I have to admit, I often feel guilty while designing. There’s no other reason why my design should exist in the sea of products other than people would still buy it and the company makes more money which goes to my salary. I know that people need products, but there’s a difference between need and want another Yeezy.
Especially when I go to the landfill, I felt disgusted with myself and our consumptive behavior.
My company asked me to design with a brief which says " make it look cool" (in other words, make consumers impulse buy it). toxic CMF, unrepairable, new model every year,etc.
I’m thinking that in the future our grandson/granddaughter will think about how stupid is their grandfather generation.
Hang in there,
I’ve struggled with that guilt as well (I consider it remorse, not guilt) but like you, I live in this same consumer driven, materialistic, cost abundant society so we don’t turn down many projects. Because that’s the case, I strive to accomplish the following every time I design something;
I research the user extensively - if I can make sure the product fulfills the users’ wants and needs and solves their frustrations they will be more likely to use and keep it longer - if we can delay that dump into the landfill by even a year, we’ve done something good.
I make every attempt to minimize waste, both in the packaging, the instructions, any accessories, etc. I designed a zero-waste package for a series of products that launched way back in 2005, they’re still on the shelves today! Imagine how many pounds of waste we’ve saved.
I make every attempt to insist on recycling icon communication for every part of a product - we know it doesn’t take much; a simple piece of artwork, 20 minutes of CAD time and identification of contrasting part texture to make it stand out. I’m one of the few people who still disassemble products to recycle any part possible - I’m sure there are at least a few others like me out there so every part that gets recycled is a small step in the right direction.
We’re not helpless in this cause to do better, and there are plenty of small steps we can take to instill a culture of responsibility in the companies we run or are employed within.
You are not responsible for others’ actions. Others should have the freedom control their own lives. Live your life in the responsible manner as you atest and feel free to tell anyone why you are doing so. Phrasing it as why you do it will be not as preachy as why you think others should do it.
I felt the same, so I became an academic. Now I have to witness universities accepting students which are miles short of the entry grades and lacking the ability or drive that they need be ready for industry in just 3 years which also feels bad.
I think the only solution is to be self employed and make a socially responsible company.
“We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard … and too damn cheap.”
(Kurt Vonnegut once suggested carving this quote into a wall on the Grand Canyon, as a message for flying-saucer creatures.)
Wait until you have kids. The guilt becomes nearly unbearable. Every parent has to deal with this in their own way. At least my work is something that my kids think is “cool”. Also with a background in how-things-are-made you can explain why the built environment around them looks the way it does. Then occasionally they will ask a question with such amazing sensitivity or synthesis that an army of brand-name design firms couldn’t unveil, and for a brief second there’s a glimmer of hope.
I prescribe to lab’s POV here. Ask yourself what you can do and how you can help influence those in your vicinity through example (not preaching). If more people focused on what they can do with their own actions, imagine the impact that would have on business decisions…
Here are a few things you might be able to do:
Only taking projects that have some kind of net positive, even if that positive is creating something that might encourage people to love it more and so hopefully keep it longer (we can’t make people do this, but we can try to encourage good behavior), or switch to working for a company that makes durable goods. A co-worker of mine at frog, and crazy talented designer took a job at a renewable resource company. The physical devices he is working are not sexy at all, but I bet he sleeps well.
Evaluate your own purchases. Do you really need that new car, new shirt, new shoes? What can you repair? If you spend a little more on something will that get you a higher quality product? Will a used car suffice (the virgin raw materials have already been used)?
Reduce single use plastics and paper as much as possible in your life. My wife switched us to all reusable stuff, even little reusable baggies for produces and what. I felt like a nerd going grocery shopping at first, but I got over it.
Work from home. Maybe you can work out a deal where you work from home a few days a week? Or bike or walk of course.
Reduce your meat intake, or go vegan.
No kids. This is pretty much the biggest single environmental decision you can make (followed by not eating meat). It might seem pretty drastic, but if you want others to make hard choices then you have to make them too.
Get out of design. I’ve heard a few digital designers say they went into app work and UX because they didn’t want to make physical waste… except as an app designer you job is to keep people using their device as long as possible, which still wastes energy. I think the question you have raised has kept most of us up at least a few nights. In those moments I think about quitting design all together and working as a policy aide to a political candidate or something. If you want to change the world that seems like a more direct route.
Boiled down into 3 charts, to summarize, have one fewer kid, don’t be rich, and don’t live in the US!
I don’t go to the guilt feeling so much any longer.
Although we do have an impact, the planet is very big and there is an unlimited supply of energy to develop and transmute. I do cut down on impacting the environment by researching new materials, processes and constructions, and taking note of what I buy and consume personally. But mostly I like to focus on creating value for people and developing business.
The gist is that the world is actually way better than we think. It’s less poor, healthier, safer and more peaceful than ever before in human history, even in the countries that Mr. President says are ****holes.
