Content type: Text excerpts from Design for Repair: Things Can be Fixed
Credits: Derrick Mead (author) published by The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
Year: 2015

‘With all of these limitations—structural, societal, and personal—it takes effort and willpower to make things more repairable.’
Derrick Mead

Derrick Mead is a brand, design and communications strategist with a fascination for how we use and fix things. His book, Design for Repair: Things Can be Fixed, explores the historical and current state of repair whilst specifically addressing the structural, societal and personal forces that shape product designers’ attitudes towards the practice of repair.

Republished below are two chapters from the book, What Gets Fixed Today? and Why Not Fix More?. Read together, these two excerpts offer insights into how, when and why we choose to fix or discard products and who and what influences these decisions.

Design for Repair: Things Can be Fixed by Derrick Mead. Published by the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, 2015

Excerpt 1: What Gets Fixed Today?

‘There are four ways to deal with system damage: 1) reliability, 2) redundancy, 3) repair, and 4) replacement. Some designs are less prone to damage; with redundant parts all must fail for a system to fail; sometimes damage can be undone; and the faster a system is replaced the less robust it needs to be. Both artificial and natural systems use all four approaches.’
Robin Hanson, Adapt or Start Over, Overcoming Bias, September 21, 2011

Think of what the last thing you had fixed was. If youʼre a professional living in New York City, it was probably a pair of shoes. What is it about something like our shoes that moves us to repair them, when we jettison vacuum cleaners and microwaves with similar price tags when they break? The short answer is that if youʼre wearing leather shoes, theyʼre likely still made in much the same way they have been for hundreds of years, and they simply can be fixed; the same is not true of the piece of GE or Panasonic technology that hangs over your stove. That, and the fact that your shoes (hopefully) wore in on their way to wearing out. Like some of our clothing—again, in large part, those articles that are made in some approximation of a traditional way, if not so often still actually by hand—good-quality shoes get better as they age. We become invested in articles with this quality, and this investment has a tendency to become sentiment. These are the things we become attached to. We wish to see their existence continue for emotional reasons, so we go to greater lengths to get them repaired when they break down. A pair of nylon and plastic foam running shoes? When theyʼre worn out, theyʼre worn out. Like your toothbrush, Nikes are not designed to be repaired.

Nikes are not designed to be repaired

If youʼre a professional living outside New York City, the last thing you had repaired was likely your car. Here a subtle distinction needs to be made, however: most likely what happened at the garage was maintenance, unless the car in question was a decade or older. The difference between repair and maintenance is an important one, for the purposes of this investigation, but leaving aside the distinction for a moment, consider why your car is something you "fixed" at all. It was expensive to purchase, for one thing, and it gets you where you need to go, be it to work or to play, or shopping to procure necessities for the pursuit of either. A car is essentially a piece of capital equipment, to borrow the business term, an investment of cash in something durable that returns on the investment. Capital investments tend to be costly, and theyʼre often mechanically quite complicated, from cars to computer servers, with a huge gamut of other things in between.

These are the kind of indicators that point to something that is likely to be repaired when it breaks down, and repair professionals today mostly specialise in fixing sentimental items for individuals, or capital goods for businesses and individuals. This is true of restorers and conservators of art and architecture, heating and cooling technicians, welders, and mechanics. Whether or not the objects of these professionalsʼ work were designed specifically so as to be repaired (or even maintained) is another question, with roots extending back to the Industrial Revolution.

Beyond knowing and understanding the user, just as a designer must, other knowledge is required to be a truly effective fixer: the material composition of potentially unrelated substances which could patch or strengthen, the specifics of situational application, with all the idiosyncratic psychology and habit implied but unspecified, how integrated or overlapping systems work together to compensate for real-world stresses and misuse. These demands, while similar to those faced by an industrial designer at work, present themselves in a different way, because the object being repaired actually exists, and has a history and particularities of its own. Then consider the synthesis of all these things, on the repairerʼs part, and allow for the patience and time to deploy the intellectual experience and manual skill required to achieve a positive result, within a tighter time-frame and budget than the designer is accustomed to. Douglas Harper writes in Working Knowledge, his ethnography of a small repair and welding shop, ‘The crucial inputs are time and will, to say nothing of discretion and discernment. This kind of behaviour doesn't pay.’ The repairperson capable of technically complex work, as Harper suggests, is able to put himself in the mind of the original engineer or designer as well as the mind and situation of the specific objectʼs user: ‘Repair is only an extension of making, and routinely includes modification or transformations of the technology.’ This is a statement whose broad truth has undergone real change even in the short time since Harper wrote his book, in the 1980s.

