If one looks back in time, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that design, as an inherent ability is as old as humankind itself. It was this very ability that formed the basis for man / woman’s survival and ascent on this planet. Hence the evolution of design is thought to be synonymous with the evolution of the human brain and the ability to manipulate material. It was in fact the three great ‘acts’ of design that formed the building blocks of the first ever man-made environment – fashioning of basic tools, basic shelter, and basic communication. All ‘designed’ to meet the most basic needs, borne out of man / woman’s consciousness about the natural world and their understanding of the natural environment in its two most important aspects – nature’s laws and materials. Thus it is fit to say that the seeds of what we know design to be today – essentially a ‘problem solving process’, were sown at the start of our conscious evolution.
Design as we largely perceive today falls under the purview of ‘modern’ design. And even though it seems to fuss over the surface design and embellishments, it goes much deeper than that. The image make-over began in the later half of the last century where art, craft, skill, or ability gave rise to tangible ‘forms’. Each subsequent change in its physiognomy came around as an extended need, an adoption of a new technology and / or change-over to a new energy source. The industrial Revolution, the filtering down of design in to mass production as opposed to one-off creations, made ‘design’ a globally identifiable discipline.
It is not wrong then to conclude that design is everywhere. Good or bad is a discussion for a later paragraph. But design as a discipline is omnipresent. From being the basis of survival, it has blossomed in to the basis of fulfilling human needs. In fact it is not only a mere process anymore! It is very much a vehicle of ideology and a means of expressing national, institutional or corporate aspirations.
The last two decades have seen the growth of three significant considerations in design, thus reconfiguring buyer – seller / producer – consumer relationships. Firstly, the focus on brand building and cultivating brand loyalty. Secondly, digitization and emergence of ‘new media’. Thirdly, the emerging pressure for sustainable systems, products and services.
As the first two lead us down the path of consumerism, and excessive production, it is the third that is truly the saving grace of design.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that design has the potential to provide a platform to build and sustain the implementation of design thinking for social change, and designers hold the key to influencing successful socially conscious initiatives. It cannot only help us build better, cleaner safer urban environments, but sustainable products and services as well that comply with the principles of social, economic and ecological sustainability.
The intention of sustainable design is to “eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful, sensitive design”. Manifestations of sustainable design require no non-renewable resources, tend to impact the environment minimally, and connect people with the natural environment.
Beyond the “elimination of negative environmental impact”, sustainable design has the potential to create projects that are meaningful innovations that can shift behavior. A dynamic balance between economy and society, intended to generate long-term relationships between user and object/service and finally to be respectful and mindful of the environmental and social differences.
We’ve heard a lot lately about global warming and its connected dangers posed to our civilization and current way of life. But what does this mean for the common man besides possibly investing in a fuel-saving new bike or replacing a few incandescent light bulbs with some compact fluorescents (CFLs)?
The godfather of sustainable design, Victor Papanek in 1972, accused designers of creating useless, unnecessary and unsafe products; of wastefully propagating product obsolescence; of creating “stuff-lust” that promoted materialistic lifestyles.
The material world that surrounds us – the signs that direct us, the smartphone pages we flick through, the way we use buildings, how we move around cities – is consciously or unconsciously designed. Sometimes this has been done well, but frequently not, even though how things are designed can have significant implications for sustainability.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimates that 75% of UK consumers’ carbon emissions come from the use of products and services, be it transport, electricity, or manufacturing of consumer goods. We also know that 80% of the environmental impacts of those products and services are determined in the early stages of design. These two figures tell us that sustainability is chiefly about stuff and that the impacts of products or services are pretty much designed-in (or out for that matter) from the very outset.
So isn’t it easy to put two and two together and say that design really does matter? To furnish it with an example, its not only an integral part of how a particular medicine works, or the way it looks or is packaged, it is also an integral part of the fact that the medicine is “designed” to keep one healthy, so why not cities?! Sustainable design thus is as important as medicine indeed.
In fact Papanek’s contemporary, Nathan Shedroff, captured this well when he said: “Design is the problem as well as the solution”. If environmentalism’s success was in spotlighting sustainability problems to the world, the success of design will be in helping deliver solutions.
Why, you may also ask, should you turn to a designer, rather than a supply chain manager, factory manager, communications/ad agency or technologist? Great design moves you, creates value and inspires action. Great design makes the heart beat faster, solves tricky problems creatively, makes weird, new stuff seem normal, makes things cool, can make lives better and make businesses richer.
So here’s hoping that clients and the sustainability movement will turn more to designers for help with sustainability problems and look for more sustainable solutions. Second, that the design community can move beyond the image of being stylists and fashionistas, to see sustainability as the ultimate design brief.
Sonal Dhama is the Founder of D4Design, a Delhi based design studio. Creative Director. A damn fine person, Story Teller. Traveller. Ace Illustrator. Artista. Sugar Junkie. Believer in goodness of Design. Conscious of Design Conscience