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If an item cannot be maintained – in part, or in full – it’s likely to meet its demise much sooner than intended. Designed for Life products are thoughtfully engineered from the outset with standardized parts and replaceable components that extend the lifespan of the overall product. This makes restoring, repairing, or even upgrading, easy and desirable.

If an item cannot be maintained – in part, or in full – it’s likely to meet its demise much sooner than intended. Designed for Life products are thoughtfully engineered from the outset with standardized parts and replaceable components that extend the lifespan of the overall product. This makes restoring, repairing, or even upgrading, easy and desirable.

In order for something to last a lifetime, it needs to be able to be maintained, or even upgraded, as life happens and as technology improves. A few decades ago, when products and home appliances were mostly mechanical, not relying heavily on electronics, they could be easily maintained by their owners or by professionals. Today, it is not uncommon for some or all parts of a device to be out of print and unavailable. Or, for the recommended solution from the manufacturer to be, simply, throw it away. Planned obsolescence and increased complexity in design and manufacturing makes this less and less feasible. Often, things are made in a way that makes servicing them impossible from the outset, just thanks to poor planning, careless design, or outright greed—wanting to sell you another. On the other hand, demand for serviceability is returning. It might look almost impossible to maintain your iPhone anymore, but we’ve seen companies that offer solutions even for a complex product like a smartphone.

Not so long ago, washing machines and refrigerators could run for decades. Industry largely moved away from this by the late 1950s when the concept of planned obsolescence was first made popular. This business strategy enabled companies to sell more products and predetermine the product’s lifecycle—often even engineering certain elements to fail within a prescribed timeframe. It was not by accident. At first, this movement was introduced as an overt effort to sell more stuff and lift the country out of the great depression of the 1930s. But before long, business for the companies engaged in this new tactic was so good, it led to the business cycles we are familiar with today. Planned obsolescence resulted in artificially increased consumer demand. Designers intentionally changed the products based on a new set of criteria that said, instead of quality and reliability, we actually want products to fail after some amount of time and to not be repairable so consumers will have to buy new.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

We, as consumers, need to use our own behavior and buying choices in a way that forces companies to reverse these business decisions. To do this, we should shift our consumer behavior from buying more to buying better. We need to invest in repairable, longer-lasting, better products. For years now, we’ve seen grassroots trends in the market with people crying out, wanting to be able to maintain their products. The popularity of people like the Pioneer Woman, who blogs about growing and making things from scratch, as well as the movements and legislation around rights to repair. The “right to repair” one’s own products is, of itself, a controversial topic amongst consumer-rights advocates and the sustainability-minded. People are annoyed enough that products are not built well to begin with, and further insulted that the design of those products, and the policies of the organizations that purvey them, intentionally don’t allow users to repair or replace them. Think of the battery inside the modern smartphone in your pocket as a pertinent example. Only a decade or so ago, it was common to simply buy a new battery and click it in as yours grew weaker over time. That was, of course, intentionally removed as an option before long. Another common and obvious example is mattresses. For decades, a mattress could be rotated and flipped upside down as a simple way to extend its life—allowing the foam or springs inside to recover in the spots that are most heavily used. It is no accident that if you visit a mattress store today, in the name of “Pillow-Top” construction, there are zero mattress options that allow the user to flip it over for common maintenance. Not to mention, there is no actual engineering advantage to this.

The Maintainable tenet is, in part, making sure that DFL products will be able to meet the demands of these right-to-repair organizations, as well as the legislation that is likely in our future. It’s a way to make sure products will last for a long time in people’s homes, but will also be able to be part of the marketplace without major adjustments when society finally gets around to addressing this problem. As we ask designers to create forward-looking products, we also try to be as forward-looking as possible within our design framework. The good news is that, hopefully, change is coming.

Photo by Florian Olivo on Unsplash

However, the primary motive behind this tenet is derived from my own belief that we should be able to maintain the things in our life and that things should be able to simply last longer. Let’s say that one of my daughters breaks our glass KitchenAid mixer bowl. The fact that I can just replace the bowl on my mixer, the part most likely to break, means that we’re able to keep the bulk of the product in our home and out of a landfill (Even the shards of the glass bowl could be recycled which is an important feature of another DFL tenet). The more parts that can be repaired and replaced, the better. The ability to repair and replace parts increases the longevity of a product. It can seem counterintuitive, that we’re asking designers to assume some parts of the product will break or wear over time. But if designers all had 4 kids, they would know that glass bowls don’t last forever. By anticipating failures, and making them easy for consumers to replace, the core product can stay in the consumer’s home for much longer.

