The common thread between Jury Captains for our Core77 Design Awards is they are all experts in their field with fascinating stories as to how they got there. That's why we love getting to know them better in interviews we share with our audience. In 2022, we're proud to have a number of judges out there actively changing the industry as we know it, including the Jury Captain of our very first Sustainability Prize, PROWL Studio Founder Lauryn Menard.
When asked how she would define the ultimate mission of her newfound studio PROWL, designer Lauryn Menard responded without pause: "to have as many clients who give a shit as possible." As the leader of a consultancy for a variety of companies with an overarching focus on regenerative design solutions, Menard believes it's crucial to start building organizations with uncompromised standards. "I want PROWL to be a change leader within the design field that can help brands actually get through the weeds of what they want to be in the future. I want to help navigate brands towards this more optimistic future. And what that might mean is allowing them to start not only eliminating materials or practices that are no longer healthy or have never been, but to also adopt strategies or materials we know will create this more optimistic future and bring those into the limelight," Menard says.
PROWL founder Lauryn Menard outside of her studio
We recently chatted with Menard to ask some questions about how designers go about creating a value-driven design business, the real ways designers can have a sustainable impact, and her evaluation criteria for a truly sustainable product.
Tell me a little bit about your story—what led you to where you are now with starting PROWL?
I grew up in the Adirondack Mountains and spent all my time outside catching frogs at the pond and peeling bark off of trees. I didn't really recognize that as a formative time until I was much older, but I knew I really wanted to create. And so when I was an adolescent, and I was constantly drawing, there was this recognition of, "Oh, Lauryn is creative." I found my way into fashion eventually through magazines.
I got to fashion school and was like, "well, this is not really working." I actually had one professor pull me aside one day and say, "I just want to be honest with you. You're a designer, but this fashion thing isn't for you." I was so angry at the time, but turns out she was right. But from there I had the opportunity to study at this school called RPI, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, under this man named Burt Swersey in a program called Design Innovation in Society, and that was the second school I attended. And that was the one piece of my life I think about every single day.
In that program, we studied problem finding. We would look for problems in society and nature and human behavior, and use design to work towards solutions to those issues. And Burt, who was a genius and passed away a few years ago, he would always say these words: "Don't do bullshit, don't do nonsense." And I took that to heart, maybe a little bit too dramatically and a little bit too literally at times, but I felt like what I was doing at that moment was bullshit.
So I moved to the West Coast after an internship with Dwell Magazine, wanted to go into furniture, and from there on out, like every career I've ever had, I was just questioning what I'm doing, questioning what the industry is doing and wanting more out of everything.
Through my career—I've gone through furniture, footwear, some portions of architectural strategy—and through the thread of all of these things I've really dug deep into the future of these industries. And also digging deep into the materiality of these industries. It took me about a decade to be able to see that common thread between all of those and once I landed on that, I recognized that's my special sauce. And luckily, in this moment of materiality, and this material Renaissance we're in, I saw this as a time to leverage that and have a larger impact by being a consultant, rather than being inside an organization. That change from the inside is very meaningful, but it tends to be a slower burn. But PROWL is always the outsider coming in with a different perspective. I feel like you can make more radical changes, but you can also make faster changes. So that's why it felt like this was the perfect time to do that.
Your mentor emphasizing to "not do bullshit" brings to mind sustainability, because right now there is, frankly, a lot of bullshit going on. Is there anything within the industry at large that needs to be re-evaluated or investigated?
In the world of design right now, I'm going to call bullshit on the obsession over the petri dish. We're in a moment where designers are learning they can be inventors of materials, anyone can be an inventor of material, using things available in their kitchens that are being wasted in their trash. And this is an incredible moment to be in for materials because there's been this buildup of momentum for the past 10 years. People like Neri Oxman and Suzanne Lee started making kombucha leather and working with worms to make silk and they're all really interesting ideas, and they're pushing us toward the right direction.
However, What I'm seeing happen is designers getting stuck in these petri dishes. There's this competition almost where it's like, who can create the coolest looking sample of material? And then it blows up on the internet. But then you think, cool, what are we going to do with these materials? What are we going to make with them? Do any of them make sense because there's no one tracking it. For example, say we're using a starch-based plastic instead of petroleum. That's fantastic. However, has anyone looked at why it's better? Or has anyone looked at what the end of life looks like? Because if you have all these biomaterials living out in the world, and we're at the end of their life, how do we know that's not going to cause a problem? We really need to make sure that we're not creating the next plastic problem—just because it can break down doesn't mean it can't cause problems.
