All-Consuming: An interview with Rob Walker
by Holly Taylor
Rob Walker examines consumer behavior in his weekly column, "CONSUMED," for The New York Times Magazine. While demurring at the label "design critic," Rob has appeared at two events this spring geared toward designers: the IDSA Northeast Conference, where he gave a talk entitled "The Desire Code," and at a panel on new voices in design criticism sponsored by RISD and I.D. Magazine. Core77's Holly Taylor sat down with Rob between these two events, at New York tapas restaurant ALTA, one of his regular haunts. Nice place.
C77: Can you describe the theme of your column?
RW: The column has been from the beginning a hybrid business-and-anthropology column. Everything I write about has already got some kind of traction with some group of consumers. I try to figure out what consumers are responding to in that product. And we define product broadly: it can be anything from dish soap to beer to a television show.
I'm not functioning as a critic in the sense of telling people what's aesthetically good, that something's good design. When the column deals with design it's about what kind of design is being accepted in the marketplace and why. I'm also not a critic in the Consumer Reports sense; I don't test things. I'm a believer in the idea that at the end of the day the consumer is making a decision as to whether the product succeeds or fails, and what I do is to come in afterwards and try to articulate what the consumer saw or didn't see that makes something succeed or fail. I want to find the surprising thing that will entertain and, on some level, inform.
"Of course, this is from me as an outsider, but the thing I hear from the design world is "we are artists who solve problems." But the problem with that is the discussion doesn't seem to start with asking, "What are the five biggest problems in the world?" It seems to start someplace else. And wherever it starts is what leads to 200 choices for toothbrushes."
C77:You don't try to push people in a certain direction, like "this is something that I found interesting, you should buy it too"?
RW: Definitely not, because most of the stuff is something that I haven't bought and probably wouldn't buy. (Although I have ended up buying things after writing about them.) I am essentially trying to push them in the direction of thinking about the world and being open to the idea of how much surprising meaning there is in consumer culturefor better or worse.
A good example of the kind of response I get to the column was after I wrote about the Nalgene bottle (11/21/04 column). Some people wrote in to say that spending so much money on a water bottle was absurd, while the response from the bottle's fans was "you really did a disservice to the greatness of the Nalgene bottle." I'm neutral. Ideally what I am trying to do is to make them think about it. If they did buy the bottle, to think about why they want to buy it.
C77: You said that design isn't a particular interest of yours, but is seems to come up in various forms in many of your columns.
RW: It's not that I'm not interested in design; I just don't want to position myself as an expert. The idea that I am a design critic makes me uncomfortable. Design is one of the major themes out there right now: consumers are aware of design or feel that they ought to be more engaged with design. And the related thing happening in the culture is that design is becoming a much more prestigious category.
What you've seen in the last 10 years is museums more open to the idea of productslike Harley Davidson or Armani at the Guggenheim. So these brands get sanctified by these higher institutions, but the reason that the higher institutions do it is so that more people will show up. A mass of people will come to the museum, because people are more engaged with products. There is something really interesting going on there. (James Twitchell has a lot of interesting things to say about all this in his book, Branded Nation.)
"Few people sit around and think, "What's the best way I can express who I am through dish soap?" No one has that conscious thought. But much of our decision making is based on unconscious thought. A lot of things we do we do for reasons other than what we are rationally thinking."
In your talk for IDSA you described "the desire code" that makes people want to buy things.
I think there is a code in each person that makes each person desire to own. I talked about the Lance Armstrong bracelet because it is such a clear example of desire, since it has no function. Even as a charity vehicle, if you want to donate to the Lance Armstrong foundation, and you have $1, why not give that whole dollar to the Foundation, rather than buy an object that funnels part of the money to the foundation? Why do so many people want it? You can only want that out of desire. What is it about that particular item that makes so many people desire it? What's the code?
C77: So the meaning is in the person, not the object?
RW: When I look at the Lance Armstrong bracelet, I start at the other end and ask, "What did the consumer respond to?" It could be the design, but it could be any number of other things. I don't know that that bracelet is going to be studied in design schools as a beautiful object. (I could be wrong about that.)
The product should speak for itself, but it's more interesting to me to discover what consumers are actually listening to. I truly think that the Lance Armstrong bracelet is a useless object, but for all the things that could become a craze, it's certainly more positive for society than the pet rocknot that I have anything against the pet rock.
Compare the Lance Armstrong bracelet to another current hit product, the iPod. The iPod and the bracelet are so different; you can see so many functional reasons for buying the iPod. For me, I thought it was expensive, but cool, and it took me three months to decide to buy one. I rationalized it by thinking about how much travel I do and how useful it is on the plane and in the gym. You can come up with all these reasons. There may be counterarguments for each and every one, but at least there are many arguments to make.
C77: There is a difference between making rational arguments for choosing a product and rationalizing something you wanted anyway.
RW: The Method dish soap is an example of something you could read either way. It's solving the problem in that whatever it's made of is supposedly better for your pipes, but it's also about "look at my nice bottle." Few people sit around and think, "What's the best way I can express who I am through dish soap?" No one has that conscious thought. But much of our decision making is based on unconscious thought. A lot of things we do we do for reasons other than what we are rationally thinking.
"What's interesting about someone like SBTG is that he's not going to the Nike iD site, he's physically hand painting shoes in editions of 25 or 40 and they are essentially treated as art objects. He's not sitting around doing project work for a company and speculating or wishing that someone would recognize what he's doing. He's doing stuff that is being treated as art objects. Not by MOMA, maybenot yet."
C77: What are the themes that come out in what consumers are responding to?
RW: I think that the most interesting phenomenon lately is the idea of customization.
I want to draw a line between the idea of customization and actual customization. They are two different things. I think that many businesses are catering to the idea of customization.
