This guest post is by industrial designer Forrest Radford, who attended a Restart Party while a student at Central Saint Martins five years ago, and is now launching a repair-related Kickstarter campaign.
In the summer of 2013, The Restart Project gave a lecture and workshop for the BA Product Design course that was entering into their final year. I was one of a handful of students that joined in the workshop. I was sat with volunteer David Mery who opened up my MacBook pro as I nervously watched. Those nerves disappeared quickly as I realised opening and fixing a product isn’t scary, in fact it’s often easy (given the right tools and spare parts).
I had been conditioned to believe opening up my own electronics was a bad thing: breach of warranty, no instructions, etc. This is a feeling I’m sure most people have experienced at least once.
In less than an hour David had shown me the dusty guts of my Mac, we cleaned it out and put it back together; it booted like new. How was it that removing a couple of screws and using a can of compressed air could produce such amazing results, and why wasn’t everyone doing it?
For the rest of the workshop I watched as David gave products new leases of life; and in one case brought a MacBook back from beyond the grave (again with nothing more than compressed air).
Learning about obsolescence
This experience got me wondering how much control we have over the life of our own products. If it wasn’t for this workshop would I have resigned myself to just allowing my Mac to die?
Corporations, it seems, are using everything in their power to make repair impractical and in some cases impossible. Because it is so expensive and inconvenient to repair broken electronics many people simply replace their devices. It is okay for things to stop working, nothing lasts forever, but breaking by design or because repair is not possible is wrong.
Because of my interaction with the Restart Project I decided to research and write my design dissertation on “planned obsolescence”; a concept which I believe has influenced modern society since the 1920s, cultivating a throw-away culture where purchasing new is more convenient and cheaper than repairing. You can read my paper here.
There are three major types of obsolescence:
- obsolescence of function, whereby a product is superseded by a better functioning model
- obsolescence of quality, where a product is engineered to break after a short period of time
- obsolescence of desirability, whereby a product continues to work perfectly well but in our minds it has become worn because of external factors such as fashion
The first is necessary for progress, but the other two are manipulative and dishonest.
Our intent, and arguably responsibility, to preserve the old and worn thing is continually challenged by the desire for the new beautiful thing. It can often take time for an old product to become desirable again; at which point the owner may be willing to take time to repair it. But unfortunately the vast majority of products won’t reach this stage.
The pace at which we consume, the manner in which we dispose of the objects we consume and at the rate in which we do is concerning. There are a few companies who are fighting for the “Nobility of Repair”. My favourite company doing this is iFixit who gets around legal and supply loopholes by creating their own repair manuals and spare parts.
They work hard to empower users to repair their property for a fraction of the price and far quicker than high-priced manufacturer-approved repair centres. Only recently did I replace my partner’s iPhone 6 battery and screen for a fraction of the cost and time it would take at any location on the high street.
My own journey
Two years ago I had the opportunity to work on something that would allow me to help empower people to repair. Materials expert Chris Lefteri and I have been working together to produce a product and brand we believe can integrate into everyday home life to give you the power to make, mould and mend products.
We call the product FixIts and it’s currently live on Kickstarter. The product is compostable (to EN-14995), non-toxic and endlessly reusable. If you want to help us in any way please do share this project on your social media channels, or if you’re feeling really generous you can pledge to our Kickstarter.