can you have too much choice?


It’s probably sensible, on a design blog, to keep away from discussing politics and even looking at subjects like fashion or taste can mean straying into very very dangerous territory. Curiously, the whole business of choice in design is another difficult subject to discuss. That is choice in the sense of just how many different options does a customer expect or how many new designs does a company have to produce to attract new customers or even to just keep old customers and how do we choose new things? How many shops or web sites will we look at to find what we need or find what we like?

Having moved from England to Denmark it is obvious that I will notice differences between the two countries. In the first week I needed some detergent for washing clothes and on the first visit to the supermarket I walked up and down looking for liquid for the washing machine. I was really perplexed when I couldn’t see any - for a moment I wondered if Copenhagen had separate detergent stores I had not spotted - but then realised that in England the clothes washing stuff is one of the biggest aisles in any supermarket and one of the most obvious with a huge selection of powders and liquids and sizes and makes and all in different shapes and colours of packaging so you can’t miss it. That, without thinking, was what I was looking for but in the local supermarket here there were just own brands in fairly plain bottles and the choice was between liquid for whites, one for dark washes or one for light colours and the same in an ecology range and some powders. Not even 2 metres of shelves as opposed to a whole aisle … in walking around the supermarket I had walked past it twice. Why had I needed all that choice in England when in reality I had used the same brand and the same size pack for ten years? And that was not brand loyalty ... I had stuck with the brand because it seemed to do the job as well as any other but mainly it was one less thing to think about when shopping … do I need washing liquid? Yes! Then stick out a hand and grab one from where it always is as I walk along that aisle.

The smaller selection of such a basic item here made me think about how much choice is too much choice and how much is too little and if that applies to washing clothes, does it also apply to buying drinking glasses or chairs or table lamps?

To redress the balance slightly, I still get confused by the huge and perplexing range of milks in Danish supermarkets so another thing about choice is that priorities and just how much choice people expect or want still varies enormously from person to person and country to country.

Part of the problem is that, in England at least, the word choice has been kidnapped by right-wing politicians. Their Holy Grail is ‘freedom of choice’ although careful deconstruction of both the phrase and their motives indicates that it has become a mantra that, at a deeper level, means defending the right of someone to make a profit by creating a choice, even if, maybe, a choice wasn’t the best solution for a problem that was probably caused by underfunding or mismanagement.

Choice is a very clever word, in ways that George Orwell would have appreciated, because it is a brilliant insurance clause if something goes wrong. Surely the ‘service provider’ - another phrase I’ve grown to hate - or the manufacturer is not to blame for a problem … because, obviously, if there is a problem, when push comes to shove, the customer (me) simply made the wrong choice and should live with the consequences.

But isn’t it actually the exercising of choice - the making of careful decisions between one possibility or another - by the designer, and the concept of choice, in terms of marketing by the retailer, that together are the driving force of the whole design industry? 

Even at a basic level, designing something is about a continual sequence of making choices. So would it look better if that was a slightly sharper curve? Would a more expensive fixing make it stronger but make the unit cost higher than agreed with the manufacturer? Is that now too heavy to lift off the stove when full? And so on and so on.

And, of course, isn’t it our love of choice - our demand to have the right to choose as an individual - along with our love of the new - the fuel that keeps the design machine running? Here of course I don’t mean making a choice between the soft grey or the off-white version or even making the even simpler choice in the past between a black Model T or no Model T - so, in effect, what we would see as no choice because for Henry Ford it was take what you are offered or nothing.

OK - none of us now goes out to buy a Model T Ford but a hundred years later it is rare to find no choice and it’s possible to find a beautifully designed object and then wonder irrationally and irritably why the designer or the manufacturer decided on a hideous range of colours that would not be our first choice. So are we now spoilt for choice and spoiled by choice?

Surely there could be no design industry if all household goods - such as tea pots for instance - were for some reason rationed and you had to buy one to last you for the whole of your adult life? In that case it would be an odd and different choice weighted by other important considerations.

And what would happen if more people really and honestly didn’t care about what other people thought about them or their homes? Would choice matter as much? Are we judged by our choices - whether they are good or bad? Certainly yes. Should we be judged by our choice of one design against another? Probably not.

Or what if people didn’t want to choose and buy something new and different simply because the old one didn’t really reflect their new status or a new social position in the hierarchy given, for instance, a recent pay rise or a move to a bigger and better house? Most adults in England or Western Europe must be on to their third or fourth set of coffee mugs because the first were Ok for a student but were not right for the new boss and his wife when they came round and the last lot didn't go with the new colour in the kitchen. Is that normal or odd? It's not rational or ecologically sound.

Or what if people really didn’t mind if they were bored with the old ones? The attitude of ‘oh it will do’ won’t keep design shops open. So is it right that new designs can and are sold by making us discontented with what we have?

When you think about it carefully, choice itself and what we choose or reject can be pretty odd.

Jeans were invented by Jacob Davis in 1871 and patented by Levi Strauss in May 1873. Then, for about 80 years - up until the 1950s - they were worn by farmers and miners. Clearly the very last thing those farmers were thinking about was choice or, come to that, fashion. They wore them for the simple reasons that denim was and is tough and hard wearing - as long as it’s not stone washed and pre stressed - so you didn’t have to replace your work trousers as often and, with the rivets on the pockets, they were extremely practical if you needed to shove a monkey wrench somewhere while you were doing something else or carry around some roofing nails you needed later - which were both situations where split or frayed pockets could cause a nasty accident. 

Then James Dean wore denim jeans in Rebel Without a Cause and the rest, as they say, is history.

But now, 60 years after that film came out, if you go into a department store there will be jeans from dozens and dozens and dozens of different companies and from each company different cuts and styles and finishes. How can anyone make a sensible choice? Although clearly people are worried because they feel it is possible to make the wrong choice. 

And if you stood in a big public square and asked the first 100 people who walked by who were wearing jeans to wait on one side, it would then take a real expert, or rather a really sad person, to identify which jeans came from which designer without looking at the labels. Jeans are one of the few items of clothing where the label is consistently on the outside rather than the inside. Is that why? Is there a ridiculous amount of choice when you are buying jeans if people are buying jeans, in part, to conform and look the same? Sorry. Do I mean to look fashionable?

While I’m being the grumpy old man … every pair of jeans I’ve ever bought has had one of those small tight key pockets tucked in just below the waist band. Why? It’s one “signature design feature” I could happily see undesigned. Even if I weed out keys on my fob until I’m down to a door key and a car key they still don’t go into that pocket … or at least not without digging in or making my eyes water if I sit down too quickly. If I put small change into that pocket there is a real danger of being slapped or arrested as I grope around trying to pull out the coins when I get to the cash desk.

Just in case you are interested … in 2014, in the UK, 24 million pairs of jeans were purchased and of those nearly a million pairs cost over £150 and the annual expenditure on jeans in the USA is in excess of $13 billion.

Another irrelevant aside …. but thanks to Wikipedia I now know that the first trousers made by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss used a thick brown cotton material called brown cotton duck. Now I don’t know about you but I’m glad they swapped to denim as I’d find it pretty hard to keep a straight face if I went into a store and had to tell the shop staff that I’d come in for a pair of brown ducks.