The object being repaired actually exists, and has a history and particularities of its own

The designer/engineer must not only understand the possible conditions and mental states that will lead to damage and neglect, but have the practical experience to be able to (at least try to) resolve/obviate them at the planning stage, often with a product still on a drawing board, or being prototyped half a world away. In very special cases, the designer may even attempt to understand the psychology of the person who might come to fix the object in question, above and beyond just the user, which is where most designs for consumer goods stop. What about maintenance, though? All of this assumes a repairer invested in returning a car (or a combine) to service by any means necessary, which can include structural changes or modifications of the piece of work in question: changing the timing belt on your car is not the kind of repair-work of most interest to this investigation. Harper quotes Hugh Lickiter, a retired blacksmith from St. Lawrence County in Upstate New York who was 76 in 1985: ‘We donʼt do anything right down to the scratch and we donʼt have real mechanics anymore, we have parts men. They take off one part and put another on.’ "Parts men" are maintainers, not qualified or skilled enough to do the kind of repair that is of the most vital concern to this investigation. According to any number of the dozens of repair professionals I spoke with, cars, appliances, and, increasingly, high-tech items like cell phones and laptops are not designed to be repaired; theyʼre designed to be maintained, which involves swapping factory-made parts or whole assemblies according to a factory-produced diagnostic report.

Professional mechanics and repairpeople are considered blue-collar workers, but I propose their attitudes toward the objects they work on have more in common with the relationship of doctors to their patients than that of designers to their work—both doctors and mechanics deal in nominally similar but very complex individual systems, received with largely undocumented histories of use and abuse, and typically only get to see their charges when trouble is afoot. An elderly master watch repairman in Manhattan, who asked not to be named, told me he had the capacity in his shop to fabricate whole, new watches, but that ‘wasn't his business,’ and, furthermore, if he could communicate directly with the people who designed the watches, he wouldn't be interested in telling them what he knows about where and how they tend to break: it could cut into his future revenues, which have been in steady decline since the 1970s. This point of view was shared by a number of other tradespeople, from appliance repair technicians to auto mechanics.

Excerpt 2: Why Not Fix More?

    ‘Ending is better than mending.’
    Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 1932

‘[T]he economics are the main barrier, but also habits—thereʼs a lot of difference between the ability to repair and the actual repair, at the end of the cycle, what actually happens when people come to the point where something stops working, what do they do? Do they throw it away, or do they think, 'oh, well, I'll take it to get it fixed'. The temptation to just be upgrading, 'oh, I wouldn't mind a new one', or thinking itʼs too complicated, getting somebody to fix it, or itʼs too expensive. All of those things are major barriers, so you have to have a pretty strong idealism about thinking repair is the right thing to do, in the same way that people have an idealism about drinking water from the faucet rather than from a plastic bottle.’
– Bill Moggridge, 10 January 2012

    Factors limiting the repairability of products are universal: economic, technical, and psychological, both socially and personally speaking. When a two-year-old toaster with a single broken spring ends up waiting by the curb for a trip to a landfill, often all three of these factors are working in combination. These factors can be contextualised by the object for both the maker of the toaster, with the designer standing in for its creator, and its owner/user: both have money invested in the product and want to get something back in return. The psychological and financial investment by both parties may be relatively small: one toaster doesn't mean much to Cuisinart, for example, and your toaster doesn't mean all that much to you. But consider the examples from the last section: the more money you paid for the toaster, the more invested you are likely to be in it, and the more likely you are to be concerned when it breaks. The repairperson has an interest, as well, but they are unable to intervene at the design stage, and—perhaps understandably—would be reluctant even if they could.

    The more money you paid for the toaster, the more invested you are likely to be in it, and the more likely you are to be concerned when it breaks

    Toasters are simple machines, as home appliances go, and the most expensive models available, Dualits and Brevilles, do not differ greatly in their technical design from the least expensive. It is the materials used, and the quality of their construction, that set a $400 toaster apart from a $40 toaster, making them an ideal subject for an investigation like this one. At their most basic, toasters consist of a shell, in cast plastic or cast or stamped metal, containing a steel carriage mechanism that raises and lowers bread into proximity with a network of electrical heating elements. Some kind of timer or sensor allows control of the browning of the bread; various other controls allow for specialised functions like one-sided bagel-toasting. Thatʼs essentially it—simple enough to troubleshoot and fix, for someone with the right tools and a modicum of experience. So why is it almost unheard of to repair toasters? The largest single reason is economics, on the part of manufacturers and retailers. Put simply, both these parties stand to make more money if we all toss our toasters when they break and replace them with new ones. Kenneth Grange, an English industrial designer best known for his Anglepoise task light design, is eloquent on the subject:

