The Rise of Capitalist Consumer-Topia

The Development of the Machine Age in the 1920s fed a consumerism trend that permeated America’s culture, sparking the Industrial Revolution’s rapid growth and obsession with speed and efficiency. Donna Goodman’s A History of the Future: “The Machine Age in America” details the history of design and manufacturing that has led to a Capitalist Consumer-topia in our society. The new heights of mass production has left some wondering if industrial design is an industry that we should seriously fear. With groundbreaking innovations, such as Henry Ford’s assembly line igniting the beast that is now the current rise of planned obsolete design, designers must shift their thinking from a consumerist mindset to a focus on social innovation and open sourcing knowledge.

In his book “Design for the Real World”, Victor Papenek prefaces saying, “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them.” He continues by saying, “And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second.” This is Papenek’s commentary on what has become of capitalist consumerism that drives current product design. Papenek believes we must design within a social context, and that design should make a conscious effort to create meaningful order.

The rise of capitalism is moving consumers to be drawn into design and redesign of areas previously free from commodification. In a society where money is the self-constituting value of all things, the drive to manufacture and mass-produce anything and everything increased exponentially during the Industrial Revolution. This formed heightened competition and the need to add value to more products. Planned obsolescence, such as the current obsession to constantly need to update your apple phones and computers, plus having to often fix their expensive components, and Consumer Engineering, the enthusiastic encouragement of wasteful consumption, are forms of hyper-commodification that at the core, will continue to redesign to be ahead of the next trend.

“In Design and Consume to Utopia: Where Industrial Design Went Wrong”, Tara Andrews addresses Consumer Engineering, describing it as a strategy to increase consumption for depression recovery, as a sort of economic backdrop to the rise of the industrial designer. The goal is to have any plan to stimulate the consumption of goods. The principal works in theory when the economy is in need of economic stimulus, but industrial design has been so heavily implicated in the current crisis of ‘ over-consumption that Andrews puts it as, “the moment industrial design came into being is when ‘ the artist entered the factory ’.”

Some say the machine age has ruined humanities ability to create. William Morris was a huge proponent of human craft, and was one of the leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a rebellion against the machine. Ivan Illich, an Australian philosopher, talks about the role of machine versus human in chapter 2 of his book, Tools For Creativity. Illich says that the machine was designed to replace slaves, but in fact, machines enslave men. Instead of using the technology to make the most of the energy and imagination we have as individuals, all that energy goes into developing the next well-programmed machine. What the assembly line and automation of production have replaced is the intrinsic social relationship people have with tools. Illich claims that people have become so focused on the race to output products that industrial tools and processes have denied humans the possibility of enriching their own environments with his/her own vision.

Several key events and innovations occurred in the early 1900s that has lead to the way we produce and manufacture products today. Goodman articulates several key innovations and designers that had an influential part in shaping the rise of industrial design as a profession.

The development of electricity was a major catalyst of the Industrial Revolution. The system of electricity (light bulb, power supply, socket, switches, wires, fuses, etc.), invented by Thomas Edison, was first created in 1879, and provided the power to illuminate cities at night and power new subway systems. However, the invention of electricity was not fully utilized and implemented until the U.S. government brought electricity to homes of the average consumer in the mid 1900s. In 1910, only 10 percent of homes had electricity; 90 percent of the nation’s households had electricity by 1940.

Electrification led to the invention of many new products, such as refrigerators, washing machines, manufacturing systems, etc. By the 1920s, the beginnings of mass production, mass advertising and mass communications had begun, and in turn the rise of industrial design as a profession. And no other product symbolizes the momentum of design as a profession more than Henry Ford’s Model T.


Henry Ford’s Model T.

