Design to Seduce

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I have just returned from a week in the Netherlands talking about the ideas in my book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. My host was the Director of the Design for Sustainability section within the Industrial Design faculty at the Technical University of Delft. This is where I began to learn about the centrality of design to sustainability. On this visit, I was deeply impressed with their progress in the 7-8 years since I spent a year as a Visiting Professor. So when I come across articles like the one I write about here, I wonder where the US design profession really stands towards sustainability.

Under the headline, “Want True Sustainability? Then Design to Seduce,” Gadi Amit writes in Fast Company that:

Sustainable design is a hot topic. While most people applaud the idea of designers using ecofriendly materials, others insist that that’s missing the point—that by designing for mass consumption, designers are still part of the problem, not the solution. I disagree.

The Designers Accord, the global initiative that unites designers, engineers, educators and others around the idea of incorporating sustainability into all practices and production, is a remarkable achievement. Yet, before I signed on, I wanted to have a talk with Valerie Casey, the founder of the movement.

I told her that it bothers me that almost invariably, sustainability is framed as an ‘anti’ movement. It mostly tells us what not to do. While that’s often right, I would add a caveat. For true sustainability, we need to make a more profound culture change—one that involves more than the right standards, specs, or agreements. We should harken back to design in its classical sense, in which an object is so beautiful or functional or otherwise pleasing that it elicits an emotional reaction.

I think Amit, although seeing the imitations of what has been standard eco-design practice, has missed the point. Yes, we do need a culture change, but not the kind he calls for. To make designs evoke emotions is already part of standard practice. He later implies that designs that do evoke deep connections to our emotions will become objects of permanent value, and will not get thrown away so easily. My Dutch colleagues recognized this some time ago and published a neat report on the project called, Eternally Yours. But as much as long-lived objects may slow down unsustainability, they will continue to feed affluent society’s basic addiction to consumption. And by making them explicitly seductive, this aspect will only be worsened.

What designer’s need to do is make objects that wake us up, not things to be loved or hated. We will not be able to flourish, the key to sustainability, unless our everyday tools help us break through the unconsciousness that the tools produce so that we can recover our sense of being, not having. Paradoxical as it may seem, our tools can be designed to carry messages that raise our senses of what we care about and dispel the sense that we simply need these things because they are there and we have the resources to acquire them. I looked at the website for the Design Accord and see that some 150,000 people are affiliated with this young entity. Their guidelines speak about introducing sustainable design intheir work, but if this article is a clue as to what this means, I do not believe that they will get far in creating sustainability. They should take a hard look at what is going on in Europe and at places like TUDelft.

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