Are we ruining the world?

I don’t think I’ve seen the sun for at least a week and a half here in Beijing due to “hazardous” air and I’ve been reading articles about India surpassing Beijing in bad air quality, somehow I feel partly responsible.

As industrial designers we have a large footprint with regard to our contributions to manufacturing. Shouldn’t we hold ourselves more accountable towards cleaner manufacturing and power? This seems like a no-brainer and as a global community of designers, surely we have some leverage, right (well maybe not against the PRC, but everyone else which in turn puts pressure on the PRC)?

I’m very aware that these are both developing economies and options are slim when it comes to cheap energy, but there must be some way to nurture some sort of awareness towards the issue which also benefits the masses. Any Ideas?

Or maybe I should shut up and finish my portfolio.

You are probably more responsible for this as a consumer than as a producer. Be aware that you are a tiny, tiny, TINY gear in a big system of production, demand, supply… and so on.
It is not you who creates products at will like a god of products (usually). You only get ordered by someone who also got the orders to make something… who got ordered by his boss… and this boss has probably another boss… and so on. It is not a singular decision made by the designers. Stuff will be produced, if you like it or not :slight_smile:
Although… you can affect all that positively by being aware of the problems, doing your job well and creating a long lasting design that won’t “break” - literally and aesthetically .
So don’t beat yourself up, don’t hate the player, hate the game :wink:

… don’t hate the player, hate the game

Politics aside, one might say, “Why play the game at all?”

Sure you have to make a living, and you decided to make industrial design your profession, but that doesn’t mean you have to buy, buy, buy.

Make do with what you have. Buy only what you need, not what you want. And buy pre-owned products whenever possible. Not always fun, but certainly economically, an ecologically, the path to take.

As Mrog stated,

“… you can affect all that positively by being aware of the problems, doing your job well and creating a long lasting design that won’t “break” - literally and aesthetically .”

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I think the world without industrial designers would be a little dirtier and a whole lot uglier.

Another way to think of it is that one could sit and meditate in the temple like a stone buddha or one can accept the world as it is and go into the world and help others as a living buddha.

IDers specifically? No. No worse than anyone else.

Humans? The 7 billion? You betcha.

Reminds me of the opening line of Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World:

There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them.

He goes on:

Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis. By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly one million people around the world each year, by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed.

Regardless of whether you agree with it or not (I don’t… I think), it’s provocative.

I think in 1960-something America, Victor was spot on. Oil and metal were cheap therefore designers used them liberally without thought of where it would end up going. Thankfully, we have some trends that are beating that back:

  1. Low-pricing. Every year retailers want a lower price. The idea of tossing an ounce of chrome on a product are long gone when you have to reduce the cost 5% inspite of all your raw materials going up 10%.

  2. Software. Even in cars, the software is the most important thing. So important that people want less product and more software (ie Apple, Tesla, Google).

  3. A general design trends towards modernism-ish. However, this may change at anytime.


Good designers will reduce the number of parts, increase product longevity [within a given project budget and scope]; this in turn will reduce environmental impact. Without designers, the world will be a lot more polluted.

On the flip side of the same coin, a good designer creates demand causing the consumer to dump a perfectly fine product for the newest and shiniest version.

Zero net gain.

Remind me of the time i saw Manzini, he was asking the question: do we need another chair? I think that either we do or not need another new chair, we will keep producing new products and the industry will keep producing even if we design or not, so is our job as designers to make this better, make products that can last, that have less parts, use better the resources of the factories that produce them, think about packaging, use, product life, disposal, etc. A good designer will think about all this factors and make good beautiful products.

Being exposed to the amount of effort and time that goes into a planned obsolescence object does make me (and I think most designers) much more sensitive to accumulating stuff and doing good work. I try to channel that sensitivity into creating products that people will want to keep using as much as possible, to minimize waste.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that as we are flooded with more and more junk, the hipster movement naturally yearns for more tangible, timeless, and durable products. There is something that can be learned here and put into new products as we make tradeoffs in material choices, design trends, and ecosystems.

