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Why product designers should think local as an alternative to mass production

Product Design Jury President Gen Suzuki on the how designers can contribute to building a more sustainable economy

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

Gen Suzuki has worked across an impressive array of business sectors, from healthcare and consumer goods to furniture and electronics, but the product designer — who set up his eponymous studio in 2014 after leaving the design company IDEO’s team —  still casts his mind back to backpacking through Europe and Asia in his 20s when looking for inspiration. “I learned a lot from the beauty of local, everyday tools, which are rooted in the local climate and environment and used in everyday lives, rather than the glittering designs that populate design magazines,” he says.

Even now, over two decades into his career, these objects still draw Suzuki’s admiration for their honesty, functionality, and focus on simple, and often sustainable, materials. In contrast, says the designer, many products on the market today are focused more on expressing brand identity, or vying with competitors. “I think the simplicity of local tools is beautiful and I have drawn a lot of inspiration from it,” he adds.

Local production offers plenty for designers to draw on, in particular its focus on the nuances of craft. According to Suzuki, the most difficult part of design isn’t necessarily the idea itself, but “the process of unifying and beautifully putting it together in every detail”. Craft —  the thing that’s arguably lacking from so many mass-produced goods —  is absolutely critical, says Suzuki. He believes it’s a designer’s role to take precious natural resources and labour, and convert those into the most efficient and beautiful product possible. “Without that part it’s just a good story or idea, but not a design,” he explains. 

“I think the simplicity of local tools is beautiful and I have drawn a lot of inspiration from it”

The world needs a new approach to making and manufacturing, says the Jury President. Our collective addiction to mass production and mass disposal has led to pollution, resource depletion, and dubious employment practices. Suzuki suggests that mass production itself isn’t necessarily the problem, but that its benefits are enjoyed by people whose affluent lives rely on the exploitation of natural resources, and poor working conditions for people in developing nations.

“Mass production allows us to get quality products at a lower price,” he says. “That is a good thing. But extremely cheap products may well be the result of unfair exploitation of unseen labour and the natural environment. Their cheapness may also lead to a spiral of waste, with consumers discarding products without repairing them and buying new, cheap products. It can be addictive for us to be able to enjoy cheap prices without seeing the inconvenience.”

Suzuki says his studio encourages clients to use materials and manufacturing methods with the lowest possible environmental impact, and to create products that are long-lasting and easily recyclable. And for the 2023 D&AD Awards, creatives submitting work into the Product Design category can add a short statement about the role sustainability played in a project’s design, material selection and manufacturing. 

“To reach a situation where mass production is more ethical and less harmful, the world needs a circular system, and local production could have a significant role to play in all of this”

To reach a situation where mass production is more ethical and less harmful, says Suzuki, the world needs a more sustainable system, and local production could have a significant role to play in all of this. While Suzuki concedes that some things, such as smartphones, need the advanced technology of mass production, there are plenty of products that could tap into the unique resources of a region.

“It is fascinating to imagine a world where small, local productions take place,” he explains. “It seems to me that the activity of making what we need, in the amount we need, by ourselves, would create a sustainable small community and economy in a region. It can be an opportunity to connect the ‘planning’ and ‘making’ that have been fragmented by the sophistication of society, and it may also create a movement to protect shared local resources in a region.

“It could be an opportunity to change from global, vertically controlled manufacturing to fair, flexible, horizontal manufacturing. The products that come out of this must be attractive and humane. A ‘beautiful’ design that comes at the expense of the planet or someone else is not beautiful.”

Written by Emma Tucker

D&AD Awards 2023 is now open for entries. Download the entry kit and submit your work here. Read more insights from jurors into their corners of the creative industries here.

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