Sustainable Design

Sustainable Design

In the latter part of the 20th century, in the so-called industrialized societies, design played a vital role in helping business and commerce in the generation of wealth, in the development of the consumer society and in the spread of globalization.

According to Professor Wolfgang Sachs of the Wuppertal Institute in Germany, we are witnessing the spread of the advanced consumer society, where we no longer consume for our material survival alone but for our emotional desires. We are a society in search of identity. We purchase goods in order to identify with a particular lifestyle – ‘I buy therefore I am’ – and it is the designer’s imagination that is harnessed to commerce to create the choices of identities and lifestyles that fuel the desire to consume.


Photo by Jo Scorsone (free download from Wikipedia, 2006).


We also consume as part of our search for a sense of well-being, having for the most part lost our connectedness to a more spiritual way of life. However this path does not entirely fulfil us. While consuming may be fun, there is a price to pay.

As Sam Leith of the Observer, in his review of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, states, ‘We become mere puppets, walking, talking, life-sized Tommy (Hilfinger) dolls, mummified in fully branded Tommy worlds.’ He goes on to remind us of Naomi‘s exposé that multinational brands such as McDonald’s, Nike and Gap have created almost unstoppable giants of industry, taking jobs from the West to sweatshops in developing countries to keep their profits high, where inhumane conditions prevail, with workers labouring up to eighteen hours a day to make the brands we wear.


Katrina disaster, New Orleans, 2005.


However Craig Johnson, in his review of No Logo, makes the point that ‘rampant consumerism is driven as much by consumers as it is by “greedy” multinationals’.

We are all responsible for the situation and nowhere is the impact more heavy than on the environment. Designers and architects are responsible for specifying 60% of the materials used throughout the world.

We see how the environment has been degraded and we are already feeling the impact of global warming. We are told that we are depleting our natural resources by consuming at a rate that does not give the earth time to recover. We also hear that globalization is destroying the economies of many developing societies and creating more poverty than it professes to eradicate. Many of the subcultures that enrich our lives are fast disappearing together with the biodiversity of the plant and animal kingdoms.


Degrees of corruption worldwide, (free download from Wikipedia, 2006).


Seeing and reading the news these days, whether in newspapers, magazines or on TV, it is obvious that the world is in crisis, that most governments are too inept to overcome the problems, and that business is generally too greedy to care.

And to top it all, we are systematically killing each other, and honestly believe that the other is to blame.

The situation appears to be hopeless, yet there is hope, for there are enough intelligent and innovative thinkers who care about these issues and are dedicated to working towards a more balanced and sustainable approach to life, until there comes a point where it becomes the norm.

Malcolm Gladwell calls this moment the tipping point, the process of which is convincingly described in his book of the same name.

Surely we would all prefer to live in a world where there is no war; where poverty and hunger have been eradicated; with zero crime and corruption; with economic stability and prosperity for all; with governments of authenticity and integrity; with a healthy environment; with health care and education for all; with fair distribution of wealth; with community spirit and acceptance of another person’s way of being; and finally, a world where we live in a manner that, while meeting our needs, leaves the planet in a condition that will meet the needs of our children, and their children, and their children’s children.

To achieve this, we may all have to reduce our rate of consumption, and this, for most, is thinking the unthinkable. Or is the answer that we simply need to learn to consume in a different way? Can we have our cake and eat it? Can we create abundance and nurture the planet at the same time, instead of causing the damage we see around us?


Rubbish collector on the river Thames, 2006.


We have an old apple tree in our garden, which every year, produces an abundance of apples. We use no fertilizers or chemicals. Many apples fall to the ground to provide nourishment for the soil around the tree. We collect what we need. Birds, deer and insects eat the rest. The seeds are scattered everywhere. When the tree reaches the natural end of its life, there will be new trees to continue the process.

We need to learn how to use the earth’s resources in this way, taking what we need, replacing it after use, and re-nourishing the earth in the process, so that it continues to provide resources for our use and the use of future generations.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart describe their theory on this very subject in their much acclaimed book Cradle to Cradle, and also offer a methodology for dealing with non-biodegradable material. It may be that a utopian vision is unattainable given the human condition, so perhaps we need to settle for a solution that is at least sustainable.

Consider for example, corruption. Joachim Spangenberg, Vice-President of the Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI), demonstrates that corruption exists everywhere and that we will not get rid of it. The question he poses is: how do we ensure a level of corruption that is sustainable? He states that when corruption stays close to the law and a country can continue to function, that is sustainable corruption. Conversely, when corruption is completely outside of the law and brings about the dysfunction of a society, that is simply unsustainable.

The classic sustainability model, known as the triple bottom line, used by corporations that attempt to follow a path of sustainable development, recognizes the need for a balance between economic responsibility, social responsibility, and environmental responsibility.

To this model, Joachim adds a fourth dimension, the necessity of institutionalizing this process, whereas ICIS (the International Centre for Creativity, Innovation and Sustainability) has as a fourth dimension a spiritual aspect: the reverence for, and the sacredness of all things.


Rubbish on the South Bank of the Thames, London, 2006.


Paul Brown states in an article in the journal of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, that industry has finally woken up to the fact that following sustainability principles need not increase costs and reduce profits. On the contrary, companies that are ecologically aware, and have embraced the practice of corporate social responsibility, are now reaping economic rewards.

In the future, the companies that behave in accordance with the principles of sustainability are the ones that will succeed, and design that meets these principles, will be the order of the day.

The question is, will designers be a driving force in the new paradigm of sustainable practices?

When asked about this, Joachim Spangenberg replied that he thought not, as designers are not the decision-makers.

So, can designers join the ranks of the decision-makers and play a role in directing the course of events? Or will they wait, as they do now, until the decisions are made, and then use their creative abilities to make things work, to solve the problems that others have set for them? If design is to have a powerful influence in creating a sustainable future, designers will have to take on the responsibility of leadership as well as the principles of sustainable development.

Until now, that need has not arisen and is not part of a designer’s education or training.

The authors believe that this education is long overdue. Not only will professional designers need re-educating, but also teachers will need to be re-trained to teach these new disciplines to design students. Over the past three years, ICIS has run a highly successful programme in professional and personal development for practising designers, with a focus on sustainability, and next on the ICIS agenda, is a programme for the retraining of educators.

We believe that the time has come for designers to become leaders, taking their rightful place amongst the decision-makers; it is time that they embrace the principles of sustainable development, acquiring the necessary knowledge through re-education; it is time that education in sustainable design is made an essential requirement for every student of design, and finally, it is time that designers devoted their talents to serve all societal needs, and not the needs of commerce alone.

Were designers to accept this challenge, we believe that they would succeed. Bruce Sterling, writer and futurist, stated in an address in Chicago in 1999 to the American industrial design community that designers are the one group of people who are capable of bringing about the much-needed transformation in the world, because, he said, ‘they are hot enough to imagine a future, and cool enough to make it happen.’

Karen Blincoe and Mervyn Kurlansky, 2006


Essay taken from 'AGI: Graphic Design Since 1950' by Ben & Elly Bos