What Designers Need To Know About Economic Class

Recently the blogosphere blew up over a post by Danah Boyd about classes on MySpace versus Facebook. Boyd contended that each site appealed to differing economic classes. Facebook has a “cleaner” look, some people argued, making it “higher class.” What does that even mean? Well designers, here’s what you need to know about class.

In his famous book Distinction, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that one’s “taste” was not just something one simply “has.” No, Bourdieu said, “taste” is a function of your economic class, and higher classes pursue “distinction.” He surveyed many thousands of French people and found that from fashion to food, people strove to distinguish themselves economically through their use of symbolic objects.

Bourdieu points out that merely expensive things are not “distinguished.” One can be adorned with many expensive items but not have one iota of distinction. Imagine the young woman who wears several designer objects at once. Or the middle-aged man who wears diamonds and gold because he thinks it’s “classy.” Such goods are indeed expensive but they do not connote higher class. Bourdieu noted that this paradox is related to the rich’s desire to maintain its preeminent social position. The “nouveau riches” will never have “what we have.”

Designers of all media tend to unconsciously understand this concept. Perhaps the designers of Facebook designed its clean Web 2.0 look to contrast with the “down market” or “ghetto” look of MySpace, with its garish colors and poor user experience.

When designing a new object, keep in mind the following:

  • Understand the class position of your target user. Imagine what clothes this person would buy and wear. Imagine their closet, their garage. What kinds of goods does this person use to adorn herself? Ensure your design object matches that type of good.
  • High-class objects embody such values as “refinement,” “subtlety,” and “understatement.” Clean objects with streamlined looks and no obvious connection to price are implicitly higher class. Those with refinement (but maybe not money) will be attracted to them.
  • Don’t design higher-class objects in the hopes of creating a “better” object. Higher class objects are off-putting to middle and lower class people. In the words of Bourdieu, lower-class people “refuse what they were refused.” Lower-class people do indeed have money to spend, and good design serves the needs of people. If you improperly privilege the “refined” over mass appeal, you will unwittingly reduce your number of potential users.
  • Exclusivity is the elixir of the elite. Designing luxury items necessarily entails limited editions, smaller product runs, fewer accessories or add-on products. The secret to creating truly successful luxury items is committing to the unique. This may not be very profitable (even if you do charge an “exclusivity premium”). But after an exclusive product is created, it can be “copied” for mass production. The “original” will never lose its distinction, especially if it has a clear imprimatur.
  • Read the best Dr. Seuss story of all time: The Star-Bellied Sneetches Who Lived On The Beaches. It will tell you everything you ever needed to know about class and design.

2 responses to “What Designers Need To Know About Economic Class

  1. Pingback: When to do qualitative and qualitative research « Design Research

  2. Pingback: Detecting Social Media Bullshit: A Sociologist’s View « Copernicus Consulting

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