Sustainability in design is usually considered from a material science, or an economical point of view; my journey to becoming the designer I am has given me a different stance. From growing up in the isolated Orkney isles to sitting on the board for a local charity, my experiences have led me to consider sustainability from a human-centric point of view and I will illustrate this through talking about my major influences since deciding to come and study design.
Part 1 – Defining Problems
Growing up in the beautiful natural environment of the Orkney islands, and as the daughter of a biologist, I was brought up with a fascination with nature and the ecosystems around me. Throughout school, I developed this to the level of an informed awareness of how intelligent the natural world around us is. The first exposure to design that I was inspired by was the beautiful natural aesthetic of the Art Noveau period, especially the jewellery of Rene Lalique. With its flowing curves and delicate finishing the pieces to me really captured a sense of awe and delight in nature’s beauty.
It wasn’t long before I began to realise a distance exists between people and nature. It became clear that, for most people, nature is seen as a malignant other – a force to be understood, mastered and ultimately controlled to meet our own aims. Alongside this I began to develop a sense of responsibility for this incredible system of which we are only a small part.
The impact of our divide from nature is, as we all know, vast. We are using much more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources and returning it as huge amounts of waste and deadly pollutants. I began to learn about the impact of society’s bad habits from a design perspective through the works of writers such as Vance Packard (1960) and William McDonough (2002).
My passion for nature soon developed into a desire to learn more about human nature: why, unlike animals, did we separate from our natural roots? I began to read about traditional tribes such as the Pirahãs in Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes. It was interesting to consider them as the crossing point between westerners with all their greed, and animals living with nature as part of a harmonious system.
“Truth to the Pirahãs is catching a fish, rowing a canoe, laughing with your children, loving your brother, dying of malaria” (Everett 2008).
I am very inspired by the work of Jonathan Chapman, an English author writing about design for sustainability. Chapman theorises that the problem with our society stems from human nature being expressed in the wrong way. “[We have] deep motivations as a species – to create, to produce and to consume. Problems arise when these deep motivations are expressed physically (e.g. objects, materials and new technologies), as opposed to metaphysically (e.g. stories, ideas and friendships).” (Chapman and Gant 2007).
Product Design is in many people’s eyes just about making people want to buy things. Stereotypically it is about stylising objects to make them more desirable; and therefore it is also about producing the waste associated with repeptitve consumption. During my first two years at university I began to feel a conflict between my beliefs and my chosen career path. I did not want to contribute to mass manufacture and the throwaway society so I decided to take a stance as a sustainable product designer. I have defined my aim as to explore metaphysical consumption and how I can use design to bring back a more fulfilled society living metaphorically rich lives.
Part 2 – Designing Solutions
“Sustainable design is about criticism. Essentially, it is an edgy culture that reinvigorates design with the ethos of debate that was once the hallmark of creative practice” Chapman and Gant (2006).
In this section I will explore three methods for sustainable design that I aspire to work with in the future: creating emotional value in products; encouraging engagement through participation; and designing critical fictions.
Giving Value to the ”Old”
Jonathan Chapman, in his book Emotionally Durable Design talks about how products today lose all their value as soon as we buy them. They deliver everything they have to offer in the first few days of ownership, leaving us with nothing but increasing disappointment, ultimately leading to the desire to replace it. He proposes that we need to begin designing objects which people want to keep because they have emotional meaning, items which grow and evolve with us like a pair of jeans which mould perfectly to our shape and reflect our experiences in every scuff (Chapman 2006). Since reading his book, I have considered the objects that I hold dear to me and what makes me treasure them. I am trying to apply this theory to my designs through using materials such as wood and leather which become more beautiful with age.
If it is too late to design objects that won’t grow old, I have discovered many designers who create value out of what we discard. Glasgow jewellery designer Jack Cunningham crafts beautiful and intricate pieces made almost completely of found objects. These pieces are carefully chosen and arranged in a form that suggests a narrative – creating deep engagement as people contribute their own interpretations and stories.