One of the ways KitchenAid and many more brands are able to achieve this ease of maintaining their product is with the standardization of parts and methods of construction. One of the challenges to make things repairable and replaceable is that the initial design has to take into account what might need to be replaced in 3, 5, or even 10 years. It requires a modularity in the design process. Depending on the product and the company size, this can either help or hurt costs. Designing things to be taken apart and maintained, means screws, locks, and other fasteners instead of the less expensive and less labor-intensive nails and adhesives. It’s a different approach to how you design something, how you choose methods of assembly, as well as looking at the future use of the product and its potential weak points through long-term usage. Sometimes these decisions require designers to sacrifice a bit of beauty, in the form of invisible glue, for maintenance functionality, like screws. These are trade-offs we should be willing to make in the name of DFL—and in most cases, there are still elegant aesthetic solutions to be had. Sadly, not only do many design firms choose the former, covertly (even they won’t speak it out loud) in the name of planned obsolescence, but the mindless introduction of “new models” or “series”—perhaps each year—perhaps retailer by retailer—has the added, and often unspoken, business benefit of causing less standardization, more obsolescence, and ultimately more units sold.

It’s easy, then, to criticize the right-to-repair movement for its potential erosion to sales and business, and perhaps the overall economy. I don’t shirk from this accusation. My conclusion is simple: Firms marketing products have simply grown too large. For instance, I don’t believe that Apple should have ever become one of the largest organizations in the world from a revenue standpoint—certainly not on the back of just a few products. The obsolescence they designed into their products and business models have caused unnatural growth, resulting in more units sold than any society ever needed….with it, the harvesting of more natural resources than that industry ever needed. Even as the CEO of a product-based company myself, I am okay with this challenge. I believe that it won’t be damaging to the overall economy—the dollars will find their way to other places, other industries, perhaps vacations, eating out, or who knows what. The challenge for product companies who do have ambitions to become the biggest or best then becomes this: Get more innovative, and more competitive in more categories. Channel all that creative innovation that it takes to create model after model of immediately obsolete, intentionally non-maintainable products, towards more actual products, product categories, and real, meaningful step-wise innovation that improves life for many (ideally leveraging the Designed For Life framework).

Finally, Maintainable doesn’t refer only to the replaceable parts of a product. It also touches the interaction between the product and its user on a daily basis. Going back to the KitchenAid example, cleaning the machine and attachments of batter and frosting is as easy as wiping with a sponge or throwing them in a dishwasher– the same can be said of Sactionals Covers in the laundry. This is the type of everyday maintenance that keeps a product looking or acting like new. Designing a product from the user’s point of view and addressing their potential pain points makes the product more useful, more user-friendly, and essentially increases its lifecycle. In other words, making something user-friendly means keeping maintenance easy. You can always hire a company that comes with their giant steamers and spends half a day vacuuming your sofa, or just do it yourself by removing the covers and washing them in your washing machine. In this way, not only is cleaning or maintaining possible, it’s easy. This will require some outside-the-box thinking, as well as some questioning of existing systems, to break the mold of products today and make them truly maintainable.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

I believe that the ability to repair products also helps to endear the products to us. Studies have found that people are more partial to their Ikea furniture than their more expensive pieces because of the pride they take in the work they personally put into assembling them. The same is true for owners of vehicles who change their own oil or can perform maintenance on them (likely an older vehicle, before so much of this designed obsolescence became hard-wired in). Pride of ownership should not be undervalued. I spoke in an earlier article about my 1970 Ford Bronco. Not only do I derive pleasure from driving it, but I like working on, changing the oil, replacing fan belts, and regular maintenance. I don’t have the time to do all the repairs myself, but I take satisfaction in knowing it’s partially my work that is extending the lifetime of my car and making it pleasurable for me to drive. What I love about the DFL tenets is how one feeds the other. Being able to maintain my car adds to its “lovability”. The more I love it, the more I feel connected to it, the more I keep it around…


About Shawn

Founder & CEO of Lovesac, a Designed For Life furniture company. I have a goal of building products that are truly sustainable. Would you believe, I won a $1 million investment on Fox’s “Rebel Billionaire” show in 2005 and became President of Virgin Worldwide with Richard Branson’s companies for a time. Since then, I've grown Lovesac into a national brand with over 150 showrooms and more than 1000 employees, recognized in Furniture Today as America’s fastest growing furniture retailer. I'm becoming known for my invention of Sactionals® Lovesac’s industry-disruptive sofa invention. Check out my vlog on YouTube! Get Off The Couch, with Shawn Nelson of Lovesac

One Comment

  • Merrie Uberstine says:

    I have been paralyzed for 5 1/2 years and have not sat on a sofa yet. I have been told that your design is the only one that is possible for me to transfer in and out of. Thank you for making my life a little easier. I am thankful.

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