This week marks the launch of Nathan Shedroff's latest book, Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable, published by Rosenfeld Media. The book is a must-read for all designers and businesspeople interested in sustainability and creating value, and Core77 is proud to publish the first excerpt from the book...fittingly, its introduction. Make sure to check out our interview with Nathan Shedroff, where he talks in more depth about the objectives of the book, his thoughts on design and business, and the opportunities for the future.
Also, Core77 readers will receive 15% off the purchase of the book, so read the introduction, read the interview, and then buy the thing for yourself, your staff, your clients, your students, and every other design and businessperson on your giftlist! Enter code CORE77 at the rosenfeldmedia.com site.
This isn't a book about sustainable design. Instead, it's a book about how the design industry can approach the world in a more sustainable way. Design is interconnected—to engineering, management, production, customer experiences, and to the planet. Discussing and comprehending the relationship between design and sustainability requires a systems perspective to see these relationships clearly.
I hate discussions that start with definitions, but the truth is that the terms "sustainable" and "design" at the beginning of the 21st century are both malleable and subjective enough to warrant an explanation. However, I'll try to get the definitions out of the way quickly and efficiently to get to the larger discussion.
What is Sustainability
Design is in great transition, thankfully. Traditionally, design has been practiced with a focus on appearance, whether it is represented in graphic, interior, industrial, fashion, furniture, automotive, marine, or any other kind of design. In truth, design has never been merely about appearance, although that's been the most prominent phenomenon throughout its history. In addition, other disciplines use the word "design" to describe other functions, such as structuring databases, systems, services, or organizations (further confusing its use and meaning). But there have been moments in design's past where truly great designers showed us that design was also concerned with performance, understanding, communication, emotion, desire, meaning, and humanity itself, even though these haven't been the most lasting movements.
Ultimately, this is the design that I want to speak about in this book—design that encompasses the synthesis of usefulness, usability, desirability, appropriateness, balance, and systems that lead to better solutions, more opportunities, and better conditions, no matter what the endeavor or domain.
In the end, there is no reason that great design can't be beautiful and meaningful and sustainable.
Sustainability, too, isn't well defined—even by its own practitioners. To many, it is synonymous with green*(not that green is any more clear) or eco, meaning the environment. To others, it connotes bleeding-heart nouveau hippies, who seem more concerned with plants and animals than people. Sometimes, it's portrayed as a way to promote old, flawed economics as a way of ensuring "business as usual." Often, it's a threat to a way of life that can only, possibly, mean less of everything. Or it can be interpreted as a rational blend of constraints both large and small and a way to serve human needs on all levels, as well as those of other systems. Sustainability means more than all of this. It refers to human and financial issues as much as environmental ones. The systems perspective inherent in sustainability encompasses cultural impacts as well as ecological ones, financial constraints as well as physical limits, and heritage and legacy as well as a perspective about the future.
The most agreed-upon definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Commission** and dates back to 1987:
(Use and) development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Put simply: Don't do things today that make tomorrow worse.
There, that doesn't sound so silly, or dumb, or dangerous, does it? It sounds like common sense. Unfortunately, designers have been very bad about this. The fact that engineers and politicians and marketers and accountants and business leaders and educators and everyone else have been equally bad doesn't absolve us from this reality—or our responsibility.
An even deeper meaning to sustainability points to the need to restore natural, social, and economic systems (and the effect they've had on society, nature, and markets), and not merely "fix" them to make them perform better. This concept of restoration will be addressed later in this book, but first, let's be sure we understand how to fix the systems themselves to reduce the damage created and to stop it from advancing.
The essence of this definition, which may not be obvious immediately, is that needs aren't just human, they're systemic. Even if you only care about humans, in order to care for humans, you need to take care of the system—(the environment) that you live in. And this environment doesn't include just the closed system we call the planet Earth. It also includes the human systems we live in— our societies—and the forming, changing, and constantly evolving values, ethics, religion, and culture that encompass these societies. We aren't separable from each other, and we can't ignore the effects of the whole—nor should we. Indeed, that's where much of the humor, cleverness, and fun lie. To take a systems perspective acknowledges that individual perspectives don't necessarily speak for or represent the whole when talking about the environment, the economy or markets, or any aspect of society. Yet, to take systemic action requires that we act in concert with others, despite our differing approaches. This is what makes sustainability difficult. It is also what poses the biggest design opportunity.
Sustainability, then, needs to address people (known collectively as "human capital"), our cultures, our needs and desires, and the environment that sustains us (known as "natural capital"), as well as the financial mechanisms (known as "financial capital") that make most forms of design thrive. Solutions that don't encompass or work in concert with others across these aspects of our lives significantly reduce their ability to succeed. Therefore, designers need to find ways to address all of these issues in their solutions.
Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?
