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".
Our food is like this, too. I don't eat at at fancy restaurants all that often, but when I do I feel the same way. The food looks beautiful and the flavor pairings are excellent. The food is usually well cooked, if not amazing. But the quality is really bad. Vegetables aren't organic, meat isn't grass fed, and the oils used for cooking are the cheap industrial oils like Canola and Soy.
Or if you go to the grocery store, you see the same thing-- eye catching boxes full of unhealthy sugar, flour, and mysterious fats. Beautifully arranged vegetables with weak flavor and covered in pesticides. Artificial flavors offer a xeroxed impression of what something would actually taste like if it was real.
We're surrounded by things that look high quality but aren't. Wood is replaced by wooden veneer, and then by plastic with a wood print on it. Metal is replaced by plastic that is painted. Nutritious foods are replaced with foods that look nice. Movies rely on special effects and advertising campaigns instead of well crafted stories and substance.
Even software has (d)evolved to become so design driven that function and utility are left by the wayside. I've noticed that of the apps I download for my phone, the fewer gradients and faux textures they have, the more useful they tend to be.
I love design, but I hate that it's being used to mask inferior quality. Add great design to great materials and you have a great product. Part of why I like my Rolex so much is because it embodies that principle. When I look at it, it's a reminder to follow the principle myself. I love my Sony RX100 and my NEC LaVie because they put function first AND have great design to complement that utility.
The silver lining to this quality decline is that it's created a void to be filled. There are people like me who are obsessed with quality and are willing to pay the marginally higher cost necessary to get it. While it has its problems, projects on Kickstarter tend to focus on very high quality materials. Farmer's markets providing healthy and great tasting produce are growing in popularity. High quality tech companies are a bit more difficult to find, but Asus, Sony, and Apple all have certain products that are great quality and nice design.
When the masses move from one place to another, they often leave opportunities in their wake. I'm glad to see small companies and individuals focusing on quality and using that as a competitive advantage. Even at Sett, we do it. We'll cost a bit more than other blogging platforms, but everything we use is the best. We host on Rackspace, every blog has its images delivered via CDN, we use best-in-class document searching instead of the crappy one everyone else uses, etc. Getting all of this going is expensive and it's hard work, but when we're done we aim to have a product that's well designed, well executed, and is made up of high quality components.
Photo is a railing in the Forbidden City, Beijing
I get the premise here, Tynan, but as a guy who used to train new Nike employees about the products, technology and corporate history and culture, I have to tell you how wrong and blatantly ignorant your statement sounds:
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.
C'mon man. I'll give you the fact that MUCH of Nike's Brand Appeal is built on "image" but the simple fact is this: those shoes you see on display are the EXACT pieces of equipment that athletes performing at the HIGHEST levels of their respective sports are wearing while they compete. Whether it's an Olympic long distance runner, a futbol all-star or LeBron James, you're getting the same product that they trust for their competitive "edge".
Yeah yeah, I know that a LOT of money goes to those athletes so some kid in the Bronx thinks he can be LeBron too, but it doesn't change the fact that those shoes spent months/years in research & development and the "cheap" materials are very often substances/swatches that Nike invented and patented and are the absolute best possible choice for the needed performance while still working to keep the shoes "affordable" as sporting equipment.
Don't even get me started on "innovative" while the rest of the industry copies every technology that Nike creates. Go sling your baseless accusations at Starbury or something if you need to make a point.
I agree somewhat with your premise. The thing is that most of us don't want the very best everything. There are some things for which I will pay for the very best: food, some clothing items, computer, etc. and others that I am much more sensitive to price about most furniture, office supplies, etc. Everyone operates on a continuum and I think you would be hard pressed to find someone that seeks out the various best of everything. We all pick our luxury item battles.
The great thing about the internet is that you can find people who are passionate about the same thing you are and then sell to them in order to make something that's the very best for that item. I don't think mass manufacturing is holistically bad, but you're right in that it's not always beautiful. Then again many people in any given product category are willing to skimp.
Exactly what I was thinking.
One addition: It's disheartening when people can't distinguish between quality and junk, when even what's superior seems worst to people because it's not as well advertised or understood.It's one thing to say that I prefer Ikea furniture because it's cheap and I don't care that much about quality, expensive furniture. It's another thing entirely to say I think Ikea is the best furniture and even superior to the custom made, new or used furniture at the furniture store. It's like people's general tastes and ability to distinguish good from bad is so lacking.A lot of times, the best quality person / product /item doesn't ever get recognized while the better marketed ones do.The great thing about our time is that the cost of distribution and communication is almost non-existent that there can be a healthy long tail market/audience for everything so that we can get these customized, quality products and items and people that historically wouldn't have been possible.
