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Future Consumption & Humanity Centred Design in 2021

22 February 2021

Prompts help you find carbon-efficient happiness ©Elastic Arctic
How do we maintain personal choice and our value system when mass behavioural change is what’s needed to combat climate change? How do we progress together in an age of algorithmic echo chamber media consumption? Could branding and advertising agencies be agents of positive societal change?

This generation of new designers is tasked with challenging the consequences of our collective consumption. Yet, we’re still working within the confines of a political system, and creative industry, that celebrates, as much as it detracts from, consumer power and over-consumption. Empathy is the current byword in the commercial creative process. Human-centred design is shifting towards humanity-centred, a process perhaps, that doesn't just consider the 'user' or 'consumer' but the entire ecosystem that the innovation, or product inhabits.

The elastic nature of human perception
© Elastic Arctic

Lu Ye and Yuning Chan, both currently studying MA Innovation Design Engineering at Royal College of Art in London are adamant that behavioural change is needed, and that the way we view basic products must be challenged. Their project, Elastic Arctic, was showcased at Dutch Design Week (DDW) this year. In the culmination of a three-week design sprint, the project saw the design team review their relationship to eliciting a more emotional response from consumers to tackle carbon footprint.

Packaging with footprint index and a prompt
© Elastic Arctic

Yuning Chan explains, ‘We designed a product interface and a label system where we translated carbon footprint into a more intuitive and emotional representation, which turned into the Elastic Arctic project. According to our research, the volume of ice – 1kg of carbon footprint is equal to 16.5 litres of ice melting on Earth, which is kind of crazy! On the label, we put some information about carbon footprint and translated products into different ice melt sizes. We are asking consumers to consider more moments where they would be satisfied with a lower carbon footprint choice in their product decision making. With this tiny interaction design, we wanted to help people adapt to a lifestyle within a cap (ed. capping carbon footprint) without sacrificing utility.'

'We noticed that there is always a sense of sacrifice and a lack of transparency. There are emotional barriers that stop people from forming sustainable habits', says Yuning, 'So we wanted to approach the project from an emotional-centric perspective. We created an informal and playful shopping experience, we call it 'carbon efficient happiness', that empowers customers to make an informed decision.'

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Jaihoun Habibi and Sigrid Wilking are 4th-year students currently studying Advertising at Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam. The duo also worked together, as interns, at the global creative production agency MediaMonks in Amsterdam. Their project at DDW, The Future is Private, was a take on the surveillance–economy, a powerful manipulative weapon in our political and economic lives.

Data is being played back with an emotional connection that shapes our spending habits. If we think about the algorithms that now shape and dictate our day-to-day lives, from news to music, cookery recommendations to holiday destinations we can see an increasing interest from those that wish to trap us in an echo chamber of commercial cohesion.

‘Personalisation is happening more and more often’ says Jaihoun, ‘During our internship we’ve come up with a lot of concepts that had personalisation as an aspect to the project. In the field of advertising, I can see a lot of ideas being proposed to brands that have to do with empathy and bringing people together, there is a movement out there, even in the hard-core advertising world industry.' Advertising has used psychoanalytic theories since the days of Edward Bernays, perhaps the lean into empathy is an extension of this?

The Future is private
© The Future is private

Sigrid sees potential for positive impact, 'It's always very traditionally approached in that you use empathy because you want to sell a pair of jeans or a packet of cigarettes. But, creating empathy can be used for many other causes which are better and good, and create common public understanding.'
Jaihoun agrees, ‘I had an insight a few months ago. Advertising used to be, or still is in many ways, to be the hands of capitalism. You can argue whether that’s a good thing or not. But, it also can answer on behalf of movements, Black Lives Matter, or the global Co2 crisis. I think advertising can play a role here. Facebook removing or blocking something has way more impact than any politician ever could hope for. In the current political climate, I think advertising and [the media] can do a lot more to help greater understanding.'

Could advertising be the future of guarding moral values? Sigrid: ‘We’ve been struggling because it’s really hard to find a connection to the old advertising agencies that are currently out there. Jaihoun and I, and more people from our studies, are looking to create something by ourselves, to see if we can change something.'

What of the segmentation and target markets usually associated with marketing and branding? Advertising has always had the badge of 'freedom of choice' stamped on it in terms of ethical stance. Of course, the concept of freedom is a philosophical as well as a theoretical approach. However, the notion of 'freedom' in advertising terms, as consumer choice, is being pulled in many directions. Our new generation of designers is championing the need to limit behavioural choice making decisions in terms of societal and environmental damage whilst promoting the need to promote the channels beyond those that rely on algorithms, to create a space for debate and innovation into the next decade, and beyond.

All will be graduating in 2021. Lu Ye and Yuning Chan continuing their work tackling behavioural change and consumption, Jaihoun, looking at corrupt authorities and Sigrid, researching towards looking at memories and how they are reconstructed and help form our identity. There is a narrative here that all share: How can we harness our collective conscious and individual subconscious for positive change?

Perhaps in 2021, algorithms should come with a health warning – ‘may damage your subconscious being', as, alongside our carbon footprint, we have our collective spirit to attend to. Advertising and branding alongside innovation engineering are a potent blend to help shape our future.