The world is not enough

recycled plastic bottle chair

Some of the opinions in this post might not be on trend, I’m happy with this. It is also worth mentioning that I reference ‘design’ as an element of production at scale, as opposed to the practice of an individual maker.

Western design education cares too much. From America to Europe one theme seems to feature highly in design education: sustainability (or more euphemistically: environmental responsibility, renewable energy or ‘green’ projects). This strikes me as odd.

Let’s roll back a bit. I’ve been a professional designer, both in-house and as a consultant for fifteen years. In that time, not once has a client expressed any interest in any environmental or sustainable issues through their brief. In parallel, environmental issues have never formed the backbone of any meaningful discussion in my professional career, either with clients or my team. Why is it then, that student degree shows, curricula and projects seem to be so heavily engaged in the topic? I’ve been fortunate to act as a visiting lecturer and tutor in numerous universities and have witnessed a consistent focus on the sustainable elements of student work, often at the expense of aesthetics, critical rigor or objective integrity.

Design is a multi-faceted discipline. A three year degree course is barely enough time to scratch the surface, particularly with the complex practical skills which need to be developed. I believe too much weight is being placed on creating ‘utopian’ designers as opposed to ‘useful’ designers. This is probably an unpopular opinion.

To clarify: there have been some heinous acts perpetrated against mother nature at the hands of manufacturing. The irresponsible use of resources and materials has caused significant and perhaps irreparable damage to the planet. I understand this and accept that it needs to change, but let’s also remember that design cannot be held solely responsible for such acts. When we see a bottle cap in the carcass of a dead albatross a very short forensic exercise begins. We notice the disconnect between nature and product. We observe the bottle cap objectively. We take note of the shape, the color, the placement of the logo and the material choice. We conclude that the decisions made in those arenas are the root cause of the evident damage. This is an unfair judgement.

In order to bring a product to market individuals from a variety of disciplines need to come together. The marketing, product planning, engineering, finance, retail, distribution, logistics, roadmapping, legal, corporate, sales and strategy teams all have independent agendas which pull at the product throughout it’s creation. Designers often feel very self-important in their role as creators, but it’s my experience that we rarely hold the casting vote when it comes to defining what the product is, what it does, how it is made or how it functions. That’s the truth, like it or not. That bottle cap is bright pink, non-degradable, buoyant and harmful to seabirds not because of the designer, but because of the cumulative effect of a thousand decisions made by a thousand individuals in a thousand departments, including the designer.

As designers our job is to create the best possible outcome from a collection of fairly heavily constrained elements. We can raise concerns and focus our efforts on making the product more sustainable, but if we are working at scale our concerns often go unheeded – worse still we become marginalized. The strength of design’s voice in the vast majority of companies is little more than a squeak when compared to corporate functions. I appreciate i am painting a bleak picture, but I want to be honest.

Western design education could be at risk of creating a generation of utopian dreamers, with little or no understanding of the commercial realities of their craft or how it sits in the wider picture. In parallel, a cursory look at the curricula of the worlds finance, marketing and business schools yields zero focus on environmental or sustainability issues. The voice needs to start somewhere, and things need to change, but if design continues to pitch it’s tent so squarely in this arena we may lose some of the commercial respect which we have gained in recent years. Design should not become a crusade, but it shouldn’t roll over quietly either. Environmental sustainability is not ‘the other guys’ problem, it’s everyones problem. We need a unilateral approach across all disciplines if we are to achieve meaningful change.

May I suggest that we replace focussed sustainability modules with a wider ranging ethical element to our teaching. This would include the responsibility issues related to environmental factors, but also bring our discipline more into line with similar teaching found in other practices. In so doing, we would not only equip our designers with the requisite understanding and focus, but with the lexicon necessary to clearly communicate with our peers.

We should understand the truths of commercialism. That way we can better play with it.