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Consequences of the Rise of Design

On Tynan

I was walking through the mall a couple days ago. My path took me past a bunch of stores and kiosks, including the Nike Store. I walked past it and looked at their window display. They had a really nicely photographed poster and some cool looking shoes in a bunch of different colors. The store was beautiful and looked like a fun place to be. At the same time, their shoes aren't particularly great, they aren't actually innovative, and they're made of cheap materials. There are many shoe companies that are way lower quality than Nike, but I don't know if there are any with such a disparity between their presentation and the actual product.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this isn't just nike or most of the clothes in the mall-- it's how our culture works now. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to a cobbler. He would design a pair for you, or use one of his existing designs, pick out some nice leather, and make you a pair of shoes. His design work, his execution, and his materials could all be leveraged about equally, so I'd guess that you'd tend to have either poorly designed shoes that are poorly executed and made of poor materials, or well designed shoes that were well executed and used good materials.

These days, things have changed. Design can be leveraged almost infinitely, which has changed the whole equation. Mass manufacturing ensures decent execution, but supplying top quality materials is difficult. A cobbler who makes a hundred pairs of shoes a year can take the time to pick out the best hides to get the best leather. That doesn't scale to making thousands of shoes a day, so material quality drops. Execution has become more consistent, but the benefits of cutting corners is magnified. Saving a penny on making a pair of shoes didn't matter to the cobblers, but it matters to Nike.

So these days, most of what people buy is well designed, decently and consistently executed, and uses relatively poor quality materials. In the mall I walked past a kiosk of phone cases. There were some that were blinged out. Pretty good design in that they fit perfectly on the phone the're meant for, the rows of fake diamonds are all uniform, etc.. Each one looks the same and is okay quality. But the materials are crap-- cheap plastic painted to look like metal covered in lackluster plastic "gems".

Socially Conscious Companies

On Boredom At Its Worst

Stumbling through Whole Foods, I saw a pair of shoes I really liked. Now I had previously laughed at the idea of people buying shoes at Whole Foods, but for some reason I was really attracted to this pair of shoes from a brand called FreeWaters. I looked it up that night and found out it's so small / new that it doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.

Now the reason Whole Foods sells it (or at least the reason I believe so) is that it has a social mission: to provide clean water throughout the world. For every pair that FreeWaters sells, one individual will be able to drink clean water for a year. Now I was mainly attracted by the style of the shoe, but their mission gave me the final edge to go ahead and buy the shoes.

This "social responsibility" of companies has been popularized by TOMS, the other shoe vendor you will find at Whole Foods (the only grocery store I know that will sell shoes but not Cinnamon Toast Crunch). For every purchase of a TOMS pair of shoes, the company pledges to donate one pair of shoes to someone who needs them.

TOMS shoes have surged in popularity. Almost every single girl I know has a pair, and so do some guys. In my opinion, without the social mission, the company would have not been able to see the success it sees. The marketing the company has done has been phenomenal. It truly is a win-win. The shoes by itself are a tad pricey (for the minimal nature of the shoe), but consumers feel justified when they know their efforts are going to help out someone in need. And plus, the shoes are significantly cheaper than let's say the new Nike Free Run. When debating whether to buy the Nike Free Run or TOMS for a new pair of casual shoes, the TOMS are cheaper and make the consumer feel good about themselves.

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