I have been thinking about what it means to be a designer today. Given the challenges that we all face, how can we make sense of our world’s shifting priorities, values and vocabulary, and make progress in our response to the great issues of our time, including resource depletion, inequality, and climate breakdown?
Homo sapiens play the dominant role in what is now known as the Anthropocene epoch – so named because, for the first time in the Earth’s history, our actions are putting unbearable strain on the habitat that we share and depend on for life.
As designers and humans, we are participants in this system. As designers, we have an important role to play in responding to and leading change in the world.
Our history is peppered with periods of rapid and unexpected change. During the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894, the city of New York was brought to a near standstill by the by-product of an estimated 200,000 horses living and working there. One thousand tonnes of manure was deposited onto the streets every day – rat-infested and disease-ridden. Horses that died in the street were left to rot where they fell, so that they could be more easily dismembered for removal weeks later. The mayor organised an emergency town-planning conference to try to solve the problem, but no solution was found or proposed.
However, in a matter of 15 years, the city was transformed into a place of cleanliness and modernity by the emergence of the motor vehicle. At that moment, Henry Ford, creator of the Model T, had secured heroic status. For decades, the car was an optimistic and aspirational path to our future, a symbol of progress and freedom. But, as we now know, the impacts of this once-hopeful development have become both harmful and hurtful to us all.
Today, our lived experience is moving in constant waves of change. We are witnessing new ways of doing – surprising new rituals that challenge our sense of what is right and true.
Covid has upended all our lives and is acting as a trigger of transformation in the process. Cities are being reshaped, communication redefined, work reimagined and, just perhaps, the pandemic will be a catalyst for the more radical system change that nature now demands.
In Pearson Lloyd’s first year, 1997, in response to the emergence of the laptop and what was then called ‘hot desking’, we designed a mobile work caddy. We used just about every material and technology available and worked to conceal all fixings from the user, with no sense of disassembly, repair, or recycling of materials – it was a true product of its time.
Ten years later, commissioned to design street furniture and wayfinding for the city of Bath, we developed a response including zero refinishing, easy repair, and complete circularity of production.
In 2018, we designed a self-assembly timber stacking chair for the Danish start-up TAKT – all parts of which can be replaced by the owner to allow for repair and reuse. Committed to transparency, TAKT publishes the embodied carbon data for all parts of the production and distribution process.
Then, just a few weeks ago, we launched a range of desk accessories designed in collaboration with Bene and 3D-print start-up Batch.Works. The collection is made from a single material, 3D-printed on demand, using locally sourced 100% recycled post-consumer waste bioplastic.
The processes and systems surrounding these designs could not be more different, reflecting some of the extraordinary changes we have lived through in the past 25 years. Discussions about why and how we make things appropriately now form part of every working day. The models of production, distribution, ownership, and consumption are all in flux.
The sectors and industries we work in are filled with compromises, inefficiencies, and practices that we need to change, and I honestly believe that design can take a leadership role in the transition to a more balanced and equitable system. As a faculty, we need to establish more fruitful links to the future of our practice as well as the past. How can we act in ways to diversify our intake, expand our reach, and better reflect and represent the world we aim to serve?
Through the history of design, a common narrative has existed around the theme of ‘added value’. Perhaps most readily associated with designers such as Raymond Loewy, Honorary RDI, in the mid-20th century, the value that design brought to a product related to making manufactured things more desirable, more efficient, more sellable, and of course, more profitable. Could it be that, while the role of design today remains to add value, the value proposition needs to be redefined and reordered?
We now understand the impact of unfettered consumption and need to re-evaluate our contribution to the physical world we inhabit. The building blocks of our relationship with the built environment and the vocabulary of design are being redefined:
From novelty to longevity
From linear to circular
From extractive to regenerative
From exclusive to inclusive
From owned to shared
From designed to co-designed
From human-centred to nature-centred
The UK design industry consists of 200,000 businesses, 95% of which contain under 10 people. Alongside the giants, we are a tribe of micro-businesses, with countless relationships and ways of making a difference. It may be that marginal gains in these small organisations will perhaps be more meaningful than any single idea in solving our present and future challenges.
The practice of design is, as much as anything else, about how we respond to the world – social, cultural, and political – so, as our world changes, so our responses need to change.
Design is a flexible craft. Amongst many things, we are researchers, opportunists, optimists, and entrepreneurs, makers, thinkers, tinkerers, communicators and, above all, synthesisers. We are good at managing complexity. I hope we can continue to reflect and celebrate the power of design, and advocate for its relevance and the positive contribution to our collective futures that I know it can make. The brief is being rewritten. It is up to all of us to respond.