Sustainability is the 'ultimate design brief'
"There are professions more harmful than design", wrote the godfather of sustainable design, Victor Papanek in 1972, "but only a few".
Papanek accused designers of creating useless, unnecessary and unsafe products; of wastefully propagating product obsolescence; of creating "stuff-lust" that promoted materialistic lifestyles.
As the 2012 London Design Festival kicks off this week, one wonders how much has really changed. Are the objects of desire emerging from the festival destined to bulge our landfills or secure our future?
A look at the agenda shows scant reference to sustainability so one can only conclude, and hope, these issues are increasingly integrated rather than dealt with as a stand-alone.
The material world that surrounds us – the signs that direct us, the smartphone pages we flick through, the way we use buildings, how we move around cities – is consciously or unconsciously designed. Sometimes this has been done well, but frequently not, even though how things are designed can have significant implications for sustainability.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimates that 75% of UK consumers' carbon emissions come from the use of products and services. We also know that 80% of the environmental impacts of those products and services are determined in the early stages of design. These two figures tell us that sustainability is chiefly about stuff and that the impacts of products or services are pretty much designed-in (or out for that matter) from the very outset.
So design really does matter, not only in how we shape and order our world, but also in determining our impact on it. We've made some serious headway on sustainability reporting and monitoring, governance, production, supply chains and communications, but paid much less attention (and allocated less budget) to how we design more sustainable products, services and systems. One probable reason for this, beyond a few notable individuals, is a lack of leading voices on sustainable design as part of the broader debate.
Though design may be guilty of past malpractice (who wasn't?), there's a growing sense that in the next wave of sustainability – focused on creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation and practical solutions – design skills will feature heavily in our toolkit. Californian design professor and Papanek contemporary, Nathan Shedroff, captured this well when he said: "Design is the problem as well as the solution". If environmentalism's success was in spotlighting sustainability problems to the world, the success of design will be in helping deliver solutions.
Why design for sustainability?
It may be fair to ask how much designers have earned the right to play in the sustainability space if they lack sustainability leadership. Yet there are positive signs of change, from the take-up of design methods like Cradle-to-Cradle and biomimicry, through to industry design collaborations like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. From the many thousands of designers voluntarily signing the Designers Accord sustainability principles, to celebrity designers like Philippe Starck, Wayne Hemingway and Yves Behar pinning their colours to the sustainability mast.
Why, you may also ask, should you turn to a designer, rather than a supply chain manager, factory manager, communications/ad agency or technologist? Great design makes the heart beat faster, solves tricky problems creatively, makes weird, new stuff seem normal, makes things cool, can make lives better and make businesses richer. Steve Jobs understood this intuitively in stating that "design is the fundamental soul of the human-made creation", and great design helped Apple become the wealthiest company there is.
We now need to take design way beyond what Apple has done with it and turn its skills whole-heartedly and single-mindedly to the challenges of sustainability. We need people saying "wow," "ah ha", and "yes" to really great sustainable design.
The sustainable design gallery
It's far better and easier to explain design in action, so we put together a series of 12 examples that illustrate our points about design and sustainability in more detail. The gallery chiefly focuses on industrial or product design examples of everyday products and services. Rather than exhaustively detailing these here, take a look at the gallery.
Design is multi-faceted, tackling many types of challenges and sustainability is obviously complex too. The examples in the gallery cover a breadth of areas, from small changes to giant leaps, from redesign to new design, as well as covering a range of different sustainability issues considered and balanced as part of a design brief.
A roadmap for sustainable design
To explain the most important ways designers can help build a sustainable future we've created a roadmap for sustainable design. It shows how the sustainability movement can get more out of design, plus the main areas and ways that design needs to step up on sustainability. Over the coming weeks I will unpack this roadmap in more detail in a series of articles covering sustainable design.
Reading Papanek's Design for the Real World as a young design student convinced me that sustainable design was the only route for me, and I've worked in the field ever since.
I'm hoping this series triggers two critical things among the sustainability and design communities.
First, that clients and the sustainability movement will turn more to designers for help with sustainability problems and look for more sustainable solutions. Second, that the design community can move beyond the image of being stylists and fashionistas, to see sustainability as the ultimate design brief.