    If thereʼs an evil in modern design itʼs the retailer. Retailers tell you they canʼt sell a washing machine without 14 programs, even though no one wants or needs that many. A big change has been the rise of China as a manufacturing centre. Its factories are so powerful. Suppose you decided to go into the toaster business; we could hop on a plane and go to China to the worldʼs biggest toaster factory, which supplies Bosch, Bauknecht and all the others. Because they cater to so many brands, they have to make the toasters decent enough to accommodate the top names but basic enough for the lesser ones. That makes for a kind of levelling of quality. The top products are now worse, and the cheapest are better. So you tell the toaster factory that you want 100,000 toasters. They immediately bring you 20 models to choose from, designed by the people upstairs who know they have to appeal to us. Weʼd have to be very single-minded to choose the simplest, most restrained design, wouldn't we?’

    Other economic limitations to designers are less philosophical: IKEAʼs designers begin, rather than end, with a price. ‘Normally, you get a brief with a price and a style matrix,’ Marcus Arvonen, one of IKEAʼs twelve staff designers, explained. ‘It will say, “Can you make this plastic spatula? It cannot cost more than one euro and has to function as a spatula, and it has to be grey and plastic.”’ This is not the recipe for repairability. Many, many products are designed this way: although not specifically intended to be unfixable, with no maliciously artificial obsolescence or otherwise pernicious intent on the part of the manufacturer, the economic conditions that make many of the things we buy and use the way they are simply donʼt allow them to be designed for easy repair.

    The economic conditions that make many of the things we buy and use the way they are simply don't allow them to be designed for easy repair

    To get a manufacturerʼs perspective, I spoke with Dustin Prevete, a product manager for Conair, the parent company for Cuisinart and Waring. Prevete oversees everything those two brands produce that cooks with electrical heating elements, from deep fryers to popcorn makers, but told me toasters are his main focus. Reaching this level of corporate design wasn't easy; I was in contact with over a dozen international manufacturers of toasters before finally being granted access to Prevete. He told me that the design of their toasters is largely left to the firms that actually manufacture them, in China—he is responsible for coordinating the fit of the ‘internals’ and the shells, and controls an engineering department charged with ensuring that the resulting appliances can ‘...actually do the functions that we propose.’ When I asked if repairability affected any of the decisions made by Prevete or members of his team, or was even discussed, in the process of producing new toasters, his answer was succinct: ‘I'm gonna go ahead and say ”no”. We look more along the lines of getting it to the consumer. We do look into potential pitfalls of where something might go wrong—I donʼt necessarily think we analyse how easily repairable it might be, because weʼre such a big company. A lot of times, itʼs sort of like a totalled car, if itʼs not worth fixing, well, just replace.’

    Working industrial designers mentioned more technical limitations. Scott Henderson, renowned for his Hug salt and pepper shakers (the widely knocked-off embracing ceramic ghosts) explained that consumer products, especially those incorporating electronics, canʼt be too easy to take apart; it would be a liability for the manufacturer if, say, a child could do it with a butterknife. Henderson frequently designs in a consulting capacity for manufacturers like Skip Hop, which makes products aimed at the babies and children of the affluent: this is not a market that forgives and forgets when it comes to the safety of household items. Nor should they, realistically. All consumer electronics destined for the mass market, including toasters, must undergo product testing by Underwriters Laboratory, a national engineering research firm, or a similar safety-testing third party, and any electrical components incorporated directly from other manufacturers—the cord and plugset on nearly everything, for example—will also have passed safety-testing muster. This level of assurance is required for mass-market retailers simply to handle products; Walmart and Target seek to avoid issues with liability, too.

    Product testing at this level is expensive, as is the moulding and jig-work required to manufacture a contemporary-looking toaster—the projected sales figures have to be considerable to offset these upfront outlays. Itʼs a bit of a paradox, really: as a manufacturer, you have to go big to afford to be proven safe, but you must be proven safe before youʼre allowed to go big. I spoke with Bob Della Valle, the Principal engineer for Cooking Appliances at UL, and his view summarised how technical and economic factors can overlap: ‘You could build something to be totally modular [and therefore easily, completely repairable] but itʼs going to be much more expensive.’ Sometimes much more prosaic concerns sink easy repairability; Scott Henderson also said ‘...designers always try to hide the screws, hide the means of taking the product apart, because there are then fewer divots and places for it to get dirty.’

