Sally-Ann O'Dowd I March 24, 2020
Fjord’s latest trends report says people are moving from a “me to we” perspective. Does that hold up in a pandemic?
From soy burgers outselling red meat at Oakland Coliseum to banana-fiber sanitary pads for rural Indian women, companies are overhauling product design in an era of “liquid” people.
It’s a time of self-reflection and changing behaviors spilling like homemade almond milk onto all aspects of one’s life, according to the Fjord Trends 2020 annual report.
An increasingly woke public is developing a “me to we” mindset, reassessing what it means to be a citizen, make money, and buy stuff. Whereas your grandfather may have said “I gave at the office,” now we’re authentically stating our values while traversing every role we play. And although the study does not account for the coronavirus, some lessons do apply.
“People are redesigning themselves on the fly,” says Mark Curtis, co-founder of Fjord, Accenture Interactive’s design unit. “Self-definition is changing and becoming more liquid. People are moving away from defining themselves as consumers. Don’t get me wrong—we will continue to want to consume things—but we will be more thoughtful, with greater intent and insight on the ramifications of what we buy.”
Companies responding to such shifts are adopting life-centered design processes that consider a broad range of societal and environmental needs, not just an individual’s wants. Fjord’s point of view is inspired by writer John Thackara’s theory of designing for all life, not just human life.
The holistic view replaces user-centered design, for decades considered the paradigm for making things. Just as the dehumanizing word “servant” has left the daily lexicon, the word “user” sounds selfish and pejorative, says Fjord Global Media Relations Director David LaBar.
Now, designers must start to address people as part of an ecosystem rather than at the center of everything. This means designing for two sets of values: personal and collective.—David LaBar
One such design pioneer is Indian feminine hygiene company Saathi. It uses discarded banana fiber to make biodegradable and compostable sanitary pads, instead of relying on plastic and chemicals found in products on most Western women’s bathroom shelves.
The natural fiber is safer for women’s bodies and the planet: Over the course of their lifetime, women generate 132 pounds of plastic from sanitary pads alone, the company says.
Along with other Indian personal-care companies, and even Oscar-winning documentarians, Saathi is also helping to advance education and female empowerment in India, where traditional attitudes associate periods with shame.
In the food sector, Fjord highlights the popularity of the Impossible Burger.
Impossible Burger CEO Dr. Patrick O’Reilly Brown and Beyond Burger CEO Ethan Brown have both earned the United Nations’ Champions of the Earth distinction. Plant-based foods, the UN says, are a viable replacement for meat, which it considers a primitive “technology” for creating nutritious food. Animal agriculture is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.
Impossible Burger uses heme, an iron-containing molecule in every animal and plant cell, to recreate the same smell, taste and texture of animal meat. Its primary ingredient is genetically modified soy. Genetic modification may raise some eyebrows, but according to a biotech non-profit, the mass-producing process dramatically reduces the need for pesticides.
“There’s a lot of design thinking in the product,” Impossible Burger Communications Vice President Jessica Appelgren says:
What is more interesting from a pop culture perspective is, the younger you are the more plant-based you are. You’re not associating red meat with an American identity.—Jessica Appelgren
The entertainment industry is a big backer of the company, with investors including Beyoncé, Jay-Z, John Legend, Quest Love, and Katy Perry, who wore an Impossible Burger-inspired outfit in the last scene of Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” video.
Hip hop “is a driving force in awakening the masses to plant-based eating,” Appelgren says. The community is “pretty upset about the way African-Americans are being marketed to…”
Indeed, Questlove and the company he keeps embody the “me to we” perspective when speaking out for neglected communities.
He addresses racism in the food system on a podcast produced by Foodtank, a nonprofit supporting life-centered opportunities to build a more sustainable and just world.
“It’s not by accident that the cheapest and kind of the most unsustainable foods are surrounding [certain communities] and the foods that should be benefiting you, like the foods from the earth, are more expensive and don’t seem at all appealing to [these communities],” he says in a fall 2019 Food Talk episode. As a child in Philadelphia, he says, “To even want a healthy lifestyle was financially unobtainable and literally 20 blocks away out of my range.”
Burger King, which launched its Impossible Whpper six months ago, is working to change that perception. José Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, which owns the chain, has said “plant-based food is a new platform for the brand.”
But prices needed to come down to reach a broader audience.
Last year’s premium price “limited some guests from trying the Impossible Whopper, so in January we added [it] to our core 2-for-$6 promotion,” Cil says on February’s investor relations call.
In the six weeks since then, the coronavirus has killed thousands of people worldwide and stirred concerns about an economic depression. Still, Fjord’s thoughts on human behavioral change remain prescient. Hygiene is the new vegan.
The U.K. government has told people to wash for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, Curtis says. “I’ve never seen people so assiduously wash their hands. That change is happening in a month.”
It comes down to the liquid idea—as consciousness evolves so does habit.
You have to meet people at a place they care about. They don’t want to spread disease and die of it…and you reframe that and tell them hand washing is the most effective thing you do.—Mark Curtis
Fjord declined the opportunity to elaborate on the future of design in a post-pandemic world. But if life-centered theories hold, private and public sectors will have to innovate new products and services, say journalism, PR and advertising students at Florida International University.
Several of them riffed on potential travel-related outcomes during a recent Zoom session replacing an in-person writing class. (The author teaches writing and media studies at the university.)
One Gen Z’er says she hopes the transportation industry will redesign airplanes so they’re “roomier” while another posits that airports may require temperature checks at all gates. Life-centered design would be critical in all such instances to achieve feasible business models, sustainability, and public health.
Likewise, travelers may proactively bring their own masks and gloves, even if airlines don’t require them, another student says. Given current shortages, manufacturers would likely need new approaches and materials to meet unprecedented demand.
“You’ll have to have a card with you to check your medical history, or wear a chip in your arm,” says another, to whom a fellow student responds: “We have no choice. If the government applies these regulations, we have to abide by them.”
The students help to illustrate how the pandemic will fundamentally change social interaction. But businesses may not have the resources to design for fear, says Matt Klein, strategy director at cultural consultancy Sparks and Honey.
“This moment will absolutely scar the way in which we view public spaces and more specifically proximity to each other in transit,” Klein says. “We’re still flying in planes that are sometimes 10 years or older. The planes and trains we’ll see in 15 years may possibly reflect this moment in time, but these designs will also have to consider the economics of the business.”
Concern about lurking germs could generate skepticism and distrust, in a world already divided in the political sense. Liquid people could dry up.
“While over time we’ll recognize how we helped each other ‘flatten the curve,’ we’ll also realize how we’ve endangered each other by not practicing social distancing and responsible hygiene,” Klein says. “This will be burned into our memory.”
If today’s hypervigilance turns into long-term paranoia, that wouldn’t be life-centered at all, as summed up by one FIU student:
Interaction is already dying because of social media. Now we’re three feet away from each other.
Photo by Photo Boards on Unsplash
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