The wrong framing
When I think about the history of sustainable design, I see marketing everywhere. Whether you consider Enzo Mari’s communist ‘Autoprogettazione’ (1974) or Victor Papanek’s Nomadic Furniture (1971) (the better looking cousins to IKEA (first store in 1958)), it doesn’t matter. “DIY” remains a niche experience that is more wasteful than buying vintage furniture.
If you’re really concerned about plastic waste, buying a Frank Green reusable cup doesn’t actually beat sitting down at a café and using their cutlery.
And no matter what we think of electric vehicles (2.2M sold in a market of 1.4B cars), the answer to reducing pollution and traffic is still less cars.
These three examples have something in common: less design, not more. Less physical solutions to interminable problems that require very simple, powerful changes in attitude.
There’s also a framing problem in design: every question starts with the assumption of a ‘thing’. The thing and the need for a thing is never really questioned because that would mean a deeper exercise in self-reflection. After all, without the thing, there is no project, no client, no budget and no designer. So once all those things have been put in place, I would argue it’s already too late. Whatever design work should have happened was in convincing the client not to make a thing at all. That’s not the kind of design that pays the bills. It’s also not entirely design, it’s culture. If there is a cultural shift away from pointless design, capitalism will usually follow. Capitalism isn’t excited after all by the prospect of early adoption—it’s about mass adoption. So how can design in the 21st century make mass adoption of new behaviours the new black?
Less design not more
Out of curiosity, I dug out a deck I made for a utilities company I did a lot of work with back in 2009 at Tinker. It was full to the brim with examples of what had been going on in design and climate change, mainly energy displays or glanceable displays for households to be aware of their energy consumption. Some were cute, some were geeky, some were for the elderly. The point is that almost none of them are still on the market today. But the problem hasn’t gone away. If anything it’s more acute than ever. But people aren’t interested in it. Someone with an energy display might be excited for about two weeks, and then it fades into the background. Unless that person is living in fuel poverty, their energy bills are less than 10% of their outgoings so their motivation is just as limited.
We haven’t quite figured out how to get people to care about the environment the way they care about their family, friends, and neighbourhood. Unless climate change is a direct hindrance to their everyday life (see COVID and low traffic neighbourhoods) or a trend amongst the peer group they respect (see veganism), their appetite for more complicated types of changes is limited. Only one in four in the UK will switch energy providers. Only the wealthy and educated will choose a house on the basis of its energy performance certificate (EPC). Most people won’t buy a battery or solar panels in case it doesn’t pay for itself by the time they move (every 4-7 years in London and 14 outside). We’ve been very good at talking to people about quick wins, gratuitous and instantaneous pleasures but not about long term investments.
We’ve also promoted “always on” services of late. The last ten years of the internet has promoted the adoption of products that require continuous power, for no good reason sometimes. A smart TV is now the only consumer choice we offer as a TV and is continuously connected to the internet.
The future of design
I studied industrial design in Montreal. It didn’t take long for me to feel uncomfortable about my lack of technical literacy. It wasn’t really about the materials, but it was about the engineering work my designs depended on. One of our briefs involved designing a remote control for kids. When I asked my teacher about the electronics, he said, “Just draw a box and write ‘Technology’ on it.” This was 2002. I’m not sure things have changed much for design students today.
Designers need to adopt more of a political stance and go back to their roots. Studying design 100 years ago was about integrating the arts, craftsmanship and mechanisation. A merger of the old and the (then) new. In 2020, design should be about an assemblage of the latest climate change science, information technologies, engineering and material culture. Without fundamentally reworking the design curriculum, we can’t hope to really see change happen or the required creativity to help answer some of the problems we live with.
For those not in education, the answer lies outside traditional commercial relationships. I imagine small groups of people who met randomly (and didn’t just go to univesrity together) doing work together with the support of patrons and showing it off in exhibitions, blogging about it online, offline, everywhere. There is almost no real space for radical new ideas in the existing client/designer relations, so a designer has to step outside of it. They have to talk about their work to others, such as at the upcoming London Climate Action Week, or COP26, or even start their own company.
Culture change happens when you do things differently—at the very edge of what is monetizable. It’s not about startups either. It’s about ideas and making sure those ideas have impact, and exist in the world long enough for habits to change, for culture to change and then (and only then) for markets and economies to change. It’s a long road, but one we all have to prepare for.
The challenges ahead might also still be there by the time we retire. It has taken over 100 years for electrification to reach most parts of the world, so should we expect the kind of global change we want to take another hundred? Habits die hard, but they do eventually die, and we can help make it happen.
About the author
Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is a leading expert on designing smart products and the founder of the Low Carbon Institute, a two-week climate change themed residency for creative people (applications open for summer 2021). This article is based on a talk she gave to students in Darmstadt where she critiques design education and calls on young designers to tackle the climate crisis through their work.