Henry Ford designed the Model T automobile on the premise that everyone should be able to buy, own and drive their own car. After witnessing an assembly line at a meat-packing factory, he applied the same principals and system to building his automobiles. The assembly line reduced the amount of time to put a car together from 12.5 hours to 1.5 hours, significantly lowering the price. The division of labor increased efficiency beyond even Ford expected. In 1914, Ford raised the wages of his workers from $2.34 to $5 per day, which allowed his workers the earn enough to buy a car of their own, and in turn stimulate the economy.

The rise of Fordism and the efficiency of the assembly line.

Ford’s iconic assembly line system was challenged by General Motors in the 1920s. Henry Earl, GM’s industrial designer, designed several different automobiles for several different types of consumers, in several different colors. Earl was also able to design the cars so that they were all made of the same parts, keeping cost and labor low. This competitive design forced other manufactures to diversify their lines and generate products for a variety of different consumers, not realizing that this competition to iterate was the start of an endless cycle to feed over-consumptive habits to the public.

In the 1920s and 1930s, American industrial designers transformed the boxy silhouettes of early vehicles into sleek, streamlined forms, using dynamic curves to imply speed and movement. This style later on was also applied to other products, such as clocks and radios. This became the time of sleek, seductive, glamorous products that expressed America’s obsession with speed and efficiency, the desire to produce more and more at a faster rate. Streamlined design captured the public’s interest as a symbol of an era of progress.

In the late twenties, designers became more aware of the need to promote aesthetes into products. Raymond Loewy looked to establish design as an added value to products. On his business card he would give to clients, it said, “Between two products equal in price, function and quality, the better looking will outsell the other.” Henry Dreyfuss was the first major industrial designer to develop the concept of ergonomics and human scale in design. This was used to full effect in his design of the telephone of the future, where he measured thousands of hands and ears to design the most universally ergonomic telephone.

Public sentiment was focused on the future. The rise of the streamlined era of buildings, cars, trains, etc. all represented the enormous pride of inventing something new, the goal of surpassing all other buildings and inventions. Designers envisioned a city of taller skyscrapers and faster modes of transportation as an environment of the future. Architects became obsessed with designing the most sleek, tall skyscrapers, casting dark shadows over the city and setting an ominous tone for how the future of design and utopia was perceived.

In a lecture on design integrity, Frank Lloyd Wright, deeply committed to the authenticity of architecture, stated, “We see an airplane, clean and light-weighted, the lines expressing power and purpose… Why are not buildings, too, indicative of their social purpose?” Wright believed that architecture and design should relate to its region and culture, to coexist with the nature around it, raising the integrity of both the building and its surroundings.

In 1937, Wright designed “Fallingwater”, a building that expressed the essence of his organic philosophy, integrating nature with machine-age concepts. “The design unified the house with nature through a dynamic composition of dynamic forms.. It demonstrated how a modern building could relate closely to its site and environment and showed an organic concept could be as modern and machine-like as a white box. (Donna Goodman, pg. 108)” Goodman uses Frank Lloyd Wright as an example of designers who grew cynical and tired of the machinist ideals and approach to architecture. Wright called for designers to take more consideration for what is around them, to design with nature, and not to destroy it.



Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

“It is about time that industrial design, as we have come to know it, should cease to exist.” Papenek continues to state in his book, “Design for the Real World”. “As long as design concerns itself with confecting trivial ‘toys for adults’, killing machines with gleaming tail fins, and ‘sexed-up’ shrouds for typewriters, toasters, telephones, and computers, it has lost all reason to exist. Design must become an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the true needs of men. It must be more research oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.”

Papenek discusses how as a culture we design to make profit, and the fact that we delay the release of designs by a year and a half to go through a patent application is absurd. As designers, we should feel that it is wrong to take money from the needs of others, but unfortunately in our capitalistic society, design is driven by monetary purpose. Papenek states that design can and must become and move towards a way in which young people can participate in changing society. Papenek says designers can’t continue to design with a proprietary mindset like it has been done in the past; he says designers must work together to design for a sustainable, considered future.

