Can design be good?

4 October, 2012


By: Frank O'Connor, Director of Ecodesign Centre Wales


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 20 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 3 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. There are a few exceptional cases where sustainability is the foundation of the whole undergraduate programme such as 'Sustainable Product Design with Professional Experience' at the University of Brighton, while some courses offer an optional module. 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 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 its great to see projects such as the Great Recovery, an RSA initiative, re-energize this evolutionary journey with their focus on good design through designing for a circular economy. To support this the Technology Strategy Board have established a funding programme to get business-led feasibility projects underway.


And in the last few weeks we have seen the Guardian Sustainable Business section taking the positive step of bringing in a guest blogger Chris Sherwin to discuss sustainability and design. Coupled with this we have WRAP’s new Product Sustainability Forum, the upcoming UK Business Council for Sustainable Development pathway to ecodesign event and new EPSRC funding for resource efficiency.


Let's look at good design in companies. Take for example Welsh-based manufacturer Orangebox. They have a ‘good design’ ethos at the core of everything they do, from their Managing Director Mino Vernaschi, a designer by trade, through to their creative new product development team. They are an SME who want to and who are making a difference and their business is thriving on it. In the last few years alone they have localized their supply chain, implemented an end of life take back structure for their products, moved towards a closed loop model of business with zero waste, as well as being the first European business to achieve Cradle to Cradle certification for a task office chair. All in the name of good design practice.


I know design alone can’t solve our problems. 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 the UK we only 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, 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 to make good design principles the norm. I believe, that irrespective of the consequences, designers should do their utmost to deliver good design.


Original article