How can we start thinking about sustainability as an intrinsic part of good design, instead of an addendum?
How can we embrace the potential impact of our craft to design new services, shape organizational behavior, and enable policy change, not just churn out artifacts?
How can we assume accountability for what our designs influence, and not just the design itself?
These are the questions many of us have been asking constantly—and answering with only with limited success—for years. I am reminded of the confusion designers have around this topic each time I publicly speak about sustainability—the first comment from the audience during Q+A is always the same: "Tell us what to do!" We are a profession who spends our entire lives generating new ideas, challenging the status quo, and building glorious concepts from nothing, yet remarkably we are paralyzed when confronted with the issue of how to meaningfully engage in the most important issue of our time.
This is the challenge the Designers Accord sought to address when it started 3 years ago. The concept was simple: if designers, educators, and business leaders could openly share knowledge and experience about sustainability, we would collectively (and more quickly) build our intelligence around these issues, and then generate more innovative and world-changing ideas.
We all know that a single solution, technology, or person will not solve the humanitarian and climate change challenges we face. There is no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot. One of the best ways we can advance our mission to practice sustainable design is to make sure the next generation of designers will graduate with a value system that reflects the new realities of our profession. With this in mind, two weeks ago the Designers Accord launched another means of sharing knowledge with the Toolkit to integrate sustainability into design education.
The Toolkit is part of a project that started last Fall, when 100 progressive design educators, activists, practitioners, alums, and students came together for a two-day Summit of highly participatory brainstorming around the topic of design education and sustainability. This charrette was the first of its kind to bring together such a professionally diverse group of individuals from a landscape of programs and projects. For two days, individuals from design schools and community colleges, critical theory programs and ecology centers, design firms and art studios intensely discussed and worked through a set of 8 questions that were culled from pre-Summit meetings:
How can we continue to move design education forward?
How can we create a common language?
How can we communicate best?
How can we design a sustainability curriculum?
How can we update existing design programs?
How can we turn abstract ideas into concrete actions?
How can we help students work in more meaningful ways?
How can we measure success?
The methodology used to tackle these questions combined a series of convergent and divergent brainstorm "lenses" for each of the topics. These lenses were applied in 8 successive and highly focused small group worksessions lasting 45 minutes each. The motivation for creating this framework—which at times felt like a design relay race—was to ensure that each attendee of the Summit could contribute their ideas to each topic. After the Summit, a small team edited the content so that it would be a usable, engaging, and living resource for the creative community.
Some of the most inspiring parts of the Toolkit are in the Mindset sections within each topic. Part fortune cookie, part philosophical reflection, and part design direction, their function is to help users of the site internalize the principles and values of sustainability, rather than outline a specific set of directions for sustainable design. A few favorites are:
Think big, think small
Reject the "what?" and ask "why?"
Talking about sustainable design is not the best way to talk about it
Nurture, not shock and awe
Hand off the torch
Save the world, kill your program
Understand the importance of checking, instead of check-listing
The Examples section transforms the Toolkit from being a document that just records the Summit proceedings to being a platform that enables for future-forward idea exchange. Each section's set of examples contains discussion points, activities, and projects that are the real-world manifestations of the Mindsets. Through a very simple interaction (no site registration is needed), site users can review sample course exercises that are designed to take place over various timeframes—in 1 class session, over 1 to 3 weeks, or during the entire semester. Users can also provide feedback and comments to enrich or improve other examples.
The Toolkit is both a way of thinking and a repository of activities created to prepare designers for the challenges they will face as professionals. The current examples have been layered and hybridized to reflect the best thinking from the Summit collective. What is revolutionary about the Toolkit though is its long-term potential to enable the creative community to collectively build the curricula that will shape the future of design. Imagine a recent graduate reflecting on their education and returning to the site to create addendums to existing course projects, or to create new topics for discussion. Imagine a seasoned design professional identifying a gap in knowledge amongst emerging professionals and posting an exercise to help make the next design graduates even stronger. Imagine the epiphany a design professor might have with the success of an experimental course project, now she can share it not just with her peers, but the broader educational community.
The next generation of designers must be prepared to use their craft conscientiously in an increasing complex global society. Our new world order requires not just learning about material selection and design for disassembly, but also how to interact with diverse communities, engage in productive debate, articulate thinking not just solutions, and understand that object-generation is not synonymous with success. Preparing new designers for this even better than we have prepared ourselves is of paramount importance, and the Toolkit is a platform that allows us all to participate and contribute—as teachers, students, professionals, and citizens.