When it comes to sustainability, there are a whole slew of difficult topics that designers want to tackle but rarely get a chance to discuss in the open. The Chicago Designers Accord Town Hall called them the "elephants in the room" and engaged in a no-holds-barred discussion around the secret thoughts we all have but rarely share. Over 70 designers, critical thinkers and change agents made their way to gravitytank on August 19th for Chicago's first Designers Accord Town Hall meeting. Actually... scratch that, two designers drove out from Detroit, so it's really the Midwest's first DA Town Hall meeting.
Kicking off the night, Lucas Daniel & Teaque Lenahan of gravitytank introduced the evening's theme of "elephants in the room". Our hope was to learn from each other about the challenges, hurdles and questions that come up when engaging in sustainable efforts, either for clients or internally at companies. Teaque shared one big elephant-- that conservation and sustainability go hand-in-hand, but many projects, no matter how 'green,' are about selling more stuff. They aren't as In the end, it's about creating value for companies and consumers. He shared gravitytank's short video entitled "Wisdom," featuring interviews with senior citizens recounting their memories of conserving resources, recycling and reusing during WWII. The video brings to light that with a common enemy, a whole nation of consumers was motivated to act responsibly and how we have a lot to learn from the often ignored, but perhaps wisest of eco-consumers-our grandparents. Intended as a thought piece, Wisdom suggests that consumers will get creative when motivated and that there are ways companies can innovate and create value without automatically assuming disposability.
Much more photos and reportage after the jump!Antonio Garcia of firebelly design shared an elephant his firm has been dealing with-- how to make sustainability itself sustainable. Consulting efforts tend to be focused on one-off projects and don't think about how to embed sustainable thinking deep into organizations. The solution? firebelly commits to an entire year with one client guiding the implementation of a series of sustainable principles. The principles broaden the concept of 'sustainability' and aren't specifically about the environment, but rather frame up a way to act that drives impact beyond the initial work. Antonio shared three of these principles. The first principle, consideration, identifies all the lenses through which we evaluate ideas; what is the impact? what are the outcomes? what did the last studio do? what is the lifespan? what is the reach of the work? Innovation, another core principle, is why designers are in business. Clients look to design for new ideas or an edge and are trying to find business cases for often intangible stuff. Progress was the last principle Antonio shared, imparting a need to constantly educate and re-educate internal teams and clients.
We then asked, "what's your elephant?" A chorus of voices offered passionate topics to discuss. Five minutes of clustering and organizing later, we broke into 5 tables that wrestled with attendees' elephants for an hour. Conversations immediately ignited and stories, opinions and case studies were being thrown into the mix. At the end of the hour, each table summarized their key points to the rest of the room.
Table 1 addressed a largely ignored, yet giant elephant in the room: the over-abundant use of water in product development. They explored designing with constrained water resources and its implications for resource challenged countries. The first step would be a clear articulation of what appropriate water use would be and benchmarking across meaningful increments (day, week, month) to easily understand any improvements made in the water usage reduction. Arturo Pelayo brought up the need to increase the awareness of water consumption through the use of measurement. He mentioned that since water is more traceable than carbon, designers can expose the water usage in the process of manufacturing a particular product to generate awareness of people's H2O footprint. Liam Hawry suggested pairing that with a label similar to a nutrition label that would provide the consumer with a set of facts to raise awareness of the cost of consuming products.
Table 2 talked about how to shift consumer behaviors. The group focused in on three core concepts, which Paul Hatch of Teams Design presented. AWARENESS and education had to counteract misconceptions in the marketplace due to greenwashing and how messages are falling on deaf ears. Designers have to make messages that are punchy and sticky and follow through with knowledge. INCENTIVES have to be present to provide a reward for behavior change. In the end, people think of themselves and their family, not primarily for the good of the world. COMMUNITY can help with incentives, by providing a visceral link that people can relate to. It helps people feel their new behaviors can help the community.
The group at table 3 debated whether baby steps in sustainability are enough. When do baby steps shift from the positive to the negative? What makes them move from being legitimate ways to drive bite-sized change to merely a quick-hit way to "greenwash?" There are a ton of examples of companies that take small strides, but in the end just want a marketable green story. For many companies, it's an all or nothing proposition. Most avoid it altogether due to the common belief that being green and profitable aren't complementary. In the end, the group agreed that baby steps are an important, if not necessary, part of pursuing sustainability, but that it's important to be cautious and make sure that all efforts are authentic. And while these efforts require more investment today, there are growing examples of companies that are in stronger positions once sustainability is a proven competitive angle-Toyota and fuel efficient automobiles being the most tangible example, proving that profit and green are healthy bedfellows.
Table 4 was lucky enough to have props to discuss the need for greater transparency in labeling and promises; Robert Lugar brought hangers he had designed made of FSC certified wood and compost-able plastic that he worked on while at Rubbermaid. Though the plastic hangers were compostable, the rubbery exterior coating on them was not. So, the first learning was that it's tough to tell the whole story and educate the consumer. The packaging can't capture all of it, nor should it to keep it minimal, so a challenge exists for designers to get creative on how to get the sustainable benefits of the product communicated. The second learning was green can't be the only benefit for a higher-priced offering; the hangers are struggling in the marketplace. And while designers can specify green materials and processes to ensure sustainability, products frequently get dinged by some infraction along the lifecycle. Designers need to engage with upper level management to ensure sustainability is considered over the whole lifecycle.
Whether sustainability was actually an expertise was the topic at Table 5. Scott Ternovits of gravitytank summarized the conversation: "We [designers] are not always the smartest people in the room about this stuff. There are chemical scientists that know a lot more." The group's suggestion was that perhaps the designer can have the expertise of provocateur and ask the right questions of the right people early in the process. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his new book Outliers, those who truly have expertise put in 10,000 hours into violin playing or baseball. The group felt that designers are in a better position than other disciplines to get the 10,000 hours in sustainability, so then it's a matter of how to get that quickly. The group finally compared having expertise in sustainability with how economists are supposed to have expertise in the economy. Both are complex, unknown and have less than effective tools to understand them, and yet economists are frequently tapped as experts for opinions and action.
With that last thought, town hall participants reeled from their collective brainstorm, applauded the collaborative efforts in the room and transitioned into wide eyed discussions, networking and beer. The conversations certainly weren't exhaustive and there are still several big topics that designers need to tackle, but the evening provided good alignment around current challenges and elephants in the room. Better yet, Midwest Designers Accord members are eager to keep the shop talk going-John Murphy of Space and Plane Designs is interested in a Detroit Town Hall. More to come.
Thanks to Lucas Daniel for the reportage, Teaque Lenahan for the editing, Chad Magiera for the photography, and the entire Chicago design community for coming together to fuel a great event.