Minimalism: A response to modern day problems

“How many things do you own?” Is one of the first questions an experimentalist would ask you. For most of us in the Global North, the number is immense. Abundance, however, does not seem to bring us satisfaction. 

Impelled by constant advertisement and the unspoken pressure of capitalist society we consume perpetually, striving to keep up with trends, fashion and new tech.

This system is portrayed perfectly in the words of Victor Papanek (1973):

“…persuading people to buy things they don`t need, with money they don`t have, in order to impress others who don`t care.”

Our tendency to consume chronically has its roots in the industrial revolution of the 18th & 19th century (Stearns, 1997) when advancements in mass production coinciding with a rising middle class sowed the seeds for modern day consumerism. Towards the end of the millennium, we have seen an exacerbation of this tendency when the computer-era opened new horizons of possibility, leading to a spike in the production of goods thanks to the increased automation, a phenomenon some refer to as the 4th industrial revolution (Bloem et al., 2014).

Historically there has always been some resistance to this process, like the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements but the current social scenario may be fertile soil for new ideas.

There are several proposed models for change, Experimentalism is one; the concept is elegantly explained in the book “Stuffocation” by James Wallman (2015). He begins by telling the tale of Ryan Nicodemus, an icon for the minimalist movement, who packed all of his possessions in boxes and over the course of 10 days unpacked only the absolutely necessary. Regardless of his high salary Nicodemus could not find satisfaction in a materialistic life but found renewed value in experiences and relationships through his minimalist transformation. Wallman does not take such a radical standpoint, in the book and further publications (Wallman, 2017) he argues with convincing data (Yang, 2017) a noticeable growth in the experience economy, and suggests it may be the symptom of a larger phenomenon:

overwhelmed by the anxiety of constantly owning more and newer things, society may be moving past the high-water mark of hyperconsumerism.

He illustrates several factors that contribute to the feeling of ‘Stuffocation’: a world with rising costs where space is a premium is making us realise the value of owning less; widespread concerns and knowledge of environmental issues make sustainability a preoccupation for more people; the upbringing of the younger generations in a relatively stable political and economic climate, makes them less concerned about immediate material needs and allows them to focus on holistic topics like their purpose and passions. However, his main point is that happiness, wellbeing and sustainability are more likely to come from a system based on the enjoyment of experiences rather than the consumption of goods.

Some grassroots cases of this mentality are already visible in today’s society. An example is the rise of the tiny house movement (Holt, 2014), a group of people who decided to live in very small homes that offer only the minimum necessities and comforts; the houses are often very cheap and DIY. This model slashes the cost of living of the users and allows them to work less, spending more of their time and finances on activities, adventures and building meaningful relationships.

A symptom of the need for change

Not everyone agrees with the radical ideas proposed by Wallman and the experimentalism movement, however, they are a symptom that times are changing and the pursuit of better and more sustainable ways of living is expanding from the environmentalist sphere into other fields like sociology and anthropology.

The book “Sustainable Every Day” (Manzini and Jégou, 2003) describes the transition to sustainable living as the need for billions of people to redefine their life projects in a short time, and their new direction to share a common goal towards a sustainable future. This process is comparable in nature and proportions to what we saw happening in Europe during the 18th and 19th century when the pre-industrial rural society transitioned to an industrial urbanised one: Masses of farmers redefined their way of life in a relatively short time. Their new life projects took many different forms but all had a common vector towards urbanisation and industrialisation. Based on this comparison we can conclude that the sum of the personal choices of many individuals are at the base of radical historical changes. Obviously, these choices are not completely unrestricted, they are based upon the context they are taken in.

In other words, people’s life choices are defined by what is thought to be possible in the collective imagination.

In this frame of reference, the role of designers becomes of paramount importance. Apart from making the transition towards sustainability possible by producing less impactful products in the short term, Designers have the task of imagining life scenarios and ideas of well being, that is, the possibilities with which people build their lives, prompting society’s shift to a more sustainable reality. In practical terms, this takes many different shapes and forms. In a talk at Brunel University Mat Hunter (2017) from CRL mentioned three of the most relevant examples:

  • Designing for behaviour change, trying to prevent or make the users aware of their environmentally harmful habits
  • Designing for access, meaning designing services where users can enjoy the benefits of a product without owning one, an example are the popular app-based car sharing systems.
  • Designing for an outcome, this means shedding the traditional definition of design as a physical product and rather design systems that achieve the desired result most efficiently. An example could be to design better routine-building tools for children like songs and games to tackle oral hygiene, rather than designing a new toothbrush.

Design is not the only practice that needs to get better at sustainability, Policy makers also need to introduce stricter controls and regulations internalising the cost to society of companies adopting unsustainable behaviours and practices. There also is a need to educate and inform consumers better, raising awareness of what is taxing to the environment and what are the sustainable alternatives.


Article by Francesco Verderosa

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