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Mass Customization or a Custom Fiasco?

Feb. 27, 2017

The limitless possibilities with build-your-own goods and products can be overwhelming—that’s where design professionals come in.

The other day, I took a 10-year-old to The Counter, a very successful build-your-own-burger chain that began in Southern California and now has outposts all over the world. Kids always go crazy for the multitude of options available—apparently there are more than 300,000 combinations possible—and my lunch date was no exception. The burger he created was one-of-a-kind, to be sure, but totally inedible. Let’s just say that apricot sauce, bleu cheese, black bean salsa, and bacon were never meant to coexist.

Can’t find the perfect luxury handbag at Nordstrom? Mon Purse will help you design that dream bag online. The site allows you to select the silhouette and type of leather, then decide what color you want each part of the bag to be—front, sides, handle, strap—and finish off with the lining, hardware, fringe, monogram, etc. Four weeks and a few hundred dollars later, your bag arrives in the mail. The website contains an algorithm that prevents you from producing a truly heinous Franken-bag, but the number of possible combinations—and missteps—are still staggering.

The idea of freedom of choice is as ingrained in our national psyche as apple pie. With today’s proliferation of just-in-time manufacturing, global supply chains, 3D printing, and instant communication, consumers can create nearly anything they can dream up. Custom goods used to be available only to the wealthy; today anyone can go online and design sneakers, lipstick, sofas, and lamp shades. But, is all this choice actually improving our lives?

Good design marries aesthetics and performance, and enhances lives, whatever the budget.

Back in 2000, a psychologist discovered consumers will say they prefer an assortment of two dozen jams, but they will end up buying more jam when they’re given only six choices. Similarly, three-quarters of employees invested in a 401(k) when they were given only two investment portfolios, but when faced with 59 individual options, only 60 percent invested. In other words, too much choice can be paralyzing and impair good decision-making.

This leads us to interior design. The notion that everyone should have access to good design is a development that we all welcome. But today we’re constantly bombarded with a cacophony of images, ideas, and advice. The public still doesn’t understand that televised design isn’t realistic, a knock-off Eames chair is an insult to the original, and the cheap rug in their nursery may be off-gassing their baby. Good design marries aesthetics and performance, and enhances lives, whatever the budget. The average consumer, however, has no idea what to look for beyond what’s on the surface and the price tag.

This is why there will always be a need for professional interior designers. Sure, anyone can decide what color they want to paint their bedroom
walls, but an interior designer will know what colors help assisted living residents navigate hallways better; a teacher knows how to arrange students’ desks for a particular lesson plan, but an interior designer will know which chairs allow active kids to fidget unobtrusively and actually learn better; an office manager can select a task lamp, but an interior designer can specify circadian ambient lighting that will help workers sleep and digest better at night. The list goes on.

At ASID, we believe design impacts lives. In order for that impact to be a positive one, there is a real need for experienced and knowledgeable experts to help navigate the limitless options available today and avoid costly mistakes. In other words, with a professional interior designer on hand, you won’t end up with a space that’s the equivalent of an apricot, bleu cheese, black bean, and bacon burger—something I hope never to see again.

Charrisse Johnston, ASID, LEED AP BD+C, Associate AIA, is the Chair of the Board of Directors and a principal and the firm-wide interior design practice leader at Steinberg Architects. Learn more about ASID at ASID.org.

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