Despite how optimistic, idealistic, and future-oriented most designers are, design has sometimes created big problems in the world. Even where our best intentions have been engaged, our outcomes have often fallen short— sometimes making matters worse—because we didn't see the whole picture when creating what we envisioned. Where our best intentions haven't been engaged or where we haven't been well-enough informed, design has been dismal. The same is often true of other business functions like marketing, sales, operations, engineering, and so on. We are often responsible for making people feel terrible about themselves, only redeemable by buying this product or that service. In addition, we too often contribute to a philosophy of "more is more" when it doesn't deliver more value and when it simply wastes resources of all kinds.
Designers are taught to make "new" when it isn't really better or when "old" doesn't need replacing. Often, designers are complacent when their engineering and marketing colleagues suggest (or insist on) low quality over longevity, cheap materials, or bad usability.
A sad truth is that almost every solution designed today, even the most "sustainable" one, has more of a negative impact on the planet than a positive one. This means that the world would be better off if most of what was designed was never produced. This is changing, and it doesn't have to be the case in the future, but we have a long way to go in order to change this pattern.
For example, Fritjof Capra's definition of sustainability is "human activity that does not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life." This isn't a bad definition, but it's hazy as to how it assesses what does and doesn't impede the environment. Can you name one thing produced that could be said not to "impede the Earth's ability to support life"? If you take a systems perspective and acknowledge that all things are connected through the system, then every product that humans have created, from the industrial revolution on, could be cast as impeding the natural environment's ability to function properly. This is why I don't consider this to be a helpful guideline for design. That said, it punctuates the impact designers have on the world and why we so drastically need to reframe the solutions we create into a larger context.
All design disciplines have too often focused on creating meaningless, disposable, trend-laden fashion items. My own design education was in automobile design, a discipline that's never been a flag-bearer of function over form. The very term planned obsolescence (for which design and marketing should be forever remorseful for inventing and promoting) came from the car industry. But graphic design is no better, nor fashion design, nor even interaction design. We're all guilty of having our collective attention diverted too often by trends, operational difficulties, or financial challenges. This means that all designers, no matter the experience or domain, can make things better. We can all be part of the solution as the popular saying from the 60s goes.
My friend Eric once explained to me that "fashion is for ugly people to have something special about them." He's right on more levels than he realizes.
For starters, it's no secret that the most beautiful thing you can wear is an authentic smile, and that the most beautiful people among us would be just as beautiful barefoot or in burlap, rather than in Manolo Blahniks. We're a weird species that will spend fortunes to have the latest things, only to throw them away a season later, or spend our time and money on things that cover our bodies rather than make our bodies as healthy, fit, and beautiful as they naturally could be.
There are no ugly people—only impatient or mean or intolerant ones. This is the truth of fashion and design.
Quick, what's the most beautiful complexion, the best height, the correct size of nose, and the right waistline? There is no more an "ugly" than there is one way to be in the world. People and industries create and maintain the whole concept of ugly just so they can sell often ridiculous, temporary products and services to insecure, frustrated, scared, and vulnerable people—and none more so than tweens and teens. This is where the most damage is done and, in the interest of more sustainable futures, where we need to start correcting the problem.
I have no problem with fashion or the part of design that focuses on appearance. Trends, in fact, can be fun, like a party or a film or a destination you visit. But let's not mistake them for more substantial design. They aren't a replacement for quality, valuable, or meaningful solutions. Fashion, at its best, is about responding to people's desires, aspirations, and the reality of materials and the human body within a cultural context in ways that accentuate our better selves. Too often, design has been the mechanism of "cheap and dirty" or "fast and dirty," and it has been used as a weapon to hurt people (emotionally and even physically) just as much as it has been used to enable and inspire them.
Design at its best, however, focuses on people and seeks to understand what it can offer them to make their lives better in some way. Despite the celebrity designers foisted upon us by the design industry, successful design isn't about some personal vision spun out and overlaid onto the world to make it seem shiny and new. Successful design is careful and considered. It responds to customers/users/participants/people, market, company, brand, environment, channel, culture, materials, and context. The most successful design is inseparable from these criteria. The most meaningful design is culturally and personally relevant, and we respond to it on the deepest levels. The best design also has a future. It is sustainable.
Design can be all of this. It needs to be all of this.
It should be clear by now what I mean by design is the problem. Design that is about appearance, or margins, or offerings and market segments, and not about real people—their needs, abilities, desires, emotions, and so on—that's the design that is the problem. The design that is about systems solutions, intent, appropriate and knowledgeable integration of people, planet, and profit, and the design that, above all, cares about customers as people and not merely consumers—that's the design that can lead to healthy, sustainable solutions.
Get over the guilt or shock or outrage or embarrassment or disagreement now, because none of it will be useful to you going forward. And we have a lot of work to do.
*The term green has become so problematic that Adam Werbach, CEO of Act Now Productions, suggests using blue instead. This alludes to a natural color that is devoid of hippie overtones, friendly to business, and is ubiquitous on the planet (the sky). www.saatchis.com/birthofblue
**For more definitions of sustainability terms, consult the Dictionary of Sustainable Management. www.sustainabilitydictionary.com
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