However, at the same time, putting wi-fi and a PCB in every ordinary object will only make planned obsolescence worse. What if a 2014 car with CarPlay doesn’t support iOS12, will someone get a new car in 5 years? =)


  1. Every counter culture movement has been yearning for more timeless durable products. Beatniks, hippies, punks, hipsters. It’s interesting to think about how this sub-culture changes, but certain core values seem to remain. Hmmm.

  2. I think the wi-fi & PCB trend will die soon. Remember this:

Of course you don’t, because no one does. It’s a gimick that marketing and sales are using because they don’t have well differentiated products. It will pass.

In my opinion, Industrial Designers are but a cog in a larger machine. An important cog, but a cog nonetheless. You could argue that finance departments for large “bad” companies are giving said companies the capital to continue their “bad” behavior, therefore ruining the world. My point is that in a company, every employee/job to an extent is affecting the company’s (and the industry’s) operations and therefore you could argue is “playing the game”.

Now the key difference is that designers’ decisions can more actively and positively influence the nature of the game as opposed to other professions.

So no, I don’t think we’re ruining the world (at least not to the point where I would point a finger) but our decisions do have impact and we need to be mindful of that.

I think we as industrial designers willingly accept a little too much of the burden and therefore feel like we can make more of a difference than we can. The impact you alone designing a plastic product with a few less components is negligible. Period. Don’t fool yourself. But… no matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.

Can you make a difference? Sure. It has to be a collaborative effort with all parties involved, not just the designer who thinks he/she is holding all the cards. Generally speaking designer has no cards. Zero. You get to play when someone outside your pay grade says you can. That’s who has to be included in the discussion. Everyone from from upper management to marketing to supply to R&D to sales to advertising. This is no small task, and therefore cannot be done alone. Don’t underestimate the amount of effort and discipline required to create real change, not incremental.

I agree with Mrog, as consumers we have the power to demand better products, more environmentally friendly and made to last.
As Industrial Designers we have a duty to voice our concerns and design with respect to the environment. We only have one planet and we need to take care of it. Having said that we not always get our way and the job needs to get done.

As Industrial Designers we have a duty to voice our concerns and design with respect to the environment. We only have one planet and we need to take care of it. Having said that we not always get our way and the job needs to get done.

Seriously? So is taking care of the planet important or not, I’m confused. Or just as long as it doesn’t interfere with the job that needs to get done? Come on. This is precisely the attitude that prevents change from happening. Everyone wants to claim going green is great but push comes to shove, buy the stuff that gets the job done. The plastic stuff. The chemical stuff. But it was the thought that counted right?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a cool hipster making sustainable belt buckles out of compressed coffee grounds and just the right amount of self loathing, but don’t just jump on the bandwagon (not just the green movement but any wagon for that matter) and not be willing to back it up with… wait for it… wait for it… ACTION.

I read recently that the average American throws away 30+ lbs of clothing a year. You only have to get a couple of dress shirts from one of those popular fast fashion brands to realize they won’t last past two washes and feel like cardboard, vs a nice dress shirt that fits and feels awesome and will last for a few years of regular wear. As an individual I try to make sure that what I buy is high quality, which I know comes with a higher up front cost, but a lower lifetime cost and typically higher enjoyment. The first stop on the recycling triangle of reduce, reuse, recycle, is reduce. Saving raw materials is the the most efficient way to reduce your environmental impact. Less stuff means you can have a smaller house, having a smaller house means spending less on energy to heat that house, water that lawn and so on.

As designers I don’t think it is in our job description to tell people how to live, but hopefully we can influence by making higher quality goods more desirable and as regular people we can influence those around us by being examples for how to live more minimally and be more aware of our purchases.

I’m curious, what action?

The OP has absolutely zero power when it comes to environmental regulation in China.

I have read (and certainly don’t know if it is true or not), that for any impact, first world dwellers would need to reduce their footprint down to your average Bangladeshi. Who’s going first? Who is not going to replace their iphone5 with an iphone6?

Even if that is not the case, where exactly do I need to be in terms of consumption? What evidence do you have to support that position?