The Designers Accord is a grassroots movement aiming to integrate sustainable thinking into design practice. This month, Core77 will integrate the list of design firm adopters of Designers Accord into the Design Directory--the global database of design firms, providing a platform for adoption of the accord, and a forum to be featured as an adoptor. Core77's Allan Chochinov invited Valerie Casey, founder of the Accord, to discuss the initiative, how it got started, and how it all might end. (Well, in a good way.)
Allan Chochinov: So let's start at the beginning Valerie. I know that the Designers Accord (then called the "Kyoto Treaty of Design") first came on our radar when we blogged that Frog Design Mind issue from last summer, and gushed on your lead essay in the thing. Can you tell me how this idea started, and what prompted you to pitch a "Kyoto Treaty of Design" in that publication?
Valerie Casey: I'm amazed at how many people ask me about how this started. I suppose it's a natural question, but for me I still find it remarkable how designers at all levels, from all disciplines, in countries all over the world relish hearing what someone else's breaking point / crisis of conscience / epiphany was around this topic. (I literally get dozens of emails each week from people telling me their stories and asking about mine.)
My "spear in the heart" moment (as Ray Anderson calls it) was in a 50-seater plane, flying over Denver through a storm. I had a busy month of client meetings that were inconveniently scheduled on opposite coasts. I was zigzagging between pitching a packaging project for a major delivery service and talking about high-tech diaper designs for an enormous paper goods company. Great people on the client teams, but their companies didn't have sterling eco-friendly reputations. As design consultants, I felt we were in a unique position to have a productive conversation with these companies about creating positive environmental and social impact through design, but I simply didn't have the right arguments or the knowledge required to engage in a meaningful conversation. I understood the basic concepts of sustainability and green design, but I didn't have a framework to translate that awareness into product design.
I was so frustrated because I had the captive attention of these clients, and I consciously chose not to speak about the negative environmental and social effects of the products and services we were planning to design. I vowed that I would never to be in that position again.AC: I think that's often true. A lot of designers have the passion and the intention to do better, but not the know-how. Ironic for a group of people running around calling themselves "problem solvers," but certainly these are some major-league problems.
VC: There's probably a bit of an ego thing here--I've always believed designers can change the world. I was so frustrated because I had the captive attention of these clients, and I consciously chose not to speak about the negative environmental and social effects of the products and services we were planning to design. I vowed that I would never to be in that position again--and I didn't want my team to experience that again either.
I suppose I also realized that there was an urgency to this need for education. I imagined all the designers thinking about this issue, and realized that we were spending so much of our time acquiring knowledge, and not applying that knowledge to innovative design solutions. That's where the collaborative concept was born--I didn't need to learn everything from scratch, I could leverage and contribute to a growing knowledge base across the creative community. We all know great things--and different things; if designers pooled that information, we would be an unstoppable force. And then, we could actually get down to the work we needed to doing: evolving our client's businesses and their consumer's behaviors. This idea of collaboration draws from the principles of open source. The goal of the Designers Accord is to open the conversation around ideas and methods, more efficiently build environmental literacy in the creative community, and then take action.
AC: Well, it's certainly seems true that all designers are thinking about this. I know from my teaching experience that design students are desperate for more information and practical advice on sustainability (it's a different challenge there in educating instructors, of course), and I can't tell you how many design conference speakers I see these days with an image of a landfill showing up within their first 6 slides. But how did your epiphany get turned into action?
VC: Well, I wrote an article explaining why this collaborative concept would work, even though it was counterintuitive to the way our industry currently behaved. My argument was that as designers, we are driven culturally and economically to make radical change, but much of the necessary work in the green movement is based on incremental improvements. I described our legacy of hoarding information (we claim it's proprietary--some is, most isn't) and rejecting incremental improvement as the "designer's dilemma." This is our "dilemma": how can we participate in an open conversation when we are supposed to have all of the answers? And how can we celebrate making change that isn't always sexy and cool?
I concluded the article with a call to arms--a "Kyoto Treaty" of design that listed 10 guidelines for design firms to adopt, including talking to each client about environmental and social impact, and sharing knowledge about methods and practices with each other--even our competitors (especially our competitors).
I was asked to write the article for frog's (really great) newsletter because I was leading up the green efforts within frog at the time, and this was the "green" issue. The funny thing is that the night before the newsletter went live, I was asked to remove the "Kyoto Treaty" part of my article! In my mind, that was the whole point to write it, so I requested that the entire article be published, or nothing at all. They went with the full piece.
AC: I think for me, when I read it, the notion of a "Kyoto Treaty" of design was just so clear. It didn't need any parsing, really, since it implied both a code of conduct as well as a set of practice guidelines. But it's actually more, since it gestures to designers working together to create positive change.