In the 21st century, an even playing field has been set, with the Internet providing a leveling effect for the mass public. With information so attainable, we must find a better way to take advantage of sharing knowledge. The problem with the privatization of knowledge, particularity green technology, is that this is an incredibly inefficient way for change. If our society wants to progress, we must must move towards more of a knowledge commons economy. Tesla is an example of a company that has looked to share the wealth. In the spirit of the open source movement, Elon Musk, CEO of Telsa Motors, has publically shared his patents on Tesla’s electric cars, accelerating the advent of electric transport. Patents often are an impediment to innovation of positive change, and Musk, although is still creating product in a consumerist world, is at least setting an important example of open sourcing knowledge.

Apple on the other hand is a company that prides itself on secretiveness. The company keeps all its new updates and products under wraps and has big launch days to release the new, “highly anticipated” new product. They also have been criticized for designing products that have planned obsolescence built into them. An old MacBook laptop charger isn’t compatible with the new MacBooks, so you have to end up buying an adapter or a completely new, $80 charger. The first IPad didn’t have a camera built into it, and IPhones are constantly being redesigned and promoted as the next best thing. All these “innovations” are driven by the continuous desire to increase sales and profit margins.



Apple products have become a ubiquitous necessity with today’s consumer’s lifestyle.

“Our profit-oriented and consumer-oriented Western society has become so over specialized that few people experience the pleasures and benefits of full life, and many never participate in even the most modest forms of creative activity which might help to keep their sensory and intellectual faculties alive. (Papenek, pg. 6)”

Industrial design as an industry, as a profession, and as a practice from designer to designer, must shift its focus if there is to be change in how we as a society view and feed a Capitalist consumer-topia. Designing is a generalized human capacity, but we must find new roles in the world that look to feed and support social innovation and collaboration, to help the needs of others. To continue to design to be obsolete, to design to be consumed, is not how we progress as a society.


Works Cited>

Goodman, Donna. A History of the Future, Chapter 3: The Machine Age in America. New York: Monacelli, 2008. Print.

Papenek, Victor. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon Books. 1972. Print.

Andrews, Tara. In Design and Consume to Utopia: Where Industrial Design Went Wrong. Volume 7, Issue 2 (pg 71-86).New York: TEAM D/E/S. 2009.

Illich, Ivan. Tools For Conviviality (ch. 2). New York: Harper & Row. 1973. Print.


One thought on “The Rise of Capitalist Consumer-Topia

  1. It seems like there are two arguments – one that designers can cast off their 20th century consumption-centered design methodologies and use their skills to improve a variety of industries, and the other is that if designers are to continue producing items for consumption, those items should last a very long time.

    Designing is a generalized human capacity, but we must find new roles in the world that look to feed and support social innovation and collaboration, to help the needs of others.

    I’d like to see more about the other industries to which designers can contribute. One tactic could be to break down the activities and skills of the industrial design profession, and provide examples of how each of those skills can help other industries.

    Another method could be to go through the text summaries and provide contemporary examples of how designers are creating new roles and responsibilities, one after the other, to prove your argument. Most of your post is an effective summary, and clearly infusing your thesis into the bulk of the paper will really make your point clear.

    Another way to improve the article is to add more contemporary examples of how 21st century designers can avoid their predecessors’ mistakes. There are designers out in the world making things that are designed to last lifetimes. I’m thinking Tom Cridland’s 30 Year Sweatshirt and Che-Wei Wang and Taylor Levy’s Pens might be places to start.

    I totally agree that we should design objects to last longer, and we also need to find ways to make that profitable. Maybe the Elon Musk story would better exemplify a new argument, that designers and business strategists need to take a step back, and find ways to manipulate existing economic paradigms in order to run sustainable businesses efficiently.

    Overall, a very effective analysis of the reading. Contributing your own voice though analysis of the writers’ bias, examples to prove or disprove their claims, or the development of a new thesis to parallel the articles could add value to your post.


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