Companies seek increased market share by searching for gaps, either in the market or within their own product offering. In the design industry these gaps are framed as solutions to newly identified consumer needs or problems. In this way, amidst a dense product landscape, companies are able to clear new pockets for exploration thereby gaining competitive advantage.

The issue is that under pressure of continually seeking out these gaps, the scope of real benefit offered by design solutions has tended to diminish, to the point, indeed, that it is now constrained to improving the balance sheets of manufacturers and retailers, rather than user experience.

These products promise to address new needs in ways that were not possible before. The result, however, is a host of overly prescriptive objects that are functionally one-dimensional and often complicated to use and manufacture.

These products have become so narrow in their scope to aid the user that they can only be useful in the rigid confines of their intended context. The objects disregard the user as an active negotiator of their environment, able to adapt and move, offering instead a completely definitive use that restricts and stifles the fluidity of our spaces.

Beyond these solutions, multifunctional design also promises a greater performance, whilst establishing something new for the manufacturer’s catalogue. Similarly, these objects aim to communicate improvement on what is currently available by suggesting an increased utility in the combination of separate product functions within a single form. In reality, certain functions inevitably turn out to be useless, whilst others are compromised. These objects promise increased versatility but by integrating functions so inflexibly, the user is stuck with an object that is cumbersome and hard to engage with in a useful way.

Because they are so functionally prescriptive, once their apparent necessity fades, these objects quickly become redundant. Combined with their narrower appeal and more limited contextual setting, this means that products have a shorter life cycle, discarded once they can no longer realise any meaningful application or simply become undesirable.

Design should place more trust in the user to be part of the solution, and consider the act of use itself as a constantly evolving process. Objects should embrace a level of ambiguity, allowing the user to interpret them in a way that works best in that moment, whilst still remaining useful and desirable in the next.

Design is a sector entirely concerned with problem solving and it may seem regressive to suggest a step back from our current design culture to embrace a more rudimental approach. However, this in itself is a solution to our problematic material environment of excess. We should be asking how objects can escape their typical categorisations, making our environments more flexible and increasing product longevity as those environments evolve.

By answering every observed problem we envelop the user in an environment which seemingly provides everything, but deters thoughtfulness and creates disconnection between object and user amidst a profusion of things. The current model offers a solution for every problem, but is incapable of asking whether these problems are either justified or reasonable.

Part of the design process must be to reflect on problems and consider whether to accept them or propose better alternatives. But in continually and unequivocally offering new solutions, design implicitly promotes an attitude of over consumption and short term satisfaction. Viewed this way, it is not so much industry’s feverish hunt for novel problems that is problematic, rather the lack of a holistic approach in their resolution.

Objects should be conceived as tools, following human principles that assist living and working, as well as being tonally inclusive and intelligible in a broad variety of contexts. We should be able to combine different objects effectively to create the required solutions, rather than be stuck with fixed programmes of products that instruct us how to live and exist in isolation from the broader material landscape.

How do we develop objects that promote agility, flexibility and longevity? These are the problems design should seek to answer, and in responding, we will develop products and environments that improve user experience now and in the future.