Design Morality

I am not going to go into a full diatribe over why I am bringing this up as I spent an hour or so writing about it on my blog. You can get caught up here:

The short story is that I had bunch of small things happen this weekend that made me question the role Design plays in big issues like Global Warming.

Where is the line drawn with respect to design morality? We, as Designers, have lamented about how we generally work for someone else who is pulling the strings on the products we work on. We don’t control whether or not it is a “green” product or not.

One of the things I realized was that I don’t believe that humans are going to change their consuming habits unless they start to FEEL like what they are doing makes a difference. When I put a glass jar in the recycle bin there is no proof that that is delaying that glacier in Greenland from sliding into the Atlantic by a few miliseconds.

When it comes right down to it, if Al Gore is right with some of the stats he talks about in An Inconvenient Truth, Humans are going to have a LOT of water front property in the relatively near future. I don’t have enough faith in the human condition to change consuming habits.

I don’t have enough faith in the Corporate world to give a shit whether or not their product is “green” or not until there are some damn big ice cubes floating around our oceans causing some serious over watering of our lawns.

This isn’t me throwing up my hands in surrender. It’s me wondering what the hell can we, as Designers, do about this? What can we do to make the world FEEL that changing their habits will make a difference without something catastrophic occuring?

Think about it. You don’t feel any consequences when you pump 75 liters of fuel into your minivan. You don’t feel like you are doing damage to the planet by keeping that hall light on for your daughter because she is afraid of the dark. You don’t feel like sticking your spaghetti sauce jar in a blue box and leaving it on the curb is delaying an inevitable global catastrophic event.

We’re not going to stop people consuming. How can we change how we feel about the products we consume? How can we do this without asking people to alter their lifestyle?

If you think about it, if everyone does a little, it will add up to a lot.

Drive a little less.
Walk a little more.
Ride a bike a little more.
Eat a little less.
Use a little less water.
Recycle a little more.
Use a little less electricity.
Re-use stuff a little more.
Buy a little but less.

Try to fix something that is broke before you throw it away.(you might learn something)

Imagine what would happen if everyone did this? The numbers would add up fast. Hey, the byproduct, you save $$! :smiley:

I get it. It still is one of those things that has zero feedback. There is no quantifiable means to tell me that it really is making a difference.

Put it in perspective this way. I am one that believes that something needs to be done. I would argue that I (along with most on this forum) are early adopters of this thought process.

Here’s a scary observation for you. My wife is a 7th grade teacher (Grade 7 teacher for my Canadian amigos). Her observation is that kids these days have become complacent on this topic. That this is a change she has observed over the last 10 years or so. That there is a resignation to them. That the generations that preceded them fcuked things up so thoroughly, why should they care.

Now, amplify this thought process and apply that to the 2-odd billion “have-nots” on the planet right now. As they come online, and the middle class expands exponentially, caring is going to be a tough thing to convince people of. Unless we can figure out a way to do one of a couple of things:

  1. Create a Feeling associated with consumerism that by doing the “right thing” works. We don’t know if it will. The light at the end of the tunnel could be a train.

  2. We design every product so that there is no choice but to be conscientious.

Number one seems more realistic to me. Anyone have any other possibilities?

As designers, we have a unique social responsibility that goes far beyond personal conservation efforts.

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second…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.”
-Victor Papanek, Preface to the First Edition of Design for the Real World (1963-1970)

Appropriate quote, however I have never agreed with Papenek wholly. I find him well intentioned but profoundly irritating because I always got the impression that he was an all or nothing mentality.

All or nothing meaning humans effectively have to stop consuming for him to be satisfied.

I look at the problem and agree that consumerism is out of control. That there is more crap out there than people know what to do with. But there is still demand. People still buy the crap. They buy, and buy, and buy. That want for more is not going to go away. I firmly believe that.

So rather than advocate abstinence, how do we promote prevention? How, as designers, can we design “crap” that is less crappy? Especially when the products we are creating are less the problem (except for maybe automobiles) and more the source of the materials for the products…oil and the processing of oil for plastic, the electricity to run the plants and equipment to make the products, the gases emitted from paints.

I am not a creator. I am an integrator (not sure that’s the best word). I pull prefabricated materials and guide them into the form of a new product. If there isn’t a chipset which consumes very little power, or a plastic that isn’t made from oil, or…

What am I to do? There is a demand and it needs to be filled. But can we change the tide and fill the need with a product that isn’t harmful (Less harmful)?

Is there a “catalogue” of components that I can integrate into new designs that follow this methodology?

Another perspective:

“…such an approach only perpetuates the one-way, ‘crade to grave’ manufacturing model, dating to the Industrial Revolution, that creates such fantastic amounts of waste and pollution in the first place. Why not challenge the belief that human industry must damage the natural world? In fact, why not take nature itself as our model for making things? …Products can be designed from the outset so that , after their useful lives, they will provide nourishment for something new. They can be conceived as ‘biological nutrients’ that will easily reenter the water or soil without depositing synthetic materials and toxins. Or they can be ‘technical nutrients’ that will continually circulate as pure and valuable materials within closed-loop industrial cycles, rather than being ‘recycled’–really, downcycled–into low-grade materials and uses.”
–Dust sleeve copy of Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough & Michael Braungart

THAT is an excellent question!

In my opinion, we need a new Service Mark, akin to the Good Housekeeping or Energy Star seal of approval. And wouldn’t it be great if everything had something equivalent to a nutrition table, so we could measure and add up the damage?

Or how about an encyclopedia of materials and manufacturing processes that list this stuff?

Does this exist?

there’s this:

perhaps, when consumers will demand more information about their purchases, we might see “the nutritional table” of components, their origins, etc.

eta: Also, is an example of consumers being interested in supporting a specific cause(s). Supporting companies that choose to provide fair treatment to their employees is often an environmentally better choice.