After reading Neil Strauss' book and researching you a bit more I have solidified my understanding as to why I relate to the portrayal of you in the book more than any other person or characters mentioned. I am born and bred in Austin and am currently living in the beautiful Charleston, SC where I go to school. I am reaching out to you because yours is, in my humble and misguided opinion at least, a life worth emulating and hope that you reach back--as I believe there is much useful information (and or cautionary tales) to be learned from you.
Email me or find me on facebook, Ps how did the wallaby turn out?
I'm reminded of a quote in The American President, where Michael J. Fox is talking about how people are so desperate for read leadership that they'll crawl through the desert and eat the sand when that's all they can find. Then Michael Douglas came back with, "They eat the sand because they can't tell the difference." I'd say that the materials just don't matter all that much -- you work so hard to find the very best, then you put an above average amount of money into it... and the masses would still rather save a buck than have "the best." The way the world works nowadays is this way due to the selective process -- it's what works in a world of 7 billion where the average net worth is $2,100 or so.
So to quote another movie, "Why do you continue to fight?"
This seems to be connected to branding as well. The idea of a brand is that it's a name you can trust to give you a consistently good experience, but I see it more as a label put on top of a commodity in most cases. Some brands even offer lower quality than the competition (McDonalds). A lot of businesses seem to focus on the power of creating a brand to increase revenues, and not so much on the connection between the promise and the product. Then again I only know my own lifetime so I can't tell if this is something new. Maybe we only remember the old brands that actually were good.
>I don't eat at at fancy restaurants all that often, but when I do I feel the same way. The food looks beautiful and the flavor pairings are excellent. The food is usually well cooked, if not amazing. But the quality is really bad. Vegetables aren't organic, meat isn't grass fed, and the oils used for cooking are the cheap industrial oils like Canola and Soy.You... don't go to very good restaurants, do you? At actually good restaurants, the ingredients are, y'know, actually good. When you say "fancy restaurant", what do you mean? When I hear that, I think of places that are Michelin rated, things like that. I would be astounded to learn that Canola oil is used at any of my favorite restaurants (Chez Panisse, Per Se, Vue de Monde, etc).
You don't mention the white elephant of Engineering: Planned Obsolescence
For most manufacturers, it's about making money and ensuring that there will be a continuous demand for their product(s). I make efforts to avoid this ethical pitfall, but if everything we purchased lasted a lifetime, wouldn't demand virtually dry up?
It's a fundamental conundrum.
It is a fundamental conundrum. But when we ask Tynan questions like this, we forget that his blog posts are also marketing documents -- he's out to maintain demand for himself. Since personality is inexpensive to produce and distribute and he's very marketing-oriented, this was simply a note about how interesting he is. "I want the best so I get the best, and normal stuff is mediocre most of the time. That's why I have the best laptop, the best watch, the best single set of clothes, etc." is just how he puts himself out there. If everyone made purchasing decisions like Tynan does, the mass market would be really strange. It'd be a fun thought exercise to imagine a Tynan-filled world full of folks who demand the best quality in everything they buy and will pay any price to get it.
I strongly agree with what you are saying in this post. I am a long time reader but feel compelled to comment on this post since I have just begun reading Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek. In the preface, the author talks about how harmful the profession of design can and has been through it's role in the creation of frivolous decorated objects for mass consumption. I began reading it for the arguments it makes for good design for environmental reasons, it also talks widely about how poor design hurts end users due to firm's sole economic concern. I would highly recommend it!
On another note, I am a big fan of your blog and lifestyle! Thanks for the interesting reading and inspiration!
I'm not sure I agree. To some extent, yes, being superficial and judging things based on design is making companies focus more on looking good than on being good.
But there's another trend happening. There's always been a big difference between businesses that needed to appeal to one-time customers (with style) or repeat customers (with quality). Thanks to the internet, we're reading each other's reviews and making our decisions like we're one big repeat customer. Yelp is more influential than a billboard.
Smart companies are realizing this and focusing on quality, because word of mouth is the most important kind of marketing in today's world.
I wrote about a similar idea here: http://zachobront.com/being-good-vs-looking-good/
Our most popular Life Nomadic article last year was our complete packing list. Since then we've learned a lot, made a lot of changes, and managed to pack a lot more into the same tiny amount of space.
There are a few areas where slight improvement could be made, which you'll hear me talk about in the video, but overall this collection of stuff represents everything a traveler needs to travel through just about anywhere on the planet, live comfortably, and keep connected.
I've consolidated most of the stuff I pack into an Amazon store, which you can access here: Life Nomadic Store. If you use that link, or the Amazon links below, I get a commission. Other good places to buy this sort of gear are ebay and outdoor shops like REI and MEC, although neither store carries most of the gear.
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.