This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Global warming is the ultimate challenge for designers but, Paul Simpson says it reopens a debate about socially responsible design that dates back to William Morris.
Catherine McDermott has a dream. She says: “I’d like Nelson Mandela to ring up Gordon Brown and say: ‘We’ve got some serious problems here in Jo’burg, Gordon. I need you to send over a squad of your best designers and I need them now.’” The idea of an A-Team-style crack unit of designers, distinguished by their unique skill set and black polo-neck sweaters, being flown out to deal with disasters across the globe sounds ludicrous. But that, says McDermott, professor in the school of design at Kingston University, is exactly the point. “We have Médecins Sans Frontières, so why not Designers Sans Frontières?” McDermott’s dream is not as daft as it sounds. In New York, the Smithsonian Institute has just run an exhibition called Design For The Other 90%, inspired by the thought that most designers on Earth develop products and services for the wealthiest 10% of the population and that a design revolution is needed to reach the other 90%. The exhibition showcased the kind of things that had already been done: ceramic water filters, solar-powered hearing aid batteries and a simple treadle pump which helps farmers access groundwater in the dry season.
It’s easy to be inspired by the simple genius of these creations. But McDermott’s response is: “That’s good but we need to be more ambitious, it’s not enough.” Not enough, certainly, to placate those who say that designers — as the intelligent, creative folk they are — must understand not only the social and environmental dangers facing the planet but also that they are actually making it worse. The indictment of design is remarkable for two reasons. First, the ferocity of the language. “Designers suck,” Bruce Nussbaum, Business Week’s innovation and design guru declared in a recent lecture which asked: “Are designers the enemy of design?” The sparky young British designer Jonathan Barnbrook even declared in a poster: “Designers are falling over themselves to kiss corporate ass.” The other striking aspect of this attack is that the most vitriolic remarks are coming from designers such as Barnbrook and experts, such as Nussbaum, who usually champion the industry. The rap sheet against design has many offences to be taken into consideration. The most grievous charge is, to quote Nussbaum, “that designers design crap that hurts the planet”. They have also, it is argued, not adjusted to the democratisation of design, preferring to design for, rather than with, people. Finally, it is alleged that designers have not — despite the inspiring examples on show in Design For The Other 90% — been as socially inclusive in their work as they could be. The clunky, slightly worthy term to describe how the industry should behave is ‘socially responsible design’. There is, critics suggest, far too much socially irresponsible design. Many designers would agree with that.
‘Sustainability has been driven by organisations, some firms and inspirational individuals. Designers need to be more ambitious’
—Catherine McDermott, Design lecturer
The tension between ethics and design is as old as the industry. But behind the abuse is an opportunity: for designers to use their creativity, originality and strategic thinking to help the world, not harm it. “So far, sustainability has been driven by institutions (especially the European Union and the state of California) and a few inspirational individuals and companies acting on rational economic grounds,” says McDermott. Almost everyone believes designers should take a lead. The question, which has bedevilled the industry since the 1840s, is how this is to be achieved. The industrial revolution made Britain the workshop of the world but the social cost of this economic miracle was condemned in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), a state of the nation novel set in the imagined yet grimily realistic Victorian town of Coketown. Dickens’s outrage was shared by John Ruskin who, in his book The Stones Of Venice (1853), drew a direct connection between art, nature and morality. To Ruskin, moral art was nature expressed through man; machines dehumanised the worker and “all cast from the machine is bad, as work it is dishonest”. William Morris turned Ruskin’s ideas about nature, art, morality and the degradation of human labour into a unified theory of design that became a manifesto for the Arts and Crafts movement. Victorian design was, at its worst, characterised by an over the top ornamental style, an early form of bling if you like, which Morris loathed.
He wanted to make furniture, stained glass, wallpaper and books that were simple, utilitarian and beautiful. He longed for a pre-industrial era, a medieval utopia when products were designed and made by craftsmen. But, to Morris’s horror, the working class couldn’t afford his beautiful, simple wares. That problem would not be cracked until 1919 when Walter Gropius founded, in Weimar, the Bauhaus school of art and design. The Bauhaus artists and designers were Modernists. The term ‘Modernism’ covers a multitude of sins and virtues but the movement was united in the conviction that it was time to break with a past that had led to the carnage of World War I. “Modernists,” Terence Conran says, “ believed they could make a better world. It wasn’t just about producing nice objects, it was about producing them at a price that everybody could afford, not just the filthy rich to paraphrase William Morris.” Not being dazzled by misty-eyed visions of medieval craftsmen, Gropius was inspired by Morris’s ideas on simplicity and functionality, not his technophobia, and encouraged the study of materials and manufacturing processes as he strove to unite art, craft and technology. Modernism was not quite as influential in the UK but the 1935 launch of Penguin Books was a triumph for the movement. The books were, says McDermott, “beautifully, simply designed, manufactured for the mass market, sold for 6d so most people could afford them, and motivated by something other than pure profit.” Modernism, Bauhaus and its step-child the utility movement remained the dominant design aesthetic until the 1950s. During that decade — let’s, for convenience, date it to the end of rationing in 1954 — all this came to an end when, McDermott says, “We imported an American model of consumerism.”
