Design talk with Steve Kelsey: Blaming the designers is just woolly thinking

Among my many peculiarities, and I have a long list, is a passion for collecting woolly hats. You know the sort of thing: cheerful homespun brightly coloured woollen headgear, perhaps equipped with tassels.

Why do I do it? I find there is such a lot of woolly headed nonsense spoken these days that a generous store of woolly hats is an essential part of my kit bag – along with an iPad, passports for quick getaways and hypertension products.

In this column, I would like to award a woolly hat for spreading nonsense above and beyond the call of duty to the man who castigated me for my approach to the consumer at easyFairs’ Big Packaging Debate at the NEC last month.

For those who missed it, the accusation was that designers set out to dupe the consumer into buying more than they need by the advanced use of colour and other trickery. If only we would stop, the argument goes, the consumer would retain a more rational approach to shopping.

Normally, I’d refrain from identifying the individual concerned. Not here. It was Des King. As he was caught on film at a public event I think I can relax the normal rules. Besides, he also writes for Packaging News – you’ll find him in the posh column slot just beneath the editor.

Too much?

The argument goes like this. We all consume far more than we need to on a weekly basis and if we were not presented with as much choice, as attractively displayed as it is today, we would buy more rationally. Nonsense.

Firstly, how much is too much? It is indisputable that if you buy more than you can afford then you are only harming yourself. But beyond that, what is the limit, and who sets it if consumers are too weak-willed to control themselves?

Please do not suggest the government. The core of this argument is that we are consuming too much and it’s the fault of marketing.

The other woolly notion associated with this is that consumption is responsible for many of our ills, including obesity and climate change. Yet the fact that we consume a lot is a sign of wealth, something that is the aspiration of billions.

The problem lies with the materials and processes that we consume – including some of the food – and there is no doubt that here there is need for serious work.

But this does not make consumption itself bad. Far from it. Consumption is the motor that drives economic growth. No consumption equals no wealth.

There is nothing inconsistent with this and the need to communicate how much better the new product is over the old one, or the competitors sitting beside it. We are fortunate to live in a rich, advanced part of the world, still very much the inspirational model for many far less fortunate than ourselves.

A large part of that model is designing things for people to consume.

Steve Kelsey is strategic innovations director at PI Global. Send comments for Steve to packagingnews.editorial@