On an optimistic note, I'd like to see designers using their strengths of form and manufacturing and things like that, and collaborating with people who are experts in designing on the material or molecular level. I think that's where we're going to see a lot of really interesting things happening. And pushing the limits of the product world in general.
As someone striving in this space, how does one create a successful studio or practice founded on value-driven and uncompromising standards? Do you have tips for other people and things you adhere to that help you in your practice?
I can tell you why I did it, because I had a lot of my mentors who I trust very, very deeply tell me not to. When I sent them my pitch, they said, "You've got to rein it back in a little bit. You can't be so outward with your voice and your stance on things." And to me, the people who I've engaged with are going to know if they're on board with our way of thinking much faster. So what's been interesting is the feedback we get from clients, which is that they already know if they're aligned or not by the time they access our website or see our pitch deck. So it kind of breaks down this weird first date, and it kind of gets you to the second date a little bit faster. I've really enjoyed that because I can say, yeah, this is what we stand for.
And even if clients don't know anything about regenerative design or they don't even know where to start, we can help educate them on what steps to take. So it's been a really interesting journey. I think when you are mission-driven, you also have to be willing to educate, and you have to be a little bit more willing to have people not respond to you because it can be a little bit too much for some people.
But to get back to the "why"—I read this book called The Future We Choose by [Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac] who hosts the podcast Outrage + Optimism, and also wrote the original Paris Agreement. But it really changed the way I thought because I have always thought about myself as an environmental activist. Back when I was in school, my second major was sustainability studies at RPI, and I've always been really actively trying to improve and lessen my impact, I've been an advocate of alternative energy, but I have struggled with what the designers seat at the table looks like when it comes to these mission-driven initiatives. But one of the points they make in that book is, all of the environmental problems are extremely overwhelming, and you're going to end up with massive amounts of what they call "future fatigue" if you don't choose where you want to have an impact. If you combine what you're good at, and what you're passionate about, then you can start to point at where you can have the most effect. And I knew I'm extremely passionate about materials and I have a design background. So if I combine those two things, and I point at that target, then I'm going to be able to have much more of an impact than if I were to just say, "we're a design studio and we work on sustainability initiatives." I think it's been really useful and helpful. So I'd say if someone wants to go about a mission-driven studio, I would give them that same advice, which is to find that target and be more pointed in your communication.
A textile designed by PROWL with BYBORRE includes abstracted depictions of current and recent natural disasters - one being the California Camp Fire and melting ice from glaciers in the Arctic.
What would a holistic definition of sustainability be? What does that look like for a company, or a product, to incorporate truly sustainable initiatives?
You mentioned the word holistic—it's kind of an integral part of this whole design process. And that's actually how we teach it in Bio Design at CCA is. Say, for example, you get a product brief from a company and your main goal is to create a product but make it environmentally friendly. If I saw a product, and I read it was environmentally friendly, in order for me to think it was a success is if it considers its context, if the materials it's made of makes sense for the context and for where this thing lives, for its function. And if the product can prove it's either making humans healthier, or the earth healthier in some way, shape, or form.
But it's a slippery slope when you talk about human health, because, for example, like we'll talk about inhalers for asthma—that is a medical product, but it's made out of plastic. So it physically makes humans healthier, but it's made out of this material where nothing can be done with it. But there is a way to be able to design something to solve problems that are both healthy for humans and healthy for the environment. And if you find there might not be, then to question, does the product need to exist? Because not every problem needs to be solved with a product. Maybe it's an organizational design. Maybe it's a community service, maybe it's something else. I think we should get to a point where we question, why the hell do we need this thing? And sometimes choosing to not make the thing is the right decision.
Being an environmental activist is also about trying to inform consumers as much as they can about these products. There are so many enraging facts out there, like how plastic food storage can leach chemicals into our foods. And just because something is BPA-free doesn't mean it's not equally as harmful. So there's an aspect of not only changing the products, but giving people information that makes them passionate about fighting against it.