With the economy stagnant, disposable incomes creeping up, the populace fed up with war and tightening their pursestrings, design was all about making us want things, a shift captured perfectly in the gaudy flamboyance of American car design. The emphasis on style as an end in itself, the cult of new technology (nuclear tests were even promoted as a tourist attraction in 1950s America) and the luxury of choice basically defined consumer culture for the next 40 years, culminating in what McDermott calls “the brutal consumerism” of the 1980s. But the new model did not go unchallenged. Even in consumerism’s heroic era, the 1950s and 1960s, such dissidents as campaigner Ralph Nader and the designer, architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller asked awkward questions. As long ago as the 1920s, Fuller had tried to develop a ‘design science’ which would create good products that used as little energy and materials as possible. This dissident tradition crossed the Atlantic. In 1964, British designer Ken Garland helped draft a manifesto called First Things First. “In common with an increasing number of the general public,” Garland and his fellow signatories lamented, “we have reached a saturation point at which the high-pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than white noise.” These creative types hoped society would tire “of gimmick merchants, status salesmen and hidden persuaders and call on our skills for worthwhile purposes”.
‘People camp out to buy the iPhone, digital cameras last 18 months and we have models on the catwalk wearing real fur’
Deyan Sudjic Director, Design Museum
In 1971, the designer and writer Victor Papanek tried to define those worthwhile purposes in his book Design For The Real World. “The only important thing about design is how it relates to people,” he declared, in an eloquent tome that is probably even more relevant today. Papanek had an unusual background. Born in Vienna in 1927, he had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and the UN, tried to help Volvo design a taxi for the disabled and lectured widely in the US and Europe. He spent much of the last three decades of his life trying to warn the world — especially other designers — about the perilous course they were on. The strain of not being heeded seemed, ultimately, to drive this iconoclastic genius a bit bonkers. He was especially scathing about his own profession, noting glumly: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them. By creating whole species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed.” A similar spirit infused the social theorist E.F. Schumacher’s influential tome Small Is Beautiful (1973) but, with Britain mired in recession by the end of the 1970s, environmental concerns were overridden by economic necessity. In the glossy, brutally consumerist 1980s, even salt and pepper pots were as heavily stylised as the decade’s favourite hairstyles. But the zeitgeist changed in the 1990s. The professionalisation — if you will — of the environmental cause was reflected in new terminology. Green was out. The new buzzword was sustainability, a term with academic prestige and suggestive of scientific rigour.
“The Berlin Wall coming down and the end of the Cold War made it easier for a more active, united European Union to use directives and regulations to protect the environment,” says McDermott. Ezio Manzini, the Italian designer and writer, noted in 1992: “Consumer demand for ‘environmental quality’ has increased. Sometimes this appears as a generic demand for a better environment, sometimes in the form of temporary fashions (often leading to debatable behaviour) but it also appears as eco-consumerism.” Contradictory and occasionally superficial as this shift was, Manzini rightly noted that it marked a fundamental social change. Contradictions remain. As Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, says: “Consumer psychology is changing but what we don’t have, for example, is a cult about things that last, old things we can use for ages. What we have instead are people camping out overnight to buy the iPhone, digital cameras designed to be obsolete within 18 months, and if our mobile phone is more than six months old, we feel as embarrassed as if we had a skin rash. And, for all the talk of sustainability, we have models back on the catwalks wearing real fur.” The designing of built-in obsolescence has become fiendishly subtle. You can now, for example, buy a razor with a coloured stripe on the side which fades not when the razor is actually unusable but to suggest, to the gullible consumer, that it’s time to buy another. “There are two challenges here,” Sudjic adds. “Can we take the model of the 18-month cycle and refashion it in such a way that it is less damaging to the environment? And can we, as designers, influence broader change?”
