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Gadi Amit on What’s Wrong With Green Design

Does beauty have a role in sustainability?

Gadi Amit, founder of NewDealDesign, isn’t the first to point out that “green” design is often hideous. Then again, so what? Is that really a problem.

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Amit would argue ‘yes.’ As he told Danielle Sacks for our yearly Masters of Design Issue:

The problem with sustainability design today is the perception that it’s pure mechanics — let’s analyze carbon impact, toxicity, and so on. What I’m saying always is, Guys, you’re wrong. Objects have a cultural meaning, and objects that are lovable, that are well integrated into culture, won’t be trashed after five years, and so are sustainable. If the object is connecting emotionally, connecting culturally, people will keep it. We still have people using Palm Zire, which we designed eight years ago, even though it’s a completely obsolete technology. The bottom line is there’s no replacement for emotional connection. Sustainability promoters need to understand that without this emotional, cultural enabler, they face a very tough uphill battle.

But what about a company like Apple? It rolls out new products every six months and previous versions become obsolete.

The huge misconception about technology is that it’s the hardware that causes the obsolescence. It’s the software too. It’s inconceivable that BMW would sell a car that won’t have spare parts and won’t be able to be on the road for [more than] five or six years. It should be legislated that software must be backward compatible for a long time. Just like cars.

Also in the software world, there is a term called “rust.” Day one you open a computer and it works really fast, and after a year, it slows down. It’s the result of out-of-control cycles of add-ons that are competing for resources on your PC and creating conflicts. In my opinion, this is a big sustainability issue. We cannot just trash millions of tons of electronics every year.

How are you personally trying to put a halt to this cycle with your clients?

The Dell Studio Hybrid PC is one example of a long fight that resulted in a computer that is more humble in performance and really aggressive on sustainability. Dell came to us with the idea of doing the ultimate home PC; you could put it any way you want, horizontally, vertically, all types of things. We wanted to do a smaller computer using a chip set that consumes a lot less energy. Our argument was that computers are so overpowered, they’re basically dying of boredom. On a cycle of 24 hours, we might be using 1% of their capabilities.

The problem was the computer business is rigged for the latest, fastest, and so forth, and Dell had an objective difficulty: How does it sell a “good enough” performance computer? The argument was really between the old-fashioned paradigm of speeds and feeds, and a new paradigm of lifestyle that’s more about a small footprint. We started working on it in 2005; it finally came out in 2008. It uses 70% less energy and less material, and it’s enough for me to use every day as my office computer.

We’ve covered Amit’s central idea before — that by making objects even more desirable, they’ll last longer. It’s to be distinguished from what Saul Griffith calls the “Rolex theory of design” — the idea that luxurious heirlooms are more expensive in the short run, but greener (and cheaper) over time.

Few designers actually make the connection to beautiful, commonplace, mass-market design — but it makes sense, because beauty is what ultimately makes something worth keeping rather than trashing. (Eames chairs, for example, never get thrown away. And they get passed among users for going on 60 years.)

Such iconic status is probably too much to ask of every object we buy. But it’s absolutely not too much to ask that designers (and the manufacturers that often hamper them) aim for iconic beauty with everything they produce.

For the rest of Amit’s interview, click here.

[Picture by Mike Piscitelli]

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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