Attitudes Towards Conformity as a Result of Mass Production

In IDSE102 Design, Society and the Public Sector, our class is exploring the roles and responsibilities of designers as they contribute to the world around them. We have looked at readings by five authors of American or European descent, writing between the 1920’s to present day. They are Edward Bernays, Richard Buchanan, Allan Chochinov, Maurizio Vitta and Victor Papanek.

The five authors are all connected through an overarching theme of mass production in society, albeit with different focuses. Mass production leads to a level of societal conformity, whether it is to ideas, objects or systems. Some see this as positive – safeguarding society or contributing to its progress. Other authors focus on the negative consequences, whether to society or the individual. I have created an associated diagram, plotting out my interpretation of the authors views on mass production and consumption on a spectrum from negative to positive.

Bernays sees the mass production of ideas, communicated through public relations, as a vital and important tool for the betterment of society. One could argue he see’s the PR professional as a ‘designer’ of ideas, calling her a “manipulator”. In turn “teaching the public how to ask for what it wants the manipulator is safeguarding the public against his own possible aggressiveness.” Consumption of ideas are often linked to increased consumption of objects, with Bernays promoting the positive benefits to the American economy.

Buchanan focuses on the mass consumption of knowledge, elevating design to the same intellectual plane of other historical liberal arts of study, such as art and literature. He says designers “are exploring concrete integrations of knowledge that will combine theory with practice for new productive purposes.” By calling design a liberal art, it becomes knowledge that is shared in “some degree by all men and women in their daily lives.” Therefore societal conformity becomes important, and inherently positive, because it leads to a great shared knowledge.

Chochinov can be described as conflicted, seeing mass consumption of consumer goods as negative. The designer is explicitly linked to the goods he creates, and therefore responsible for the ill effects mass production causes on the environment and the creation of a ‘throw-away’ culture which re-uses little. He sees the conformity of designers in a capitalist system as dangerous, and is therefore against their mindless participation. He tempers this, though, by laying out a “manifesto of sustainability design”, where the designers can positively improve the mass consumption of objects.

Vitta focuses on the negative personal effects of consumer conformity. He sees consumers as purchasing goods only for their symbolic value. The result is “loss of identity of the individual, yet is constrained to use these goods not for their functionality but as images of himself to be projected.” Not only is there a loss of personal identity, but it results in shallow society stuck in self perpetuating cycle of consumption.

Papanek sees designers as dangerous, and their conformity to the mass production of education and commercial industries as harmful. Writing in the 1960’s, but with criticism relevant to western culture in 2013, he lambasts an educational system that robs the individual of their “creative imagination” by age six. It creates a system of “massive blocks” which inhibit designers from solving real problems, and instead focuses on “sex[ing]-up” objects with little regard to function or content. He sees a world where conformity to these negative ideals as leading to a loss of ‘new’ design because “newness implies experiment, and experiment implies failure.”