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Archive for January, 2007
Over at the design blog, Drawing on Promises, “Blank” raises some intriguing questions about the relationship between design and social class.
Like it or not, design has class. And no, I don’t mean it’s classy as in
elegant or fashionable, although design is a very trendy business world
accessory of late. And I don’t mean design has class as in groups that
share the same common attributes. I mean design has class as in an
artificial social hierarchy–much of it self inflicted. This more
subtle definition of class creates a division where one group is
perceived as “better” or “higher” or “more refined” than the other.
This trend is nothing new. Art, architecture, literature, culture,
music, etc. all have created similar class systems. And we as designers
are somewhat guilty for creating artificial divisions in design. Let me
I recently listened to an online video given by Malcom Gladwell, well known author of the Tipping Point and Blink.
He tells the story of how in the early ’70’s Grey Poupon Dijon mustard
broke into a field dominated by two plain yellow mustards. How? First,
they created a different type of mustard that was spicy and brown. Then
through design and advertising they created an artificial mustard
social class, where plain yellow mustards should be perceived as
“common” and Grey Poupon as “upper class” mustard. Grey Poupon became a
mustard to aspire to, not merely consume. Soon, many in advertising and
design were following their lead, creating products and services that
were based on aspiration and social hierarchy where there had been none
before. Think computers: Mac (creative class) vs PC (corporate working
class). Think cars: Ford (working class) vs BMW (upper crust).
This last sentence really caught my attention. Could it be that part of the problem at Ford and GM goes far beyond – and far deeper – than the quality and performance of their cars – that at least part of the problem is the way their cars are perceived as conveying a certain class status? More to the point, with all the talk over niche markets and long-tails, could it be that the perception of social class remains a powerful tool in marketing to consumer groups? Your thoughts?
There used to be only two manufacturers of spaghetti sauce on the national
scene: Ragu and Prego. Ragu dominated the market. Their sauces were
based on what was considered at the time to be the perfect, authentic
Italian pasta sauce: thin and watery with one basic flavor. Spaghetti
sauce makers aspired to a single perfect sauce in the mould of Grey
Poupon. Ragu hired a fellow to help them revive their struggling
product in the face of the dominant Ragu sauce. What he discovered was
that there is no perfect sauce to aspire to. There are perfect sauces.
In other words, there is no class system (social or aspirational) in
spaghetti sauce. There are many classes (i.e. different kinds) of
spaghetti sauce that would appeal to many different folks.
Interestingly, he found that one third Americans actually like chunky
sauce versus the authentic Italian thin, watery sauce. Prego created a
chunky sauce plus 20 other variations and began to dominate the sauce
market. So, what does this have to do with design again?
Think back to the last time you presented several design concepts to a
client. And of course there was one concept you thought was the perfect
solution. We’ll call it the Poupon concept. The others were not as
“good” for whatever reason. And of course, the client chose one of the
“weaker” concepts. Or maybe you just presented a single, Pouponesque
concept and the client rejected it. We all know how that feels. You
argue your point and still the client wants some “lower class” concept.
Maybe they even pull out something that their friend did for them as an
example. You hold your head (and nose) high and try not to look too
offended by the assumption that this concept could be in the same
design “class” as yours.
Like it or not, we’re creating an
unnecessary class system in design. One design is not in a higher
social class than another any more than Dijion is in a higher social
status than yellow mustard. They are just computers with different
strengths and weaknesses. The sooner we recognize that design should be
devoid of social hierarchy, the more creative both designer and the
designed will become.
Martin Wolf puts his finger on what is perhaps the biggest issue of our time – the growing divergence between “economic progress” and “political turmoil” in the Financial Times (subscription only, hat tip: Mark Thoma).
The world’s economy is in excellent shape, but
its politics is disturbing. ..-. The question is whether and how this
divergence might end. …
One possible outcome
might be the exact opposite of conventional wisdom: economic disappointment and
political stability. … Today, the underpricing of risk and the combination of low interest
rates with fast growth almost invite economic blunders. Meanwhile, the world’s
political leaders, aware of the risks of conflict and reliant on their people’s
prosperity for retaining power, may well continue to muddle through. This
surprising outcome is quite possible.
A second alternative is that the economic and political tracks would continue
in their separate directions. The reason for this would be that, far from being
distinct, the contrasting economics and politics are two faces of just one
globalising world. …
The fact that economics is making our world more interdependent and
connected, while politics remains national or local, makes the contrast between
economics and politics inevitable. …
It is plausible, therefore, that political disarray and economic success will
continue in tandem, the challenge being to avoid the emergence of too wide a gap
between the two. For, as we learned in the first half of the 20th century, a big
enough backlash is capable of causing devastation. In a nuclear age, that
devastation would be greater still. …
A third possibility is that the politics overwhelms the economics, as it did
between 1914 and 1945 and in the communist “second world” and much of the
so-called “third world” for much longer. An attack on Iran – a much-discussed
possibility in Davos – would bring far closer the clash of civilisations… feared by so many… In that case, the
economic optimism of today would prove unfounded – possibly destroyed by a world
of $150-a-barrel oil in the aftermath of the closing of the straits of Hormuz
through which so much of the world’s oil flows.
