Is Design Only For The Rich?

To many people today, something that is “designed” is more expensive and above what the common man can afford. Think about how we refer to “designer jeans” as opposed to just “jeans” — there is something extra on top of the necessary. Such a notion of design has also been expressed by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during first-ever International Design Forum held here in 1988.

“Good design is more than just pleasing to the eye. A functional, elegant product can be cheaper to produce and sell for a better price, because it is of greater value to users.”

A question here is, what exactly is good design’s “greater value to users”? One value here seems to be “symbolic status”. I was reminded of this during a conversation with a stranger who complained that there is a lot of bad design in Singapore “even though she lives in the good part of town”. (I vaguely remember it as the Orchard/Tanglin area or something to that effect). In other words, this lady was suggesting that “good” design is to be expected for those who can afford it, while “bad” design is more forgivable for those who can’t.

This equation of good design with luxury  is also how many products differentiate themselves not only from one another, but also justifies why they cost so much more than items of similar function but are not “designed”. But is good design exclusive to luxury and should it always be of higher monetary value? While it raise the profession’s economic value, it also makes design exclusive and detached from public life. Perhaps one of the biggest challenge in growing a design industry anywhere is how designers don’t end up just serving those who are willing to pay for it. If not, design will just be a communicator of status and symbol — just pleasing to the eye.

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