Turning Design Around – An Essay for Deesign Magazine

Designers have created a dazzling world of consumerism which we all relish and indulge in; yet overconsumption is slowly destroying our planet and our future. Is there still time for design to turn itself around? Could designers use the unique skill set that created this world to help solve the crisis of which they are so integral?

We as individuals choose to define ourselves through the products we buy. Clever marketing and manipulation, however, ensures we are completely oblivious to the global system behind them. Our society is characterised by mass production: the thousands of materials and parts from every corner of the globe; the millions of man-hours in assembly factories; and the mountains of waste as we inevitably throw everything away. The Great Recovery project is run by designers hoping to raise awareness of this system. They hold workshops during which participants dissemble scrap consumer electronics goods whilst simultaneously learning where their material components come from. They are part of a design led movement which aims to promote eco friendly thinking in design through design for disassembly and ease of recycling in a circular economy.

At surface level such product design for sustainability is huge progress; but we need to dig deeper into people’s desires to buy objects in the first place to really tackle the problem. When a product is very well made, from high tech materials, it can be seen as ecologically friendly as it will not break and require replacement for a long time. Often though the material components are so durable that they will vastly outlive the lifespan of the product, sitting in a landfill. Stuart Walker is a designer and writer who makes ephemeral, limited use products. His designs 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 once the product of which they are a part is no longer required. This builds on the make-do-and-mend mentality of our British island community that is not only a cherished part of our cultural history but has been a necessary one. The user gains a greater appreciation their products through understanding all its components and continuous reassessment of whether the product is still fulfilling its duty.

Due to the human-centric nature of design, designers have the opportunity to think beyond the function of products and ask ourselves why people consume in the first place. What is it in our human nature that causes us to express ourselves through products when, so often, our products not only outlive their function but simply outlive our desire to keep them? Designer Jonathan Chapman has explored 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 which ultimately leads to the desire to replace them.  He proposes that we need to begin designing things 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. He calls these “emotionally durable” designs.

The opportunity for the designer within this crisis is clear: we need to design products people will value. For useful and task products they should only exist for as long as they are needed and be taken apart again to be used for new purposes. The user should always be fully aware of what has gone into them: their full cost on the environment. However the products through which we define our identity should be kept around because we love them. It is the responsibility of the designer to return the attention to the micro, back to people and the individual. Through this, we can bring back the ethos of debate to our creative practice and work towards solving this ecological crisis.

Turning Design Around – An Essay for Deesign Magazine

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