A wake-up call

For too long, designers have been happy just to make things desirable, with little concern for sustainability, but we can make a difference, says Jody Boehnert

We are in deep trouble. Yet, despite the fact that we have been toldwe are facing an unprecedented climate crisis, life goes on pretty much as it always has. We celebrate the seasons with new fashions, we employ designers en masse to aestheti cise our environment, we have elevated design to art status and are now reaping the rewards. TV ads tell us that we are doing well by theenvironment – so, are we?

Let’s review the facts. According to James Hansen, director of Nasa Goddard Institute, and our own Government chief scientific adviser Sir David King, we are perilously close to levels of carbon emissions that could soon hit a tipping point, producing runaway climate change. The New Orleans flooding could be a sign of worse to come if we don’t reduce emissions significantly within the next decade. These are symptoms of the crisis. At what point do we decide to change our ways?

Design must address the causes of the crisis. It is possible, but it won’t happen if all we do is pay lip service to good intentions. Incremental increases in efficiency will not solve our problems, because of the expansion of demand and growth in the market. Meaning ful change in our industry – which can be a very powerful driver of change – will need to be much more integral.

The crisis can’t be solved with the same kind of thinking that created it. Designers, as the creators of most of what we produce, could be at the forefront of change. But making a transition to a sustainable society calls for radical changes in institutions and patterns of behaviour, and this is bound to be disruptive. Institutions, corporations, and individuals are all resistant to change – especially when that change means consuming less. This resistance to change is why we need ‘sustainability officers’, whose role would be to question unsustainable practices and take remedial action.

The foundation of sustain – ability is the clear awareness that our well-being is inseparable from that of nature. This is an issue we must face,whether we like it or not. Fortunately, there are solutions. Innovators William McDonough and Michael Braungart have created design methods that could lead the transformation to a sustainable society. Central to these methods is the notion that all design must be modelled on the waste-free systems of the natural world. The cradle-tocradle methodology holds that there must be two material flows: biological and technical. All organic elements must be designed so they can be returned to the earth unconta minated. All technical materials must be designed so they can be reused as new products after their lifecycle is finished. Communication design has an equally vital role to play in the transition. Culturally, we must accept we are at the precipice of a steep learning curve. Communi cations are the glue between scientists, policymakers, busi nesses and consumers. As an industry built on making things desirable and understan dable, we now have the most demanding brief of all – communica ting sustainability.

Platitudes about ‘changing the world’ during an era of environmental crisis are meaningless if they distract from the real work in building sustainable systems. Sustainability must move from the fringes to become the central principle of all design. Ultimately, it is up to us to make design relevant to the most serious crisis of our times.

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  • Chris Sherwin November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Couldn’t agree more, though can’t help but feel we’ve heard these types of ‘call to action’ once of twice before. I think the key challenge now is to get some coherent and systematic things actually going and show some inspiring results. Surprisingly companies & brand are starting to lead. Will the design community also lead or follow?

  • neville November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Communicating sustainability i.e. where we want to be, a vision of human harmony with nature. “A picture tells a thousand words” and in more than one language, so the world of illustration and graphic design, our visual artist and commentators have an enormously significant role to play in the theatre of action that can and must stimulate action to bring about actual sustainable development accross all divisions.

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