VC: For me, this is an inflection point for the industry. As designers, we pride ourselves on being vertical agnostic--meaning that we have the skills to "learn" our way through problems in a wide variety of markets. And because we work for so many types of companies and brands, we often position ourselves in a neutral zone, so we can dive into any challenge. This is not a bad thing--it's practically a necessity in our business. Of course I'm not suggesting that designers don't express their views--we are an incredibly opinionated bunch, and we have a rich history of social critique (Tibor Kalman is a favorite of mine) and manifestos (First Things First, and again, among others). I suppose what makes the Designers Accord different is that we've recognized the impossibility of being neutral in our current social and environmental circumstances. And as a result, we are altering the boundaries within which we'll work. We're talking to each other and our clients in a different way, and we're recognizing that while the individual is important, our power to make change is in the collective. Judging from the uptake of this movement, I would say that the voices of the creative community are in harmony.
Competitive advantage is not based in the acquisition of knowledge, but the application of that knowledge. After about 15 years working as a design consultant, I can say with confidence that clients look for how that knowledge yields change in the marketplace.
AC: Well, this of course raises the question of cooperation and competitive advantage. Certainly there's good will among design firms (at least most!), but the notion of sharing methodologies and knowledge would, at first glance, run counter to how firms position themselves when pitching jobs. What's paradigm pushing about the Designers Accord is that it creates a body of knowledge and protocol that is indeed "collective"--not only in spirit, but in application. Can you describe the vision for the open-source database, and the expectations for designers contributing freely to it?
VC: I oppose the reason this initiative has been so well received is that for a long time, we all have been grappling with these issues separately. And slowly. The Designers Accord gives people a way to tap into a global network of peers and colleagues to ask questions and talk through different issues. So much of this "green" conversation happens one-on-one--through IM or email, at a conference break or over a glass of wine. What we are trying to do with the Designers Accord is to enable this dialogue at a large scale so more opinions and voices can enter the conversation. The web platform is one of the ways--along with conferences and other less formal, local events--that we can help people engage.
There are three primary goals we have for the web platform: 1) enable the community to communicate about the issues in general, and let micro-communities form around domain-specific areas of interest--essentially we are creating a forum to try out new ideas and get the response and feedback from our peers, and we're giving ourselves permission to ask and share; 2) capture and catalog the best practices, resources, and case studies so that we accumulate a rich library of knowledge, by us and for us; and 3) provide evidence of adherence to the Designers Accord guidelines--while the barrier to entry for adoption of the Designers Accord is fairly low, adopters are accountable and must act on their commitment. The online platform can facilitate that, letting us capture data about activity and contribution to the commons, as well enabling an easier way to enter footprint assessment data.
AC: Hmm. "...Giving ourselves permission to ask and share." I'm not sure that that's a sufficient answer to my "...runs counter to how firms position themselves when pitching jobs" above. To play devil's advocate, how exactly is The Designers Accord going to get design firms to cough up their best practices? Is there some "give one/get one" credit system where firms are incented to share specialized knowledge for some in return? Or are DA adoptors signing up for this sharing system as a default kind of behavior/participation?
VC: I'm glad you're playing devil's advocate--I wouldn't expect anything less from you ;) and it gives me a chance to clarify the idea of co-opetition. (Yes, it's a terrible term, but it's a great concept.)
There is something magically counterintuitive about the notion that collaboration increases competitiveness. In its application with the Designers Accord, there are really two values that are intertwined. The first is a very practical point, and I think of it as an analog to Bill McDonough's eco-effectiveness (cradle to cradle, or waste equals food): it is inherently inefficient for us all to invest in gathering basic information around environmental issues, and to figure out how to how to educate our teams. Why not leverage each other's work, stand on each other's shoulders so to speak, rather than starting from scratch? If those firms who are further along (I have the privilege of working at IDEO, where this domain is fairly sophisticated) shared what they know, then the next round of contribution from the community could be that much richer, and more advanced. The second part speaks to innovation. We can focus on creating better, smarter work if we weren't expending our energy in ramping up basic knowledge.
Essentially, competitive advantage is not based in the acquisition of knowledge, but the application of that knowledge. After about 15 years working as a design consultant, I can say with confidence that clients look for how that knowledge yields change in the marketplace. They look for demonstrable success. A design firm may describe a great process, but a competitive design firm will show how that process yields impact. And truly, there is no "secret sustainability sauce"--it's just one of the mental models that we use to make products, services, environments, organizations great. (Here's a terrible metaphor: just because you buy local produce, doesn't make you Alice Waters.)
Each adopter is asked to talk to clients about sustainability, educate their teams on the issues, publicly opt-in to the conversation, share positive (and negative) experiences with the community, and start to measure their own "ethical" footprint.
AC: The open-source platform is jumping ahead a bit, since the site's not set to launch until this summer. But for now, design firms joining the Designers Accord are really making a promise--a code of conduct--to essentially behave themselves, pledge to discuss sustainability with each client, and do a carbon footprint audit on themselves. Can you talk about some of the challenges in formulating the principles? We've had several discussions on refining these elements, but the basic framework has been there from the start. Were there other protocols that inspired the first formulations?