Yet there is also a far more comforting possibility: the economics overwhelms
the politics. One of the stories of our era is the way in which vast countries
such as China and India are orienting their politics around the goal of
prosperity. This forces them to seek domestic and global stability and accept
international openness and mutual dependence. They see no benefit in
international conflict. It is surely possible that this view of national
priorities will take hold in more of the world, including the Middle East. …
In such a world, the issues discussed in Davos – climate change, the Doha
round and African development – might be handled successfully. The difficulties
of collective action are profound. But …, the less credible are unilateral approaches to a resolution, the more
likely are co-operative ones.
This year’s “Davos dilemma” – the contrast between the world’s favourable
economics and troublesome politics – is clear enough. But its resolution is not.
A range of possible outcomes, from the perverse and catastrophic to the
uncomfortable and even benign, is conceivable. The outcome is not inevitable. We
Jerry Mayer and I take up this theme in our essay on “The Unsettled Politics of the Creative Age.” Click here to download.
What are your thoughts?
I use the occupational statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics all the time. But it’s also worth noting that the Bureau’s researchers produce some of the best research on regional trends and on talent shifts around. Here are links to some of the best studies of the past year.
New report on the Washington DC regional economy: It shows how Northern Virgina has emerged as a second center and also how the region is less dependent on government employment, more diversified and the nation’s leading concentration for business and professional services.
According to this report by Christoper Power: “One of the dominant themes emerging from Davos this year is the power of demographics. Population isn’t exactly destiny, but it’s a huge
determinant in how nations, economies, and companies fare. And the
demographics often reveal trends that, on the surface at least,
contradict the general appearance of a nation’s prosperity.” Amen! The whole story is here.
The new 2007 Index of Silicon Valley is out. This year’s effort by Doug Henton and the terrific team at Collaborative Economics is the best one yet. In addition to tracking trends in high-tech and venture investment, it includes a detailed section on Silicon Valley in a spiky world, with new data on the global distribution of patents, IT employment, and venture investments. This special section has a detailed analysis of talent and diversity which concludes that “Silicon Valley’s diverse ethnic composition will be its chief asset in the global marketplace, where new technology regions in Asia, Israel, and Europe are emerging as competitors and collaborators.”
The report includes a detailed analysis of the externalities of the creative economy, including worsening economic inequality and deepening problems of housing affordability, noting that: “ the region faces significant challenges… the percentage of
first-time home buyers who can afford the median-priced home is 26
percent, down from 31 percent in 2005.”
The report concludes that Silicon Valley is: “growing as a global center for creativity in
business and technology, defining our advantage by being creators of
new products, services, companies and business models. This is a
fundamental restructuring, away from the old manufacturing model toward
a new idea economy. We can see it happening very clearly, and our
region’s companies are taking full advantage. The question for Silicon Valley is whether there will be
broad participation in these activities—particularly for the rising
generation—or whether we’re looking at a future where our companies
prosper through their global networks but the region doesn’t feel
The full report is here.
Have a look at this article on “Place-making for the Creative Class” by James Richard in the current issue of Landscape Architecture magazine. It’s based on the findings of the detailed fieldwork and interviews for his University of Texas master’s thesis on quality of place in Austin, Seattle and Washington DC.
More than 800 million people traveled internationally last year, breaking previous records, according to a new report from the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization. Tourism was up 4 percent in Europe and the Middle East, 7.6 percent in Asia-Pacific and 8.1percent in Africa – and 4.5 percent overall.
Guess what region had the weakest growth? North America, where tourism was up just 2 percent. While one might think the weaker U.S. dollar would encourage travelers to head to America, tourism from Western Europe to the US fell 3 percent last year. According to the report, “widespread confusion over U.S. visa and passport requirements for foreign visitors” is to (hat tip: Shari Young Kuchenbecker).
Brian Knudsen sent me this link to Robert’s Sullivan’s terrific oped in yesterday’s New York Times:
“For the past two decades, New York has been an inspiration to other
American cities looking to revive themselves. Yes, New York had a lot
of crime, but somehow it also still had neighborhoods, and a core that
had never been completely abandoned to the car. Lately, though, as far
as pedestrian issues go, New York is acting more like the rest of
America, and the rest of America is acting more like the once-inspiring
As a New Yorker who has spent two years researching roads and
transportation across the United States, I am saddened to see our city
falling behind places like downtown Albuquerque, where one-way streets
have become more pedestrian-friendly two-way streets, and car lanes are
replaced by bike lanes, with bike racks everywhere.
Then there is Grand Rapids, Mich., which has a walkable downtown
with purposely limited parking and is home to a new bus plaza that is
part of a mass transit renaissance in Michigan. The state is investing
in high-speed trains, and it is even talking about a mass transit
system for the nation’s auto-capital, Detroit, where a new pedestrian
plaza anchors downtown. In Indianapolis, an urban walking and biking
trail will soon link inner-city neighborhoods — something New York
certainly hasn’t tried.
We have lost our golden pedestrian touch in New York mostly because
we still think about traffic as though it were 1950, and we needed
Robert Moses to plow a few giant freeways through town to get the cars
moving again. But the fact is that more roads equal more traffic.
