Posted by on 24/09/2019

Can design be good, if it does not consider all of the key environmental, social and economic impacts throughout the life cycle? Over the last 30 years I have frequently asked this question. My answer has always been no. I believe design and the design industry must take responsibility for its environmental and social impacts. There is no alternative.  

For too long the design industry has ignored this. Despite words of wisdoms from visionaries such as Victor Papanek, as far back as 1971. One of his statements that really influenced my thinking on design was “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier.”

Design is much more than technical solutions, style and being trendy. Design should be about satisfying real societal needs in an environmentally and socially responsible way.

I’m not saying it’s easy. And while there are examples of good design there are sadly far more examples of bad design. In fact we live in a ‘throwaway’ society with up to 98% of products thrown away within 6 months. It doesn’t make sense to throw away our resources and in any case there is no away! It seems that the design industry has taken on some type of collective unconscious behaviour with catastrophic unintended consequences. Related ‘throwaway industries’ such as fast fashion are linked to sweatshops, child labour and poor quality disposable toxic products, which are nigh on impossible to reuse or extend their material life.

I believe the true cost of these products (i.e. impacts over the full life cycle such as pollution, health etc.) should be built in. According to the World Health Organization over 4.6 million die every year from air pollution. This is only one of a long list of global impacts related to the products we design, manufacture and use, many of which are conveniently hidden. We need a new economic model based around the overall system, that is fully inclusive of all actors and the environment. And perhaps the time is right to classify designed in obsolescence as a societal crime?

It’s extremely frustrating that mainstream design education is yet to embed this type of good design thinking across its disciplines. Okay, some courses offer one or two relevant sustainable design modules, but that is not enough. To me it’s obvious. All design graduates should be literate in good design. Yet instead we continue to condition them to design irresponsibly.

It’s also hard to believe that policy makers still separate good design principles such as environmental responsibility away from mainstream design and innovation intervention programmes, resulting in separate programmes for ‘traditional’ design and for optional ‘specialist’ support such as ecodesign. Environmental and social responsibility is not and should not be an optional add-on.

On a more positive note it’s great to see the European Commission and other global influencing organisations beginning to prioritise the Circular Economy and providing funding to support organisations in transitioning. However, we need to do much more.

It is clear that ecodesign has struggled to take hold. It has never been perceived or accepted as mainstream. And this is from someone who has spent his career as an ecodesigner. However circular design is deemed to be sexy, appealing, attractive and cool. Circular design excites product designers, they get to utilise their traditional industrial design skills, to redesign products to be more durable, repairable and multiple life, maintaining the long-term value of the materials and components.

Circular design is in fact a sub-set of ecodesign, which in turn combined with social design enables design for sustainability. While we still need ecodesign, to ensure the wider life cycle impacts are considered, with the growing enthusiasm around circular design I hope we are witnessing a game changer.

To conclude, I know design alone can’t solve our problems, even if 80% of environmental impacts are determined at the design stage. We need all actors to change behaviour and work together to create a better future. For example, over consumption is another massive challenge. In fact in Ireland we need the equivalent of three planets to satisfy our current habits!

I believe good design has a key role to play in facilitating this wider societal change. It is part of the problem and needs to be at the core of the solution. And let’s not get bogged down with what we call good design. We have this terrible fixation in coming up with new catchy terms. So whether we call it sustainable design, life cycle design, design for a circular economy, circular design, ecodesign (the list goes on…) it’s really about good design that takes full responsibility, making life cycle decisions that reflect a global systems perspective. There is knowledge and solutions out there. We just need to apply them.

Lao Tzu suggested ‘a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.’ I argue we urgently need to take a lot of steps together in policy, education and business and citizen behaviour to make good design principles the norm. I believe, that irrespective of the consequences, designers should do their utmost to deliver good design.

[Note: Updated from a blog post I originally published in 2012]

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