Design has been seduced by hypergrowth, leaving behind those with needs not considered profitable. Here’s why that needs to change
Words by Harriet Gridley
If you had the money, you could buy a different style of chair every day and keep going for decades. Try doing the same thing for wheelchairs, or stairlifts, and you’d be lucky to make it a month. There’s no reason to be surprised by this; the guiding mission of most businesses is to sell as many things as possible to as many people as possible, so a product that more people need – a chair, for instance – is inherently more appealing to manufacturers than one of interest to only a relatively small group, like a stairlift.
In order for a business to grow, it has to sell more stuff. There’s nothing controversial about that. The problem arises when growth becomes not just a necessary goal, but an addiction – the pursuit of ever-greater profit for its own sake. To achieve this state, which we can call ‘hypergrowth’, businesses look for ways to sell their product to the same customer over and over, endlessly tweaking them so there is always something new to unveil. No matter what type of product they make, businesses pick the biggest possible group of people, or the wealthiest (ideally, a blend of the two), to target and give them what they want again and again, only slightly better, faster, more compact and in different colours.
Designers love to innovate, and the glamour of creating beautiful, high-profile products that everyone loves can be hard to resist. Who doesn’t want to be the next Jony Ive? Innovation is a great thing, but when all the glamour and fame is attached to innovating for the sake of hypergrowth, those who perhaps need the innovation the most, whose needs are more specific and also more acute, are at risk of falling further behind.
KOMP by No Isolation
Faster processing power, greater memory capacity, endless functionality – although the majority of people might be brought closer to superhumanity by the latest technology, others remain neglected, because the problems they face are not glamorous – or particularly profitable – to solve. The fact is: if you aren’t young, healthy and able-bodied, not many people are designing and making stuff for you. But there are millions of us who don’t fall into that category who face very real and very serious problems that design has the power to fix – it’s just choosing not to.
For the sake of everyone – and especially groups facing particular challenges – that has to change. We need to move from a system that prizes a product’s sales figures or the size of its user base to one that favours the positive impact it has on society. Designers need to fall in love with problem-solving again – to get excited by the power they have to change the world for the better, not just going after the empty glamour of hyper-growth.
Innovating for marginalised groups is precisely where the most exciting historic change can take place. At No Isolation, we focus on groups who are socially isolated, building niche communication tools that help them remain a part of the social fabric. This is important because equality is a precursor for community cohesion, productivity, health, democracy and general prosperity. By focusing innovation efforts on those who are left behind, we can all move forward together stronger.
AV1 by No Isolation
This is what we’re trying to do at No Isolation – to innovate where it is most needed, not most profitable. We began by looking at children and young people with long-term illness. There was very little research on the topic, but speaking with young people, charities, doctors and schools, we realised that the social isolation experienced by these children was dramatically impacting their educational and social development prospects.
A teenager with cancer, for example, might spend three years in and out of school, fall behind academically and lose their social confidence, impacting their life long into the future. They needed a way to remain physically present in school life, to maintain connection with their peer network, in a safe and flexible manner that suited their schedule. So we created AV1, a robot avatar that acts as their eyes, ears and voice in the classroom when they can’t be there – keeping them connected to their learning and their social life.
Our second product is also designed to sustain social connection, but with a different audience – those who struggle with modern communication technology. No one should be made to feel stupid, dependent on others, or excluded from the internet, and yet 87% of people 75 and over are not online. The obstacles they face range from the fact that touchscreens are less responsive to older, more leathery fingertips to the difficulties created by memory challenges, tremors, dementia or cognitive, visual and audio impairment.
Computing is a field of ever-greater complexity, but the more features and functions a tablet acquires the more difficult many people find it to navigate. In this case, innovation means simplification. We designed KOMP, a one-button computer that enables people to make video calls, share photos and send messages without the need for remembering passwords, using touchscreens or navigating tricky user interfaces.
Companies need to realise that hypergrowth isn’t the only measure of success. It’s both necessary and hugely rewarding to invest in making beautiful and highly sophisticated products for niche audiences, especially if the result will be a life-transforming experience for someone, a levelling of the playing field, and – ultimately – a happier society for all.
Harriet Gridley is UK director of No Isolation
This article was featured in ICON’s Summer 2021 issue. Read the digital edition for free