Reinventing the 18-month cycle might not sound like a great leap forward but, as Nussbaum says, it could make a huge difference. “The iPod is designed by one of today’s design gods, Jonathan Ive, and his team at Apple. Apple does fantastic things with materials. And it has recycling programmes for its products. But what it doesn’t do is prioritise cradle-to-cradle design. It doesn’t design a long-cycle product that you can open and upgrade over time. It doesn’t encourage the reuse of materials. There are mountains of computers and cell phones and iPods building up in China and India, leaking toxic chemicals.” David Kester, chief executive of the Design Council, believes designers can — and should — make a difference. “When Papanek was talking about this in the 1970s, it wasn’t mainstream. Designers now know this isn’t a sideshow, this is the main event. Design has a mission to make things that look good, are good to use and that do good.” Many designers are already making a difference but Kester, like McDermott, feels that more should “step up to the plate”. The problem Papanek glossed over — how principled dissident designers could pay the mortgage — still plagues the industry. Many designers worry about their work’s environmental impact but don’t quite know how to initiate meaningful change. Some have their scruples beaten out of them as they adjust to commercial reality. A few, like Tom Dixon and Jasper Morrison, have the fame and clout to stick to their guns. Many languish between these extremes. Konstantin Grcic, the Munich-based industrial designer, says: “Design can take a moral position. But the moral position should not be to go on strike. The best way to pursue your arguments is to be inside the system. If you are employed by IBM, you have a better lever than
stepping outside and just saying they produce waste.” The design industry does not have a single lead voice, as, for example, doctors have with the British Medical Association. McDermott says: “Every other profession — lawyers, doctors, architects — has a professional body and a professional code of ethics. That doesn’t stop individual doctors or lawyers breaking it but it does provide a moral framework for the profession. Why doesn’t design have one?” Even if designers don’t swear the equivalent of a Hippocratic oath not to hurt the environment, there is much they can do — and have already started to do. Some steps are simple — such as using eco-friendly materials, using less material and reusing material — others aren’t. Companies boast to their shareholders about developing new products, but a world in which a new product is launched every 3.5 minutes is hardly a model of sustainability. Sometimes, designing a new service might be more useful — and sustainable — than designing a new product. In the UK and the US, the philosophy of design thinking — applying the processes that designers use to broader social and economic problems — is already helping to make industry more innovative. McDermott would like that philosophy applied to make our lives, societies and economies more sustainable. Maybe then her dream — perhaps without the black polo necks — will become a reality. If the pay-as-you-go principle works with phones, why not with cars? That might seem a bit of a jump but a car club service called Streetcar has, according to research for Transport for London, taken 10,000 privately owned cars off the city’s roads.
If you’re the kind of driver who has a pet name for your vehicle or sees your set of wheels almost as part of your personality, clubs like Streetcar may never attract you. But other motorists may be swayed by the chance to do some good — Streetcar is saving the equivalent of 500 tons of CO2 emissions a year — or to save money. It costs £2,749 a year to own a Volkswagen Golf, the model Streetcar offers. To share the same car — and do the same mileage — costs a Streetcar member just £707. Members pay an annual subscription of £49.50 to join Streetcar and are charged hourly for the use of the car. The obvious objection to this service is: “What if I can’t get the car when I need it?” So Streetcar set out to guarantee to customers that it would have the car when and where they required it 95% of the time. In London, hardly the easiest city to run such a service, it met that target. If another driver returns a car late, they are fined £25, £20 of which goes to the motorist they kept waiting. Car-sharing clubs originated in Switzerland in 1948 in a Zurich housing cooperative, but the idea really took off in the 1980s. By 2004, there were 1,700 Swiss clubs with 58,000 members. The first such service was launched in Leeds in 1998, as a joint venture between the council and Budget car hire, but it folded two years later. Streetcar was founded in 2004 by Andrew Valentine and Brett Akker, who were inspired by a similar service in New York. The company now has 15,000 members around the UK and has struck a deal with Network Rail to offer cars at fixed spots by Victoria, Euston, Paddington and Waterloo stations. If the London scheme works, Streetcar and Network Rail will extend it to other cities.
Leading by example: designers taking sustainability seriously
Tom Dixon A self-proclaimed “maverick whose only qualification is a course in plastic bumper repair”, Dixon has launched an EcoWare range of homeware made from bio-degradable plastic created from bamboo fibre. The items have, Dixon says, “a reasonable life of five years”. Jurgen BeyJurgen Bey Critical of much mainstream product design, Dutch designer Jurgen Bey has always emphasised recycling, reusing and the potential of unfashionable materials in his work. One of his greatest creations is the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin tree-trunk bench. Jonathan BarnbrookJonathan Barnbrook Irreverent, opinionated, not afraid to take the design community to task — especially over its environmental record — this British graphic designer has taken on consumerism in his own work and by supporting the No Shopping Day organised by Adbusters. Ryan FrankRyan Frank Challenging the cult of the new, South African designer Ryan Frank’s work is inspired by urban decay and natural sustainable materials. One of his innovations is a coat hanger made from Sundela board, a material created entirely from recycled and compressed newspapers.
Article first published in Design Council Magazine, Issue 3, Winter 2007
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?