Like with the Nike iD website or Puma's Mongolian Barbequewhere you can choose colors and materials for a sneakerit's customization, but it's within parameters. You probably have enough choices there to come up with something that is extremely unlikely to be worn by someone else at a party. But there is a huge difference between making a pair of shoes, and working through these sets of options provided by a giant company to produce something you want, so long as it has their logo on it.
I think that that idea of customization is resonant with everyone. It's obvious that we all want two things in life: to stand out and be different and to fit in and be part of something. That's not my insight, but I think that it's true.
What's interesting about someone like SBTG (03-20-05 column) is that he's not going to the Nike iD site, he's physically hand painting shoes in editions of 25 or 40 and they are essentially treated as art objects. He's not sitting around doing project work for a company and speculating or wishing that someone would recognize what he's doing. He's doing stuff that is being treated as art objects. Not by MOMA, maybenot yet.
But even the customizers are working in the context of Nike and Adidas. To my knowledge, you couldn't find a customizer who would go and buy a pair of no-name shoes at Payless and customize those. To me that would be a very interesting step to have happen in that customizer world.
C77: You sent me an email link to a website where you are selling a mug you designed.
RW: Actually my girlfriend did the graphic design, and to say that I'm "selling" it is a little misleading insofar as I'm the only person who's bought one. But given what I write about, I thought it would be funny to have a product for sale. Its a mug with a Latin slogan (Latinitas Fidei Consociat). You see Latin slogans all the time and you dont even process them; people think, Well, its a Latin slogan so it must be something high-falutin. I don't actually say what the slogan means, because part of the point is that people make assumptions about Latin phrases without being able to read them. But the idea is: Latin and credibility go together. So conceptually the mug is very consistent with the things that I write, in that I am trying to get people to think about things that they might otherwise take for granted.
Anyway, Cafe Press is a perfect example of this tool that's out there now that really does let anybody, even me, with pretty minimal effort, sell a product and just put it out there. I don't have any knowledge of the fabrication process or materials involved in this mug, or in the T-shirts and lunchboxes and frisbees that I could also put this slogan on with a few clicks. So I can say I have my own mugwell, sort of I have my own mug. Who knows where it is produced and under what conditions? Not only am I alienated from the means of production, but that's kind of what I was looking for in using Cafe Press. Please, alienate me from the means of production! Who has time to be anything but alienated?
So it's that idea of customization again. I can have all my custom products, but really what they are is identical commodities that some company has provided, that I or my girlfriend or whoever else can affix something to and call it a unique, custom object.
C77: Can you identify the early adopters, or enthusiastic collectors, that marketers so covet?
RW: The misleading thing about that framework is that although there are early adopters in any given category, the way it gets simplified is that there is some class of people who are "the trendsetters." I don't think that's true, based on the hyperconsumers I talk to in given categories. The hyperconsumer of sneakers I talk to doesn't necessarily know anything about housewares. When I talk to someone knowledgeable about housewares, they don't know anything about cars. Considering there are so many consumer categories, you get to the point where everyone is a leader in something, so the idea of a trendsetter class becomes meaningless as a framework for generalizing. But many many people disagree with me on that.
C77: Would you say that the hyperconsumer is a growing phenomenon?
RW: If you look at the movie Sideways, the only redeeming quality about the hero is his expertise as a consumer of wine. It's interesting to see how that guy behaves and realize that people seem to relate to and enjoy that character even though his only positive characteristic is his skill as a consumer. Are there more people like that now? He's a hyperconsumer in a way, but wine is an unusual category. You couldn't do the movie about a sneaker collector and get the same highbrow response.
Do I think that more people are buying more things for more and varied reasons? And getting more out of it, or believing that they're getting more out of it? Yes, definitely. But this hyperconsumer thing is something I made up just nowit's probably bullshit.
C77: Maybe being a skilled consumer is a rational way to react to the overwhelming amount of choice we have that wasn't available in the past. The design field often questions its complicity in creating a consumption craze, when we should be trying to create a more sustainable culture.
RW: That's the thing I don't understand about design. What would a designer be doing otherwise? I feel that there is a very high expectation in the design world-are we creating art? are we creating meaning? You can say that about every profession, but the design community is perhaps in a moment where it is asking for a lot of recognition. It's a theme I seem to hear a lot. Designers want to be in museums. They want to be recognized.
Of course, this is from me as an outsider, but the thing I hear from the design world is "we are artists who solve problems." But the problem with that is the discussion doesn't seem to start with asking, "What are the five biggest problems in the world?" It seems to start someplace else. And wherever it starts is what leads to 200 choices for toothbrushes.
You could of course say 'Why criticize designers for not solving the world's problems? The media keeps giving more coverage to fashion and celebrities, why don't you do more to cover poverty?' That's fair, and the answer is that designers are functioning in a market-driven society, and so is the media. Coverage of poverty doesn't draw crowds like fashion and celebrities do, and in a market-driven society the media is trying to draw crowds, like everybody else. That's even true of the "grass-roots" media of blogs, the most popular ones aren't about poverty or social injustice, they're gossip or about technology or maybe sort of confrontational politics in the vein of talk radio. The market decides what's a hit or not, and the market may be right or it may be wrong. The position of "Consumed" is: Whatever people are buying, I'm interested in it.
The notoriously camera-shy Rob Walker examines consumer behavior in his weekly column, "CONSUMED," for the New York Times Magazine. He is also a contributing writer to Inc. Magazine. His book, Letters
from New Orleans, will be released in July by Garrett County Press. Currently, Rob is also working on a book that draws out the consumerism themes of his column.
Holly Taylor is a New York-based product designer and writer. She recently wrote for Core77 in Blogsquad. She can be reached at hollytaylor-at-baka.orgesign.