VC: Your summary is interesting to me--I find that people try constantly to distill the guidelines into a few pithy statements. In fact, the guidelines are much more holistic and rich, and tap into the tactical and strategic. However, your point is well taken--there is a desire to make a quick summary of what is involved in adopting the Designers Accord, and it has been a challenge to articulate that succinctly and meaningfully. Originally, I wrote 10 guidelines, and now we have a clarified and more succinct 5. As it's evolved, the content has remained largely the same: each adopter is asked to talk to clients about sustainability, educate their teams on the issues, publicly opt-in to the conversation, share positive (and negative) experiences with the community, and start to measure their own "ethical" footprint. This last point has probably provided fodder for the most conversation. As designers, we are constantly trying to understand and measure the impact we make with our work. This is very difficult to quantify--so for a start, we are asking firms to measure and reduce their carbon footprint. This measurement is inherently limited--you could have a very low carbon footprint, but be making very toxic products. What we are trying to do with this guideline in particular is to start the conversation and bring forward a certain level of self-awareness. When you start to measure, you see the complexities around the issue, and you become much more sensitive when asking clients--and consumers--to go green. I can see that over the next few years, as a community we could evolve these guidelines to reflect our increasing sophistication around these issues.
AC: Okay, now every journalist I've talked to about the Accord has asked me how design firms will be policed; how the Accord will determine if they are honoring the code of conduct and complying with its tenets. I really hate this question, because it sets up the presumption that the guidelines are onerous and that people want to cheat. It seems to me that if design firms adopt the Accord, then their intention is to run with it full speed ahead. Indeed, one firm I spoke to about adopting didn't need much arm-twisting at all; they said, "Well, we're doing almost all of the things on the Accord already, so adopting will simply push us to do the rest." This was so heartening to me--and makes me want to believe that there are tons of firms just like this, already trying to create positive change, with without the support of a wider network. Do you have the same sense?
VC: I agree, I find this question strange (and a little annoying too). However, I have noticed that it has tapered off a bit as the movement has gathered the momentum and broad adoption it has. (Or maybe that's because I get that wild look in my eye when I'm challenged on this topic!)
Basically, I think the timing around this initiative is just right: there's a global and cultural awareness of the issue, there is hard science and an interesting economic model at play, and people are really motivated to take action. That last element is especially interesting to me because I find that my fellow designers are instinctively engineering a positive future, not following a green ideology or rule set. In fact, it feels completely natural for designers to be participating and leading some aspect of this movement. We're using our innate abilities as communicators and persuaders to make a positive and productive change.
That's all to say that I don't think we can ignore that there might be a competitive / peer pressure angle at play, but I genuinely believe firms, corporations, and educational institutions that adopt the Designers Accord are doing so because they want to take action, they want to be part of the knowledge-sharing network, they want to develop a more robust and meaningful offering for their clients, customers, and constituents.
I also think that everyone in this industry understands that if you're saying something externally--like pledging allegiance to the Designers Accord--then you need an authentic internal story. It would be more damning for a firm not to police themselves--and because the spirit of the initiative is about having the permission to ask questions and share knowledge, there should be no reason a firm wouldn't be motivated to live up to their agreement.
I genuinely believe firms, corporations, and educational institutions that adopt the Designers Accord are doing so because they want to take action, they want to be part of the knowledge-sharing network, they want to develop a more robust and meaningful offering for their clients, customers, and constituents.
AC: So we started at the beginning; let's end at the end: Where do you see the Designers Accord in 5 years? Are we looking at a LEED-like protocol for designers? And if everyone is an adopter, does that mean that the Accord can simply go away? In the same way many have argued that the greatest green achievement will be the absurdity of an overt "earth day," do you see the Designers Accord disappearing as the practice of design necessarily involves the practices prescribed by the Accord?
VC: Ultimately, the Designers Accord isn't about the code of conduct or the 5 guidelines or a specific set of skills, it's about a new mental model. The structure of the Designers Accord is just the way to get at it.
My goal would be that sustainable thinking becomes a fully integrated in how we design. In the same way that the creative industry has embraced new technologies, design research, and the business factors in our work, thinking about the ethical footprint of a product or service should become just another strategic decision-making vector.
I believe this sort of holistic design is achievable in the next few years. And that's one of the reasons we're not going down the LEED path. LEED provides a great scaffolding for a productive conversation to take place. The Designers Accord does this in a similar way, however we've also learned from LEED. There are intrinsic challenges associated with certifying designs in a point system. Also, the community involved in the Designers Accord is so diverse, and it's quite difficult to imagine creating a system that would be relevant to everyone, while still being robust.
I am partial to removing the complexity around this space. For us, to create a LEED-like protocol would be facing inward--the mission of the Designers Accord is to face outward, to provide advocacy, influence, and persuasion to make radical social change.
Valerie Casey heads a global practice at IDEO, where she designs socially and environmentally sustainable products, services, and business models. Valerie founded the Designers Accord, and she publishes and lectures around the world on the role of innovation and community in sustainable design, and is an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts.
Allan Chochinov is the Editor in chief of Core77 and is an adjunct professor at Pratt Institute and an instructor at the School of Visual Arts. He is a board member of the Designers Accord.