A large focus of design for sustainability is making use of the objects that are already around us rather than throwing them away. Stuart Walker is a designer and writer who makes ephemeral, limited use products out of waste and easily sourced parts. The key to his designs is that they are made of readily available parts and, consequently, they can easily be taken apart and returned to their original use or turned into something new again (Walker 2006). I find the fact that these components were waste which would have vastly outliving the user’s attachment to their particular product, particularly fascinating.
Fulfilment through Participation
Orkney is in many ways a craft based community and this traditional way of life has been fulfilling to many generations before us. The “make do and mend” mentality of the isolated community means that craft is not only a cherished part of our cultural history but has been a necessary one.
Since coming to university, I have really embraced the importance of the act of making things by hand. I have learnt to appreciate making as a tool to externalize thoughts yet also to give form to ideas and create tangible connections between people. Although I enjoy researching concepts and getting to know how design impacts people on the field, I find I am at my most productive and creative when I am spending a day cardboard prototyping or meticulously crafting a final project.
Emergence, a term I have borrowed from biology, explains that something is more than the sum of all its parts. For example as humans we are much more than just chemicals and atoms. To me this is why craft is so appealing and also so vital. When you build, for example, a bench you are not just combining wood and nails; you are making an object which facilitates social interactions, builds stories and can create many rich or fleeting interactions. The resulting object is much more than the sum of its ingredients (and this is even without beginning to consider the emotional development of the crafter who put the ingredients together).
Since coming to Dundee, I have been very involved with a charity called Skill Share Dundee and have recently been accepted onto their board of trustees. Skill Share has created a craft-based community of sharing, and strives to teach people traditional and useful skills whilst simultaneously giving them an awareness of what goes into mass produced products.
Last summer I visited an exhibition at the V&A in London called Disobedient Objects curated by Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood. The exhibition focused on what Grindon called “art and design from below” – the unintentional design of objects by people trying to bring about social change. In their book of the same name, the curators talk about how powerful physical objects can be in supporting social movements. Art and design from below is something that I have begun to recognise all around me. It is about people designing for themselves, as opposed to authorities designing for the masses. These are objects that are all linked together by a simplicity that suggests “not a lack of concern for design, but an impassioned and raw desire to express something” (Grindon for Apollo, 2014). The objects in Disobedient Objects are designed out of necessity from materials people have readily available around them. “The objects involved are prototypes that exist in the wild, to be modified and reworked to meet the needs of different times and places” explain Flood and Grindon. In the future I would love to explore user participation in design more and design situations where the user is creating social value in a product.
I have always found myself drawn to dystopia novels because of my interest in human nature; I love to consider who we are by exploring fictions pushing society to its extremes. Recently I have discovered the work of designers Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby who design objects critical of society, as illustrated in their 2013 book Speculative Everything. One example of their work that I really appreciate is Foragers. The duo took the reality that governments can not support global food production and that it will eventually have to be down to individuals, and designed a fictitious scenario in which amateurs had created their own devices for collecting and digesting food. The carefully considered aesthetics ensure the devices didn’t look like finished products but ideas (Dunne and Raby 2013). I hope to use a method similar to that of Dunne and Raby to visualise concepts around sustainability and the nature of consumerism, as products proposing alternative fictions to spark discussion and increase engagement.
In conclusion, my identity as a sustainable product designer has been shaped by many different elements that, I feel, have all come together to give me a unique stance to solving the problem of our consumerist society. I aspire to help raise awareness and tackle these important issues through the human touch of craft and critical thinking through alternative fictions. I want to move into the field of designing not only emotionally durable products, but products that make people think; products that involve the user, whether it be contrubiting their own experiences to create a narrative or supplying their own design or craft element. In the pessimistic world of sustainability and eco-awareness, I find myself with a determined optimism through my inspirations; my journey so far is just beginning.