. It's now my Dream Bike! I've owned it for 7 years and I still think it's just the coolest bike. I am humbled and honored to ride it. No regrets, whatsoever.

On Feb.10.2004 at 06:21 PM
marian’s comment is:

I'm with ya on the stereos. I too have run in horror, thinking "I'll wait ten years til people come to their senses," and returned to my clunky, functional, single-CD, black Denon.

I want the iPod; I have no need for the iPod; I will not buy the iPod.

I will not buy a badly designed design book under any circumstances, and it's astounding how many of them I've seen over the years. I am extremely reluctant to buy a badly designed book of any other kind, but I've been known to buckle when I really needed it. I have gone to great lengths to avoid copies of books with "Oprah's Book Club" on the cover (i.e. hunting down a pre-Oprah copy in a used bookstore). And I'm a sucker for a beautiful book on any subject.

On Feb.10.2004 at 06:24 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

One of my favorite books in the world, The Goldbug Variations, a beautifully written novel by William Powers, is forever ruined for me by the fact that it is set in my least favorite typeface in the world, ITC Garamond. I can't help it: it's like trying to listen to someone really intelligent talk while you're distracted by a little piece of snot hanging out of their nose.

On Feb.10.2004 at 09:55 PM
Bill D.'s’s comment is:

"A little piece of snot hanging out of their nose" really gets me going. I spent today with tile-layers for a home renovation. First, there was the conversation about whether the limestone tiles should be 1/16" versus 1/8" apart. Then there was the color of the grout: I was distressed to like "standard grey" over more Martha Stewartly named colors. Finally, there were the tiles themselves. What I described as a "stain" in natural limestone was met with absolutely no understanding of fundamental design principles by very patient workers. We spent an hour deciding whether little flaws were really "stains." A designer trying to be reasonable is still someone who notices every "little piece of snot hanging out of their nose."

On Feb.11.2004 at 12:08 AM
matt cassity’s comment is:

Right now I am reading a book with an ugly cover and an annoying, unnecessary vertical rule on every page. However, I am hoping this book will change my life.

On Feb.11.2004 at 04:12 AM
Ginny ’s comment is:

I bought a cook book for friends as a Christmas gift and just gave it to them this past weekend. Because it's been wrapped up for months, I forgot what it looked like. But I remembered that the typography was beautiful.

When they opened the gift, and then the book, I found that my memory was correct. The typography and layout was incredible and the photos pristine.

I recall feeling such a sense of pride. I guess mostly because they saw the beauty in it too and were very excited about the gift.

The funny thing is...I don't know if the recipes were all that appetizing. I read some of them and I wasn't all that impressed.

I think the "overwhelming designer mindset" is unavoidable. Were trained to see the well designed, the unique, the unorthodox, the details...it's what we do and apparently, what we buy.

On Feb.11.2004 at 09:11 AM
justin m’s comment is:

I've bought numerous things I did not need based simply on their appearance or design: Simple Life magazine, my watch, a teapot, several cooking utensils, etc.

I also want an iPod simply because they are so sexy. I do not need one or have any use for one, but I stop and stare everytime I see one at the store.

On Feb.11.2004 at 12:31 PM
krs’s comment is:

I also want an iPod simply because they are so sexy. I do not need one or have any use for one, but I stop and stare everytime I see one at the store.

Am I the only one who doesn't find iPod's particulary 'sexy' or even remotely attractive? I understand that they have their use, how sexy are they, really?

On Feb.11.2004 at 04:49 PM
mitch’s comment is:

Am I the only one who doesn't find iPod's particulary 'sexy' or even remotely attractive?


I understand that they have their use, how sexy are they, really?

they are the high-paid porn star of consumer electronics.

On Feb.11.2004 at 05:03 PM
paige’s comment is:

mitch’s comment is: Am I the only one who doesn't find iPod's particulary 'sexy' or even remotely attractive?


I'm with you mitch...until very recently the ipod was so very bulky...bulky bulky bulky...and dont give me the old "ya but it is a hard drive" line, we all know it has been too big for too long

On Mar.29.2004 at 11:30 PM
Adam F’s comment is:

As a designer, we are forever connected to the visual, period! Now, whether we decide to buy a product based on the visual and not exactly the product itself, may either depend on how tight we are or how much work we are currently doing.

It may be that I'm just a student, but when I find a product that is visually pleasing, I buy it to take home and place on a shelf in my studio room. These, along with beautiful printed pieces I cut out and paste in my sketchbook, are inspiring and add to my visual dialect. Books are a seperate issue because if you find the cover interesting or not, its content is the decisive factor on the standpoint of being a consumer. First, and foremost, at this point in my life, I need to learn the "why" as much as I learn the visual. If I'm buying a book to learn more, I'm not going to turn it away if the cover and typesetting are not appealing.

As for material consumer products, I do believe that we are heavily lured by the design. Now, it may be because it is popular and soon-to-be overused, but I am enamored with tin can packaging. Compared to paper and plastic, I love the solid sturdiness of metal and the aged quality it can give to a product. The other day I bought a flip-top tin of icebreaker mints because of the packaging. I hate the gum, but took a stab at their other product. I ended up liking the mints, but it was also an example of the designer in me, controling the consumer.

As a designer, no advertisement, product, or trademark will be the same. In the darkest corners of my mind they will be critiqued, and the most intriguing will find a place in my studio. I try not to be heavily critical on the weak designs, because I do not always know the situation or mindset of a project, but I do "praise beautiful work." Twenty years from now, when I have good experience under my belt, my opinion may change. I'll probably be more critical and not ever overspend on useless material products, but for now, I just try to enjoy the good.

On Apr.12.2004 at 04:37 PM
Maya Drozdz’s comment is:

No offense, Bryony, but I personally think most of the Alessi stuff is crap-o-la. Give me Stelton any day...

It makes perfect sense to support good design, and to pay a premium for it. That supports like-minded people. We wouldn't hire graphic designers off Craig's List, so why buy poorly designed products?

Years ago, when I was a poor graduate student, I needed a new can opener. I really wasn't in a position to spend more than I needed to but, hey, $5 extra wasn't going to kill me. I was intrigued by the whole OXO philosophy, plus their stuff is Smart Design-ed. So, I got their fancy can opener, which doesn't require a strong grip [not that this is a problem for me]. Three months later, the button enabling that feature broke, and I'm left with an overpriced can opener that does the job of a $4 one you can get at the supermarket, but it's twice as big. Smart design, indeed.

On Apr.12.2004 at 07:39 PM
Tim Lapetino’s comment is:

Am I the only one who doesn't find iPod's particulary 'sexy' or even remotely attractive? I understand that they have their use, how sexy are they, really?


I own a Nomad Jukebox Zen, which is now a little out of date. But it works very well, has 20GB of hard drive space, and has a cool brushed-aluminum case. (But I keep it in its rubber/plastic case all the time, b/c dropping hard drives in the gym or on the concrete while running always bodes poorly for my music listening.)

The strongest point for me purchasing this product was that it was ~$100US cheaper than the iPod. And personally, I think the 'Pod was designed to be "admired", and not used. It doesn't look to me like it should be used or handled--unless you're on the set of "2001".

But that's just me. I *love* beautiful industrial design, but price always has to be the bottom line. I also don't own a Mac, either! :)

On Apr.13.2004 at 06:21 PM