Sustainable design is a hot topic. While most people applaud the idea of designers using ecofriendly materials, others insist that that’s missing the point–that by designing for mass consumption, designers are still part of the problem, not the solution. I disagree.
The Designers Accord, the global initiative that unites designers, engineers, educators and others around the idea of incorporating sustainability into all practices and production, is a remarkable achievement. Yet, before I signed on, I wanted to have a talk with Valerie Casey, the founder of the movement.
I told her that it bothers me that almost invariably, sustainability is framed as an ‘anti’ movement. It mostly tells us what not to do. While that’s often right, I would add a caveat. For true sustainability, we need to make a more profound culture change–one that involves more than the right standards, specs, or agreements. We should harken back to design in its classical sense, in which an object is so beautiful or functional or otherwise pleasing that it elicits an emotional reaction.
Here’s an example. Remember GM’s EV1? Introduced in 1996, it was first modern production electric vehicle from a major automaker. After problems developed with its batteries in hot weather, the cars were discontinued and crushed. The EV1 was not the first electric vehicle, and it was not the first vehicle to be ‘killed’ either. However, it was the first loved EV to be ‘killed’. It became a symbol–of the promise of what-could-have-been and a demonstration of what-GM-couldn’t-be. As I drove it back in the ’90s, I vividly remember thinking, “This is one cool car… I want one!” And that’s the role of design in our era: Encouraging people to change, by making products so beautiful that they’re tools of seduction to a new, better world. Design in that classical sense is missing in many sustainability discussions.
Seduction is not design’s only power. Designers also can create long-term commitment. Think of it this way: if the average car buyer holds on to his car for six years instead of the usual three, we can change the auto industry overnight. Regardless of the car’s carbon footprint, any car designed and built for a six-year ownership cycle will be good for our planet. Despite its good intentions, even recycling is not really sustainable. By shipping short-term products, we squander energy, natural resources and public goodwill. Reliability of cars is so high today (yes, even American cars) that the real reason cars are traded in sooner than sx years is lack of love. Loved cars are not given away easily.
The same is true for any other product. A great dress you keep for years is sustainable. A great sofa passed from one generation to the next is sustainable. By this measure, things that might not otherwise be deemed ‘sustainable’ may actually be more so than less endearing products made with more ecofriendly materials. Take Apple’s latest MacBook. To create its aluminum case, engineers take a sheet of aluminum 15mm thick and machine away 90% of its mass. They then regrind and smelt the leftovers up to 20 times to make 20 more notebooks–hardly a ‘sustainable’ practice from an energy use and dematerialization standpoint. However the resulting product is beautiful and solid as a rock. I will keep mine for a long time–unless they force its obsolescence through software–because I simply love it! And that’s the most sustainable point about it.
Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.