Climate crisis: design industry rallies around its greatest challenge yet

Design Week is joining Design Council in Scotland next week to find out how COP26 could help galvanise designers into action.

As global leaders are faced with confronting the climate crisis at UN conference COP26 in Glasgow, no measure of the scale of the task at hand seems too hyperbolic.

Leaders from across the political spectrum have offered stark warnings over the last week. For UK prime minister Boris Johnson: “The worse it gets, the higher the price when we are eventually forced by catastrophe to act, because humanity has long since run the clock down on climate change.”

Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley asked: “What must we say to our people, living on the frontline in the Caribbean, in Africa, in Latin America, in the Pacific, when both ambition and, regrettably, some of the needed faces at Glasgow, are not present? What excuse should we give for the failure?”

Meanwhile US President Joe Biden described climate crisis as an “existential threat, threat to human existence as we know it, and every day we delay, the cost of inaction increases.”

Talk and action are two different things of course. COP26 commitments include keeping temperature rises to within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels and cutting emissions until they reach net zero by 2050.

Climate finance, phasing out coal and nature-based solutions are high on the agenda but the main focus of the conference is national emission targets, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), although these alone may not be enough to keep within a 1.5C temperature rise. Despite this, the COP26 ambitions are technically achievable and represent a science-backed target.

While the burden of responsibility is and should be on governments it will also fall on corporations, smaller businesses and to some extent, those who work with them. Many industries will be having some sort of reckoning now.

What can designers do?

Designers, who are not known to shy away from a challenge, will be asking themselves what they can do through their own work to make a difference. As the people who will be shaping the way brands communicate and developing products, spaces, services and systems, the answer is quite a lot.

Design Council is already thinking about this with its Design for Planet festival, which will take place at V&A Dundee from 9-10 November. The festival aims to inspire and motivate designers, while showing them practical things they can do to improve outcomes for their clients and the planet. It will be open for online attendance for those who can’t make it and you can sign up here.

Design Week is joining Design Council in Dundee to report on Design for Planet as it unfolds. There are some big announcements planned and we’ll be the first to bring them to you. The festival will kickstart Design Council’s programme, which aims to provide designers with the tools, training and knowledge to design with a climate and environment-first attitude.

A lot of this is under wraps but look out for a short film which has been made for designers to use at the briefing stage of projects so they can show their clients why designing with the planet in mind is important.

Some questions which the Design Council aims to answer, include: ‘How can we create resilient, adaptive spaces?’; ‘How can we reuse materials in a circular way?’; ‘How can we design products and services that help shift our collective behaviours?’; and ‘How can we upskill and diversify the design industry?’

Ambitiously the organisation is also aiming to create the right conditions – both in terms of policy and the client market – for designers to be able to do more. This will be taking place away from the festival, at COP26 in a UN managed space, which hosts the negotiations.

The Design Council is hoping to hear from as many of the nation’s 1.69 million designers as possible, to understand how the sector is responding to the climate crisis. You can contribute here.

It’s worth reflecting on how COP26 is communicating itself to the world. The Johnson Banks-designed identity launched in February and is now working hard across different platforms to sum up complex issues in a simplified way. The globe form is familiar but it features abstract currents – perhaps wind or sea – and encourages us to think about Earth as a borderless place in constant flux. Designed to be beautiful and to inspire, according to the consultancy, the positioning is designed to expresses is ‘hope with a sense of urgency’.

Projects to look out for

Unsurprisingly there is a lot of other design related activity happening concurrently with COP26. We are covering our picks of these, which includes The Design Museum’s Waste Age exhibition. It takes the standpoint that the waste age is a new era where waste can be used as a raw material of sorts. With this in mind the exhibition looks at how design can enable reuse instead of recycling.

This theme was front of mind for our recent interviewee Don Norman who is effectively the founder of user experience design, having dedicated his career to it, after starting out as a nuclear engineer.

In the piece he makes the point that while “climate change is a symptom to a problem that designers had a hand in creating”, he also recognises that they have the power to positively influence human behaviour through human centred design.

Norman suggests that “we shouldn’t be pushing for recycling” but should instead be “helping to design systems that make it easier to reuse and repair things instead”.

Elsewhere we have seen examples of work which emote singular, powerful messages. This stop motion animation by Nominit for World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) focuses on the organisation’s Arctic programme as we follow a young polar bear trying to survive an Arctic landscape melting around him.

Type work by Tre Seals

Do the Green Thing’s exhibition The Colour of Climate Crisis is on now at Glasgow’s Pipe Factory. It shows work by 24 designers who are black or people of colour and explores the idea of climate injustice – the idea that black people, indigenous people and people of colour are most affected by the climate crisis and historically the least responsible for it. Data visualisation artist Mona Chalabi, Pentagram partner Eddie Opara, and type designer Tre Seals all feature.

We are also aware of some exciting consumer facing, self-initiated product launches by consultancies looking to contribute to making a difference to systemic climate issues and will be able to share these with you soon.

The Design, Climate, Action series

Next Week on Design Week we’ll be launching our own series Design, Climate, Action exploring how designers can take steps to integrate sustainable design principles into their work. First off we’ll be looking at digital carbon footprint and how low impact digital services can be best designed. This piece will illustrate the scale of the issue and show where the main battlegrounds are as we hear from key players already working within the space.

The challenge ahead is significant but I’m looking forward to seeing how a motivated and mobilised design industry can help show clients and consumers that a planet-first attitude is in everyone’s best interests.

Hide Comments (1)Show Comments (1)
  • Ladislav Kubo November 7, 2021 at 5:47 pm

    Since design is an offspring of the industrial labour division and proliferates mainly within the prevailing consumeristic paradigm, it is difficult to imagine, how it will emancipate and cease to “defuturise” or support the still broadly popular “neophilia”. The reduction of impacts of material operations and their adverse impacts will be (rather than through the design profession as such), spread through reactive – ad hoc adaptation of humans to shocks, critical events, accidents, social riots etc.

  • Post a comment

Latest articles

From the archives: Picture Post

As we head back into our archives, here’s a gem from March 1990. Jane Lewis looks at the creative ways design firms promoted their services through mail-outs.