It’s quite interesting to see how “planned obsolescence” has managed to permeate nearly every product since Brookes Stevens coined the phrase fifty years ago. Perhaps it’s now time to reverse the trend.

Another of Stevens’ many “claims to fame” was to coin the phrase “planned obsolescence.” in 1954. Stevens was due to give a talk at an advertising conference. Without giving it much thought, he used the term as the title of his talk. From that point on, “Planned Obsolescence” became Stevens’ catchphrase.

The official definition he came up with was “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” It became something that he would be repeating for the rest of his career, and he took nearly every opportunity to present his philosophy. The idea was not that there was anything wrong with the old model, but that the new one was more desirable. For example, in 1966, in one of Stevens’ talks, he said: “When I design a 1961 model car I am not styling it for the man who bought one in 1960, I’m styling it for the man next door who didn’t buy it when his neighbor did.”

By the late 1950s, Planned Obsolescence had become a commonly used term that people understood, although it wasn’t looked on favorably. In 1959, Volkswagen brought out an advertising campaign for their cars with the slogan “We do not believe in planned obsolescence. We don’t change a car for the sake of change.”

In 1960, pop culture critic Vance Packard published a book called The Waste Makers. In it, Packard criticized Stevens for having a sinister strategy behind his theory of planned obsolescence. He said that the approach behind planned obsolescence was to make the product “old-fashioned, conspicuously non-modern.”

In other words, he said that Stevens was brainwashing the customers into believing that the old product they owned was no longer good enough — now that there was an updated, modern and more desirable version available. He also said that Stevens was designing products deliberately so that they’d wear our or break in the future: The consumer would be forced to buy another one and keep Stevens in business. Stevens had never intended his definition to be interpreted in this way, and he found himself having to defend himself against Packard’s definition of functional obsolescence.

One of Vance Packard’s criticisms of planned obsolescence was related to an ethical principle. He believed that manipulating a customer into buying a new product before the old one had come to the end of its life was fueling wastefulness. However, Stevens was not taken aback by Packard’s harsh denunciations of his design philosophy. He dismissed Packard’s book as a scare-headline book. He also believed that all publicity was good publicity, so he was unfazed by Packard’s objections and in fact enjoyed the infamy!

Those who want to know more about Brooks Stevens should get the book Industrial Strength Design: How Brook Stevens shaped your world by Glenn Adamson (2003).

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