is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
The Iron Giant in My Kitchen
Similarly, I have a US$20 cast iron skillet that I bought several years ago from a restaurant supply shop in downtown Manhattan. I’ve cooked hundreds of meals with it, and over time it has developed a coating from oil and food — the manufacturers call it ‘seasoning.’ It’s a little unbecoming when you think about it; in fact, though I clean it, it’s a dirty piece of cookware, and it resembles its original, store-bought state not at all.
But it’s also a beautiful piece of design. After cooking in it and cleaning it up, I’ve spent a lot of time just looking it over, marveling at how its very deterioration has been incorporated into the design of the object, at how it’s gotten more attractive — less ignorant — the more I use it. I’m not particularly sentimental about much in my kitchen, but I would be heartbroken if you took away this iron skillet (or my Global chef’s knife, but that’s a blog post for another day).
Designing for Deterioration
I mention these things because I’ve noticed recently that the concept of what we might call designed deterioration is fairly anathema to digital hardware. The objects we purchase from purveyors of digital technology are conceived only up to the point of sale; the inevitable nicks, scratches, weathering, and fading they will encounter is not factored in at all. The result is that as they see more use, their ignorance may recede, but they wear it poorly. They don’t age gracefully.
Looking at the digital technology I own, what moderate deterioration to be found — dents in my laptop, a gash in the side of a laser printer I own, the accumulated grime on my computer keyboard — doesn’t make these items more desirable at all. In fact, when I see the way the corner on my aluminum PowerBook has been warped due to a nasty fall from a chair, I cringe. Through this obvious, glaring example of use, of accumulated knowledge, the object itself hasn’t attained an additional whit of beauty.
In fact, the damage is actually quite repulsive. This is because the laptop was conceived by Jonathan Ive based on an assumption that it would remain perfect forever. There was no designed deterioration factored in whatsoever, and so no real thought was given to how the laptop might change with use. Marks of knowledge, like the warped corner, aren’t meant to be embraced, but rather denied.
All Shiny and New
For another example, take my iPhone. Not literally, because I still want it. But half of the reason I prize it so much right now is because of its still new, pristine state. This condition is so important to the perceived value of this phone that I feel compelled to purchase a protective case in order to maintain its immaculate facade. If I dropped it tomorrow and caused a big gash to appear across its back, say, I’d feel devastated. (Luckily, the face of it is made of fairly indestructible glass.)
That’s just not right. An object should be designed not just for sale, but also for day to day wear and tear. With use, this iPhone should get more attractive, should become like a trusted and inseparable friend.
Of course, the blame for the absence of designed deterioration from these products can be laid squarely at the feet of a more widely accepted design concept: planned obsolescence. I will probably never buy another skillet to replace the one I own for as long as I live, even though a new one is extremely affordable.
On the other hand, either technological obsolescence or fashion will almost surely spur me to replace this iPhone in a matter of years. For manufacturers, there’s almost no percentage in factoring designed deterioration into a new product because doing so almost surely means undercutting future sales. It’s too bad, really. For all the beautiful design being created for digital products today, it’s a shame that we’ll hang on to so few for very long.+