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Cheap in a good way: flat pack and beyond

Constant cost cutting can make things “cheap” in a bad way, but recently we’ve seen examples of making things cheap in a good way. Flat pack furniture might be one, possibly arguable, example where things are made cheaper in a good way.

Another example is Professor Manu Prakash’s  $0.50 microscope—the “Foldscope” that is printed on paper, shipped flat, and folded into shape in minutes. Professor Prakash is committed to frugal science. The foldscopes will contribute to the infrastructure for attacking diseases like malaria, which strike areas where few resources are available for testing and treatment.

Stanford Professor Manu Prakash and the
“foldscope” Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Flat packing and flat microscopes both preserve functionality but make goods more accessible. That accessibility can be important in sustainability terms for improving well-being and possibly reducing ecological damage Although if accessibility speeds up consumption, ecological impact might not be reduced.

This topic would make a good essay subject, class discussion or brief. With these examples you could start by investigating “flatness” but the broader discussion might consider the question of “cheapness.” When is cheaper better and how do designers achieve “good” cheapness? What are the tensions between cheapness and accessibility on the one hand and increases in the pace and scale of consumption on the other?

Please let me know in the comments–what cases can you think of where redesign made something cheap in a good way?

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