Designing for the End

Often times we value an object based on its durability. Of course aesthetics, utility and usability do play a big role, but even when all these are present, we value an object’s ability to endure contact with and usage by us. In that context I came across this post by Berg about Nike Mayfly shoes, that has planned its own obsolescence with elegance.

What follows is my own musings about the perishability of things, the design of perishable things, our own mortality and god knows what else. You would not miss much if you just read the post about the Mayfly shoes, but my gratitude would be alone without your company of course.

Perishability of Things

Not all things we touch and consume is durable. Much of what we consume for bodily sustenance is perishable.


Take any food packaging and you can find its ‘use by’ date firmly stated. Here the utility of this commodity degrades over a period of time.

There is little we can control here, apart from making the package better and control the climatic conditions that would maximize the lifetime of the commodity.

Compartmented Perishability

On the continuum between perishable and near eternal, the next notch would be those of things that can be reused by replacing the perishable component of a product. Think of any common pen or ball point pen. With the ink as a consumable resource, the thing to do after the ink is over is to refill the ink, or change the refill.

As an aside it is interesting to see how the verb re-fill has started playing the role of a noun.

What am thinking about here is how our design choices are influenced by the perishability of things, how we manage to compartmentalize the perishable stuff, maximize the reuse potential and perhaps reduce the cost of the products we create.

Designed Perishability

But what the Mayfly product by Nike emphasizes is a curious take on planned obsolescence, something that wears its supposed weakness(utility for a limited duration only) with pride.

Nike Mayfly

It inverts our subconscious preference for durability and makes one celebrate its arrival and departure in a methodical fashion. It is almost as if this thing was alive, a thing conscious and demanding to be treated accordingly. Perhaps to be named, entered into a relationship with and even mark milestones towards the inevitable end.

I can almost imagine the product designers conceiving this not as a product but a statement about their worldview. And in doing so make this a work of art and not merely a product to serve a mundane function. It takes a courageous organization to put its name on something so ephemeral, more than most consumer products.

Perishability in Digital Media?

So that brings this question in my mind, does digital media perish? Well, by definition digital media is forever since its just a bunch of bytes that don’t degrade with time. Here it is a question of findability, having access to the media in question and its utility to the individual that determines the value of it.

So stuff like movies, songs and all other forms of entertainment are arguably forever, as long as the three factors(findability, access and utility) are taken care of. If only the business models that surround them accounted for this factor and not created an artificial scarcity am guessing they would do much better than they do now.

Relevance to Software Products

Again, a software product does not perish so perishability is an alien concept here. But do note that evolving expectations from users make what was once useful to be less so over a period of time, and in that sense they are indeed degrade over time. Hence the drive on the part of software vendors to continually release newer versions that cater to these evolving expectations. And in doing so come out with abominations like Adobe Acrobat v.zillion and Microsoft Office v.zillion+1, which have drastically lower utility in an online world.

If only software vendors, and consumers, were willing to consider planned obsolescence more frequently, it would create more opportunities for newer possibilities to emerge frequently.

This leads me to wonder how we humans deal with our own perishability.

Immortality by Proxy

As a species that is aware of its own mortality we assign great value to things that outlast us, perhaps as a means to attain immortality by proxy. And that impulse to live forever, they say, powers our culture, relationships, art, literature and science. In contributing to these fields and engaging in these activities, we leave something of us behind for all time.

Take for example the poem Ozymandias:

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

Sculptures that outlast the men and hearts that crafted story out of inert stone.

We are not designed for eternity, at least not the corporeal part of us. Instead we seem to have been equipped with this unique gift to ruminate on this abstract concept of aesthetics while rummaging through the debris of life and fashion out of numberless moments something that we can be remembered by.

Looks like I have wandered off quite a bit here. Anyway, read the article on Nike Mayfly. Drop a comment if this has made you pause and think even if for a moment. And thanks if you have come this far!