[my opinion] - I believe that some of the environmental panic is overblown because environmentalists are scared that if they state things clearly people won’t take action. Unfortunately, I think this leads to people ignoring the situations which deserve panic, but that’s another matter. Take for example the recent report that 50% of animals will go extinct in the near future. Someone found a report from the same agency that stated we were going to lose those species by 1990 and we didn’t. Basically: stay calm.
I always tell designers, if you don’t design it, it will still get made, but it will be uglier, less functional and quicker to get thrown out. It’s hard to believe it, but people feel they need all the stuff that the economy produces. As designers, I think all we can do is push the needle towards higher quality products that people will want to keep and be aware of the impact of our designers (like Scott says above, add the recycle logos and make the product easier to disassemble for recycling).
FWIW, I find myself more optimistic after having kids.
These are all good points. I appreciate being part of a community populated with thoughtful designers.
Re #2 from Ray above, I agree with this but don’t let it reach the conclusion that you need to sacrifice yourself to make every toilet brush more high-quality. I know that’s not what he’s saying.
Self-reflection and examination is a healthy thing, questioning design briefs or projects that produce a visceral revulsion response is also healthy. You have a limited time on the planet, and an even more limited time to be in a position to impact the world for better or worse. There’s so much attention paid to a narrow band of design problems these days, that I wonder what the world could be like if the so-called design superstars could put their talents and skills toward doing something more meaningful than, say, a new hot-dog cart. You can work in areas that you can identify with, that can be worth your time, and produce some planetary good beyond a minutes worth of likes and “oooh cool” from followers.
I think it is a problem with every industry. We have become a society targeting the lowest common denominator in order to maximize profits, it doesn’t matter what the moral or ethical implications or repercussions are. I actually feel worst about the negative effect music, tv and media companies have on our society, kids and adults…but nobody cares as long as we are entertained.
I often think about design and the absurdity of some aspects of our profession. Having kids puts everything in perspective and grounds your outlook on life. Sure you give up time, income and sleep but nothing better than getting home to laughter and family craziness (what really matters). You get to un-learn what you thought you knew about life and re-asses you everyday decisions.
I often wonder if medical product design would be more satisfying since you are actually helping the end user & patient. But then the medical industry is broken as well.
For now I enjoy my work. I know some of it is not ground breaking or “socially responsible” but that’s the society we live in. Maybe you can find a job/product that provides a more meaningful experience for you.
On a side note, we were acquired 3 years ago by a fortune 300 company. The other business units make treatment devices. We make prevention devices. Their videos typically highlight a single person whose life was saved by the device. If we do our job right, the patient never becomes a patient. Our video shows nothing.
I think we are seeing a bifurcation. A lot of low end product that breaks down, and then a gap where the step up, slightly higher end product used to be, then another product explosion at the ultra high end. Having done a bit of design work in this area it is also a mixed bag. On one end it is amazing to work on something designed to last at least one lifetime and is super technically capable and very considered like an Icon… on the other hand, some of the people that buy that type of product get them just as a status symbol and not for what it is.
Non-medical design fulfills needs. Quantifying which is “better” will only lead to a rabbit hole. What’s better? Going for a bike ride or taking a pill?
Which ones feels “better” in terms of contributing to society. Easy, if I design a prosthetic or something that prevents somebody from getting hurt or sick, it would make me feel much better than designing a shiny black box. However, I definitely enjoy designing black boxes and those get the most clicks.
I remember seeing a video of deaf patients being able to hear for the first time or kids getting their first prosthetic. Now that would be worthwhile and gratifying.
“No storms or floods or droughts or heat waves can be traced to my individual act of driving,”… Conversely, “If I refrain from driving for fun on this one Sunday, there is no individual who will be helped in the least.” (From If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home? (NYT link)
As in: ‘If I refrain from designing another better looking product- I won’t be helping anybody in particular’
Personally I think we’re screwed. Humanity is caught in a progress trap where our pursuit of progress through design ingenuity, inadvertently introduces more problems we don’t have the resources or political will to solve for fear of short-term losses in quality of life.
We live just once, and this is it. Enjoy it, but think twice about about bringing more kids into our spiral…
What if that shiny black box brings great joy to the user and the prosthetic only serves as a reminder to the user that they aren’t the same as they once were?
I’ll guarantee you that is far more common than you think. Medical devices may fulfill a lower Maslow need, but why is that “better”? Seems to me pots and pans would be a similar level as medical devices.
Looking back on it one of the things I really like about working on footwear is that they are both a need and a want. People tend to need shoes, sometimes for specific activities. With frequent use they break down and you need another pair eventually (whatever brand you have, you can take them back to a Nike or Converse store and they will put them in a regrind bin). In addition to serving a purpose and having a life span they also make Some people happy.