Yes, exactly. Education is everything. And it doesn't always have to be on a label to scare you away from it. That's the government solution, like prop 65 in California. Their solution to products with cancer-causing chemicals in them is to slap a sticker on it when you make a product. You put the sticker on it so you can dodge a potential lawsuit. Well, since we know that and we know how to label that chemical, why not redesign the things that have it in it? It's just backwards to me. We all have to make a living and I understand how we got here, but it's just we have to slow down and actually ask ourselves, question everything. It's a bit of an idealistic way of thinking and working, but I think our design timelines can be extended—we're just always trying to rush to this quarterly release or whatever.
You've told me you prefer the term "regenerative" to "sustainable"—what does regenerative design mean to you, why does it feel important to rephrase the term sustainable design? Why does the language matter?
I like to use this analogy or metaphor about a group of friends and an event. The way I think about sustainability is, you're trying to reach a status of equilibrium essentially. So if you're trying to reach that, say, you want to have a party, and you want people to show up at 6:30. And you know if you tell them to show up at 6:30, then they're all going to show up at seven or 7:30 or eight or nine, no one shows up when you expect them to. So if the expectation we're setting is sustainability, which literally means to maintain itself, then I cannot imagine us ever reaching that or beyond, which is where we need to be.
So why I propose replacing the word sustainable with regenerative is because regenerative is a much more aspirational goal. Regenerative means it's a feedback loop. It's improving the Earth. It's improving human health. It's healing from the harm we've caused. And with sustainability, I also question, what are we trying to maintain? The Earth cannot handle what we're trying to maintain anymore. You know, we're one tiny little species that's been on the planet for something like 1% of the lifetime of the planet and we are creating soon-to-be mass extinction. We've been able to cause this massive problem, which means we are capable of undoing it. But we can only do that if we're shooting for regeneration.
What is one of your biggest wishes about what practices ought to change in the design industry within the next few years? What are you hoping to see transform in that traditional practice and process?
The design process needs to be rethought, I think. As designers we are trained like we're in the army, to have a process. We are given a brief, we jump face-first into research and concepts immediately. We go straight into form. And then sometimes you consider materiality in the exploration and you just go into tunnel vision. In tunnel vision, it's like iteration, iteration, iteration, and then you put the product out and I am wanting to kind of mess that up. I'm also trying to untrain myself, which has been really hard because I speak to clients who I want to start considering the end of a product's life while conceptualizing it. It changes the process completely because you're working both backwards and forwards at the same time. And then you're meeting in the middle, which is really interesting, but it takes time. So there has to be room for mistakes, and there has to be room for failure.
It's not going to work at a commercial level immediately. But I do want the design process to change—I want it to be taught differently in schools. And when thinking about the end of life, I think bio design will actually become the new industrial design. Because the way we teach it [at CCA] is exactly how industrial design should be taught. But maybe we shouldn't also be using the word industrial anymore, because yes, it's mass-manufactured, but what if it's mass bio-fabricated? What if it's mass-grown? Also, what if it's not mass anything? What if everything becomes more localized? I would love for someone to actually recreate the way product design is executed. And maybe it doesn't need to have rules but it definitely needs to be shaken up for sure. So that's my big hope and dream.
Okay, my last question—what are your tips for fighting against the inclination of climate doom?
Ooh, yeah. The future fatigue is real. And although, as a stubborn optimist myself, you can just say, "be more optimistic, let's put a smile on and just do what you can," many people have to actually go to therapy for environmental depression. There are psychologists with expertise in this side of depression; there's proof it changes the chemistry in humans' brains to think about it.
But for young folks, I would say the advice I took for myself kind of goes full circle back to my journey here. And I can tell you I feel so much more empowered knowing I am working towards this specific target, where it's combining both my passions and my skills, and knowing I know exactly what I'm working towards. I know where I'm trying to have my impact, and having that will help fuel you. I just want everyone to be able to wake up in the morning feeling like, "I know that I'm having an impact. And that impact is actually positive." And just looking inward, understanding what fuels your fire, because you might actually really surprise yourself. Sometimes you think you know what you're passionate about, but then you really take some time and look inward and recognize maybe you don't want to actually be in design. Maybe you want to be working on a farm all day! So if those passions and those skills don't even involve design, I'd say follow it, because why the hell not? And don't do bullshit, as Burt would say.