    UL is concerned exclusively with safety; the company doesn't evaluate performance. They are in the business of protecting producers from lawsuits, truly, with the added benefit of protecting consumers from injury. Consumer Reports, on the other hand, evaluates all sorts of products with real userʼs satisfaction (as well as safety) in mind. Mark Connelly, Deputy Technical Director of the Electrical Division at CR, is responsible for the testing protocols for all home appliances there. He and Della Valle saw similar limitations to making something like a toaster more fixable, and both expressed doubts about the capacity of industrial designers to start making any things more likely to be fixed, because, beyond the limitations placed on their work by striving for the low retail costs, that would entail something theyʼre not used to thinking about objects wearing out.

    Psychological limitations on the part of designers can be insidious, just as for repairers. When it comes to whoʼs responsible for what: Geoff Baldwin, an industrial designer at Streng, a firm with numerous home goods to its credit, asked ‘Why would you want to repair something that likely broke because it's behind the technology curve? Designing something specifically for repair is like designing for it to break, which is like a hipster version of planned obsolescence.’

    Bill Brown writes ‘[w]e begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us’

    Users bear responsibility when something breaks down, ultimately, but as mentioned in the introduction, people generally donʼt like confronting that either. The University of Chicago English professor Bill Brown writes ‘[w]e begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.’ In other words, when our belongings break, it gets personal, for better or worse. ‘Thing theory’ only goes so far in describing this pseudo-relationship; itʼs more useful as a view of psychology than anything to do with design or manufacturing. We donʼt often really think of things—discretely, with full attention—until they stop doing what theyʼre supposed to. This could be because the pace of life has increased exponentially, during the 20th century. Todayʼs improved technologies do work better, and longer, and faster than has ever been the case before; billions of leisure-time hours have been created, and a panoply of entertainments have been created to fill them. So why does it seem that we no longer fix things because we donʼt have time?

    By freezing the situation here, and analysing the situation found between the subject and object at that moment, Brown has neglected agency. When something breaks, it is the next step, the decision to repair it or not, that takes on an important moral and ethical dimension. Karl Marxʼs term ‘use value’ sits here on the razorʼs edge, Daniel Miller writes in Culture and Mass Consumption, ‘an assertion of that value pertaining to goods by virtue of the genuine human needs to which they relate.’ Robert Pirsig examines this interstitial zone in detail in his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writing about two different kinds of people: those who are interested in technology, i.e., willing to enter consciously into complex, give-and-take relationships with material objects, and those who are not. Pride and empowerment, in the way Pirsig thinks of them, his actions of ‘quality’, never enter onto the playing field if failure is greeted immediately with rejection. The marketing and advertising efforts of mass manufacturers of products of every description in contemporary society have continuously strived to ensure rejection is our first response, however, and the breakdown of our things is often accompanied by guilt or fear, even revulsion. On the other hand, Susan Freinkel has the right idea, as expressed in Plastic: A Toxic Love Story: ‘If you canʼt reuse or repair an item, do you ever really own it?' is a question which Pirsig would surely answer in the negative. Giles Slade investigates consumer psychology in his book Made to Break, writing ‘modern consumers tend to value whatever is new and original over what is old, traditional, durable, or used.’ Designers are vulnerable to the siren song of the new, as well, and subjected to further conditioning, in the form of their educations:

    ‘Design education may be the same across the world because many design professors are trained in the same few universities across the world. They all belong to what one might call "the design-education establishment" of people who share similar design philosophies, heavily influenced by western traditions of mass-production and the requirements of large, multinational firms. [...] It is important to distinguish mass-produced, industrial design from crafts. Crafts reflect centuries or millennia of customs and behaviour, and as a result, items produced by craftspeople are apt to be close fits to the demands of the culture. Handmade crafts reflect the needs of the people for whom they are crafted. Mass-produced products are intended for use by millions of people around the world.’

    Designers are vulnerable to the siren song of the new, as well, and subjected to further conditioning, in the form of their educations

    Even though students are trained to design for the needs of people, the focus remains relentlessly on sales: products that better meet needs will sell better. If theyʼre also produced from sustainably sourced materials, under labour conditions amenable to human happiness, so much the better, but these expensive nice-to-haves are jettisoned whenever the quarterly revenue figures show a dip. With all of these limitations—structural, societal, and personal—it takes effort and willpower to make things more repairable.