London now charges drivers a fee to enter the core business area,
but here such initiatives are branded as anti-car, and thus
anti-personal freedom: a congestion fee, critics say, is a tax on the
middle-class car commuter. But as matters now stand, the pedestrian is
taxed every day: by delays and emissions, by asthma rates that are (in
the Bronx) as much as four times the national average. Though we think
of it as a luxury, the car taxes us, and with it we tax others.
And yet, here in New York, we even have the debate over bicycle
traffic backwards. We focus on drivers’ complaints about the bicycle
commuter who races through red lights, rather than on the concerns of
the mother biking her child around organic-food delivery trucks that
idle in bike-only lanes. In December, the police say, a bicyclist was
killed on the Hudson River Greenway by a drunken driver speeding along
a bike lane that was completely separated from the road. Asked what was
being done to improve safety in light of the biker’s death, Mayor
Michael Bloomberg suggested that bikers “pay attention.”
“Even if they’re in the right, they are the lightweights,” he told a reporter.
Contrast this response with that of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago
after a 4-year-old pedestrian was killed in a hit and run. Mayor Daley
immediately set up a pedestrian awareness program, suggested that
police sting operations arrest speeding drivers and proposed to add 500
miles of bike lanes, so that there would be one within a half-mile of
One reason New York is losing its New York edge may be that the
city’s revival is partly based on a strange reversal: the city is the
new suburb. Families have returned to the New York that was abandoned
years ago for lawns and better public schools. They’ve brought with
them a love of cars. A new study by Bruce Schaller, a local
transportation consultant, shows that half the drivers in Manhattan are
from the city — and that more city residents than suburbanites drive to
work every day.
New Yorkers always find good reasons to drive. Public transportation
is dirty, time-consuming, a hassle, unsafe. Walking takes too long. The
children will be late for school. But choosing the car is no longer
safe — for your children who already don’t get enough exercise, for
anyone’s lungs or for the future of New York as a livable place. There
are even such things as secondhand driving effects: studies show that
people who live on high-traffic streets tend to stay inside.
The simple and elegant cure for the loss of New York’s inner
pedestrian is to open up car-clogged streets and public spaces. Another
of Mr. Schaller’s surveys, sponsored by the citizens’ group
Transportation Alternatives, showed that 89 percent of people
questioned on Prince Street in SoHo got there by subway, bus, foot or
bicycle, and that the majority would gladly give up parking for more
With a million more New Yorkers scheduled to arrive by 2030, true
sustainability requires the city — or at least its residents — to make
a bold move. Some neighborhoods are already working on it. The Ninth
Avenue Renaissance Project, sponsored by a coalition of residents and
businesses, has held community workshops on converting Ninth Avenue
from Lincoln Tunnel access ramp to boulevard.
The now chic Meatpacking District plans to bring back a space that,
since the area was a Native American village, has been a natural
gathering place for people without combustion engines: wider sidewalks,
public seating and a piazza in the restaurant-surrounded open field of
paving stones could be more like Campo dei Fiori in Rome and less a
spot for crazed U-turns. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the city’s
Department of Transportation has replaced parking spaces near a subway
station with rows of bike racks.
But these are tiny steps. Boston’s mayor has endorsed converting
Hanover Street in the city’s North End into a car-free pedestrian mall.
Why don’t we do the same in part or even all of SoHo? In Los Angeles,
some traffic lights are programmed to change for approaching buses (a
signal in the bus alerts the light). Why can’t the same happen on 14th
And if Boulder, Baltimore, Sacramento, San Diego, Denver, Houston,
Dallas, Portland, Ore., and Bergen County in New Jersey can build light
rails, then why can’t New York finally put one on 42nd Street? Times
Square could be the Crossroads of People instead of the Crossroads of
These are relatively cheap changes — in some cases, they require
just a couple of sawhorses. And New York’s walkability is crucial to
its character, no small part of which is its relative freedom from
America’s plague of strip malls. The great shame of the 22-acre
Atlantic Yards mega-development in Brooklyn is that it seems like
something out of Atlanta in the 1990s.
Not today’s Atlanta. Today’s Atlanta is building a circular hiking,
recreation and even transit trail, a little like the still unfinished
“Roads no longer merely lead to places; they are places,”
wrote John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the landscape historian. We’ve already
lost a lot of New York to traffic. If New Yorkers don’t get out of
their cars soon, the city’s future residents won’t have a reason to.”
Here’s Trulia’s national real estate heat map on the left. You can drill down for more detailed information on states, counties, cities, neighborhoods, and zip codes by clicking on the live map over at their site.
On the right is competitor Zillow’s list of million dollar homes by city. There, you can use Zestimates to create all sorts of interesting data on real estate trends.
And over at the ominously titled Housing Doom, there’s a list (below) of foreclosed properties by state, based on data on Fannie Mae-owned properties. It’s not the list they imagined, dominated as it is by heartland states like Ohio and Michigan, with bubble markets conspicuously absent, at least for the time being. Click on any of these graphics to enlarge.
Your thoughts on what might be behind these trends and patterns?