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Can design literacy
curb our clutter problem?

Marie Kondo, the guru of tidying up, has become a global celebrity for teaching us how to declutter our homes. Her recipe is simple: let go of what doesn’t spark joy. But while many of us are turning into decluttering devotees, few of us seem to be paying attention to what we’re bringing into our homes in the first place.

Clearing the clutter: Marie Kondo at work in a Tokyo apartment. Photograph: AP
A Regina woman motivated by Marie Kondo donates all of her unused items to the The Shirley Schneider Support Centre. (CBC News/Alex Soloducha)

What if we rejected those joyless items from the get go? What if in addition to decluttering, we choose to become more discerning consumers. What if we contemplated if our purchase will spark joy down the road, before we jump into buying? We could then decide whether investing in well-designed and well-manufactured products is more valuable than giving into impulsive bargain buys. For many of us, buying cheap items seems practical in the moment. But perhaps we’re learning the hard way, through Ms. Kondo, that the opposite is actually true. By accumulating unnecessary, poorly-designed items, we not only increase our household clutter, but also expand our communal landfill.

Photo credit: Christian Boltanski 'No Man's Land' exhibition, a 50 ton mountain of used clothing.

Have you ever wondered how many products on the market are designed to last? Unfortunately, many are intended to become irrelevant in a flash and disposed of quickly so we can buy again. Take the fashion industry. According to environmental statistics, three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within one year of being produced; an average North-American throws away eighty-one pounds of clothing per year. Or take low-cost appliances – one-third of our home appliance purchases are motivated by a desire for better and newer models, while our old ones are still functioning. And if an appliance does break down, manufacturers have made it cheaper to replace it than it is to fix it, contributing to even more landfill.

Such gloomy data suggests we should be asking ourselves what our true values are. If we genuinely want to stop the environmental train wreck we’re heading for, why isn’t there a stronger desire for longer-lasting products? One reason is possibly that we as consumers lack design literacy.

Design literacy as a rule, shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of creative professionals; it’s a skill that can help all of us improve our ability to create more enduring homes and lasting wardrobes. Having knowledge of basic design principles and how to apply them can help us to become better consumers, and as result, better stewards of the planet.

One of the most basic design principles is contrast. If we become design literate, our understanding of contrast – the dynamic balance between opposites – will help us recognize which products have the design equilibrium necessary to satisfy both aesthetics and functionality. When we become design literate, we also become empowered to resist impulsive purchases, and demand products that are both functional and beautiful – things that bring you joy, that serve you well, and that last.

Perhaps with a little more forethought and an understanding of the principles of design, we can work toward making Marie Kondo’s job obsolete.