Building a Sustainable Design Community

Valerie Casey is rallying the creative community to her version of a Kyoto treaty for designers–and her peers are signing on in droves. Now comes the hard part.

Building a Sustainable Design Community

“Take the thing that you think everyone would agree on, and turn it around.” That’s the advice Valerie Casey, green-eyed third child of Irish immigrants, got when writing her first high-school paper, on My Fair Lady. “I actually remember the thesis statement: ‘Henry Higgins wished he was a woman.’ It was too much! But I remember getting an A on it.”


Casey, 36, has since followed her own charmed and counterintuitive path. She was the youngest-ever associate partner at international design firm Pentagram, an executive creative director at strategic-creative consultancy Frog Design, and is now global head of digital experiences at industrial-design powerhouse Ideo. She has masterminded projects as diverse as a Neutrogena product line for Johnson & Johnson; Barnes & Noble’s entire digital-interaction strategy, including its intranet and in-store kiosks; the controllers and user interface for XM satellite radios; and digital strategies, Web sites, mobile applications, and games for Dell, HP, MTV, Nike, Samsung, and Virgin.

But most recently, she has lent her star power and professional expertise to a nonprofit venture: the Designers Accord, formerly (and now informally) known as the Kyoto Treaty of Design. Its adopters pledge to reduce their organizations’ carbon footprints, raise social and environmental impact with every client and every product, and–rare in a fiercely competitive industry–collaborate with one another.

Casey’s project is being hailed as one of the most innovative approaches yet to greening the profession. In less than a year, more than 100,000 firms and designers from all disciplines–one global generation of designers, better than half from outside the United States–have signed on to the Designers Accord. Its message is spreading virally, from the industry to its corporate clients and to schools that are training design’s next generation. In short, it is on a path to change the culture of the creative community from bottom to top, and with it, the way everything is made, from toothbrushes to airplanes.

The Designers Accord is neither a governing body like the American Institute of Graphic Arts (the largest industry organization) nor a third-party certification standard like LEED. It is an agreement to reroute design, manufacturing, and even the economy toward a livable ecological future. “Our goal isn’t to create a thing. It’s to re-create our mind-set,” Casey says over iced tea at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace. She is strikingly beautiful, cool, and poised in jeans and silver Dior flats. “There’s nothing like the high of going into Best Buy and seeing something you’ve designed. But there’s also a sugar crash afterward, when you realize it’s not exactly what you planned and someone’s going to buy it and throw it away.”

The Designers Accord began with a manifesto, “The Designers’ Dilemma,” that Casey published in Frog’s online magazine last summer.

“I really expected the world to turn on its ear and say, ‘My God, this is brilliant!’ ” she says with a grin. “Instead, I got these pittering little emails from guys in Canada that I kept in a Word document for posterity.” But things took off when Casey sent the piece to eco-luminary Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism. “I felt that with her stature both at Frog and at Ideo she could do a whole lot to galvanize and catalyze a sense of unease that I had seen in the design community,” Hawken says. “You see these windswept brushed-aluminum suppositories that can be launched into space–they get into MoMA and win awards–but we aren’t designing for our children’s children who don’t want to live in The Road [Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel]. When I wrote The Ecology of Commerce, what I said was we don’t have an economic problem, we don’t have an ecological problem, we have a design problem. The environmentalists tell us this problem is about limits. But design tells you about possibility.”


For the accord itself, possibilities are growing. This summer, its social Web platform, built pro bono by Boulder, Colorado’s HiveLive, launched, and a series of town-hall meetings are planned over the coming year; they’ll be regional, to build local communities and to keep budgets and carbon footprints to a minimum. Designers are uploading case studies, sharing best practices, and posting resources. One Silicon Valley designer blogged about asking a vendor whether a certain material was recyclable. “That is only the second time that I have been asked that,” the supplier replied. “The first time was yesterday”–by another Designers Accord backer.

That’s the power of critical mass, says Casey: “Now that 100,000 people are a part of it, we can tell any client, ‘We’re going to ask these hard questions, but you can go down the street [to other design firms] and they’re all going to ask the same questions.’ We’re all going to, at a certain level, share our resources. It doesn’t give them an option not to have that conversation.”

One key development is the move by companies such as Adobe, Autodesk, and New Leaf Paper to adopt the accord. “We looked at each other and went, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ ” says Michelle Mann, VP of sustainability at Adobe. “It’s a very good alignment for Adobe, given both our own commitment to sustainability and the interest of the design community, who are major customers of ours.” Having these companies at the table instantly multiplies the effect that the accord can have on products, services, and systems.

And as this movement spreads through the academic community, students will be exposed to the conceptual tools, standards, and support needed to transform design. Ken Friedman, a member of the 1960s avant-garde art movement Fluxus who has become a respected figure in the design-research community, learned about the Designers Accord as he was preparing to become dean of the design faculty at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. At his instigation, Swinburne’s entire design curriculum is being reworked so that environmental concerns are part of every student’s experience. Friedman calls the accord “definitely a product of design thinking and beautifully done. Instead of a customer-service process for a bank or a new product for the marketplace, what we have here is a social-change process.” Cumulus, the world’s largest association of design schools, has also endorsed the accord, and 10 more programs from Mexico to Finland have signed on.

Stories like those are encouraging, but the accord is still voluntary and self-policing, without standards or methodologies for things such as reducing carbon footprints. Considering that members belong to a range of disciplines from graphic design to architecture to industrial design, it’s difficult even to imagine a single set of benchmarks that would be relevant. All that makes it hard to gauge real impact beyond good intentions.

In the end, the effectiveness of the Designers Accord will be determined collectively by the community. “We’ve gone through the first phase, getting people signed up to the idea,” says Tim Brown, Casey’s boss at Ideo and an advisory board member of the accord. He says they’re now focused on building the right infrastructure, both online and off, to allow the community to fully blossom. “That’s going to take a little while and some real effort. We’ve got to raise funds and get some partners in place.”


For Casey, having that infrastructure in place will mean taking a step back. Right now, she is somehow handling the day-to-day management of the accord, her full-time job at Ideo, and her 3-year-old twins. “They are the great balancers,” she says of her children. Her focus is intimidating; her enthusiasm for the cause won’t be satisfied until she has enlisted Oprah and is making inroads in the policy world as well. “This movement has the potential to be as big as the entire creative community,” she says. “Designers bring optimism and creativity, not apocaphilia.”

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation.