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Posted: 7 May 2021
By Alastair Lee

It’s time to reflect on the products we design and use

The pandemic and climate change are shaking up our economies and challenging our priorities. Now is the time for designers to provide a genuine alternative to plastic consumerism.

The refillable bottle is bold in its simplicity. Might this aesthetic tap into a change in consumer priorities?

The idea for this post came to me in the shower. 

As a family we are becoming ever more conscious of our impact on the planet. I’ve worked on a couple of sustainability-focused digital services recently, and my wife Katharine has just finished a PHD on youth representations of climate change.

A while back we switched to Method cleaning products. Mainly because they are plant based, and frankly the packaging is nice. But this morning there was a new glass bottle in our shower. It’s from a new local company called Restore that provides refills for household products, thus cutting out the majority of plastic waste.

As I contemplated the bottle, I was reminded of Don Norman’s book on Emotional Design. In it, he talks about three levels to consider when designing products:

  • The visceral – the immediate sensory impact of the product; the way it looks, or sounds, or feels to the touch. Like the shape of a Porsche, or the shininess of your new iPhone. 
  • The behavioural – how the product works, and the experience of using it. The usability of the car’s gearbox, the fuel economy, the way the boot opens, the portrait mode on your iPhone’s camera.
  • The reflective – how choosing the product makes you feel. The status that owning a Porsche gives. What it says about you. The satisfaction of having the best phone camera on the market. This is what brand designers think about.

Let’s apply those levels to this new bottle in our shower.

On a visceral level, it’s pleasing. But in a novel way; it’s not colourful, or flashy. The brown glass and simple label appear honest and authentic, nostalgic even. There is a pleasing absence of ‘marketing’.

Behaviourally, it works very much like a plastic bottle. The mechanism for getting stuff out of it is the same. The shampoo itself seems to work the same. (But, as it’s glass, I did find myself worried about dropping it with soapy fingers in the shower. That could crack the porcelain and leave me with a soapy, wet bathroom peppered with shards of glass. This might put some people off.)

It’s on the reflective level where this product excels. I feel virtuous and smart by choosing this product. I am leading the way. Plastic is so last century. I’ll tell my friends and may even write a blog post about it…

I wonder if, as we ease back into a less constrained world, there is new opportunity for products that work on this reflective level. Products that chime with a new post-covid morality, in which we prioritise the planet and other people, over sleek design and optimum performance.

Perhaps the slogan ‘Because I’m worth it’ is gradually being replaced by ‘Because the planet is worth it’ or ‘because my kids are worth it’ in the minds of forward-thinking consumers. 

If that’s the case, then designers of products, both digital and physical, have a once-in-a-generation opportunity  to design genuine alternatives to our wasteful status quo. Products and services that appeal, that work, and that we can be proud of.

Bring it on I say. Let’s design better.



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