Ya, but what is your perspective?

How do you apply these theories? Cradle to Cradle is well and good. But for the average design integrator there are some big obstacles to overcome if you are to truly design “green”.

ip_wirelessly, was that a question to me or cg?

i don’t have answers. in my current role i have very little input. i do my best as far as educating myself on various issues. cutting down the number of parts needed, not adding things for the sake of adding things “the cool stuff”, never use chrome in my designs…small things like that. sharing my knowledge of environmental issues and solutions w/ staff members.

i look at it as…there’s a demand for a staff designer at my company, and the truth is the most “green” product is the product that isn’t manufactured, basically. but because there’s a demand for a designer, i think i do a better job addressing environmental issues than some SUV driving, oblivious to environmental issues dude.


i don’t think the consultancy where i am working at can approach the kind of work they’re doing. we lack expertise and there’s probably a lack of clients interested in that kind of work right now in this particular area of the usa.

It was to CG, but it applies to anyone who is part of this conversation. Like most things along these lines, there is a lot of talk, but nothing actionable. Even if it is small steps, what can we do? How do you integrate this thinking into your daily grind?

Never use chrome.

That’s a great example of what I am trying to figure out. What is the alternative to chrome?

I tend to think that for people to change their habits prior to something catastrophic happening, they need choices that don’t feel like steps backwards.

So, no chome. But if you like shiny mirror-like metal on your products, what is an alternative that is non-destructive. Chromium 4, I think that’s the number, is bad bad bad…but are there other processes that provide the same result?

Depends…I guess, really high polish steel? Or some other metal? Foils? Maybe it’s a feature that somehow is illuminated by the light in an intriguing way, or visual interest is created by layering textures and colors of overlapping bits in various translucencies? Why does it have to be chrome?

Nickel plating as far as I know is less bad for the environment than decorative chrome plating, I might be wrong.

There are multiple less toxic coatings that address the functional properties of chrome plating. Designers usually add chrome not because the function of the product demands certain parts of it to be chrome. It’s added for visual appeal. And as creative ppl I am sure we can come up with other creative ways to create that visual appeal than slapping chrome on it.

Also, I am a believer that if you’re absolutely 100% sure something catastrophic is about to happen, you might have to sacrifice some “likes” for the sake of “needs”.

I guess I’d ask myself why do I want the shiny mirror like finish? Shiny things are pretty. Why are shiny things are pretty? Because they reflect light in a delightful way. What else reflects light in a delightful way?..Gems, crystals…what not…Can I replicate that?

I guess I try to ask as many why’s as possible. I also don’t see how abandoning harmful for the environment practices is a step backwards.

I’m presently pretty ignorant of Sustainable Design. But I know that I want to learn more. Here’s what I’m doing:

  1. Spread the word to those who can make a difference (this thread is a start)

  2. Read up! Check out my growing Listmania on Amazon.

  3. Start a Sustainable Design Club at your company. I’m learning from this, creating buzz etc. This is a ‘club’ because I’m gathering information before taking it to management as a full blown ‘initiative.’

You’re thinking like an environmentalist, or a designer. Not like someone who doesn’t care, or believe in the cause.

There’s a level of progress that has been achieved. And I believe that the perception has to be that nothing has changed. If chrome plating is needed for the design to be a success, but it isn’t “chrome”, it is firefly extract, the end user doesn’t know any better and you are safer for the environment.

I pulled chrome plating from your example because its a widely used process. One that consumers like (seeing a LOT of it on automobiles these days). The mentality of replacing a destructive process with another one that does the same thing but isn’t destructive allows me, as a designer, feel as though I am doing something positive.

enlivining discussion gentleman. you’re hitting us at our core. i think this is in the conscious, or at least sub conscious, of most level headed Industrial Designers.

How can we overcome the guilt of making more stuff that perpetuates the cycle you describe above? We have to make a living, right? The club is a good idea, if only as a means of therapy to talk with other concerned individuals. The labeling products is a good idea - what if the same approach was taken as with cigarettes? Products with harmful chemicals would have that big black and white sticker across the front of the package with a direct statement - “Materials in this product are detremental to the environment or perpetuate global warming”. Of course who can say one thing directly leads to GW or not, but it would be a good concept for an exhibition, maybe even a competition to come up with ways to inform consumers about the trickle down effect of what they purchase.

I’m just thinking out loud here.

The important thing here is we know there is a problem. We no longer have to waste our time debating that, and we can focus on the how to fix it - something that we’re trained to do, problem solve.

California’s Proposition 65 means we already have labels for anything that could cause cancer: "Businesses are required to provide a “clear and reasonable” warning before knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone to a listed chemical. This warning can be given by a variety of means, such as by labeling a consumer product, posting signs at the workplace, distributing notices at a rental housing complex, or publishing notices in a newspaper. Once a chemical is listed, businesses have 12 months to comply with warning requirements. "

In the near future I could see that extending beyond cancer-causing to environmentally-polluting. If CA mandated that, manufacturers would likely put those labels on all of their products just so they don’t lose out on the opportunity to sell to such a huge economy. (If California was a country, it would be the 6-10th largest economically.-Wikipedia)

I feel the same way you describe those children IP. I try to do what I can. I walk more. I live in a city where I have transport alternatives. I put everything I can in my recycle bin. I try to sell or give away things when I’m done with them, rather than toss them in the trash (thank god for craigslist). However, in spite of that, I feel I have no chance to make a real difference.

I think, society needs to ask the question, “do we want to burn out the earth as quickly as possible?” I don’t think there is anything wrong with answering “yes”. After all, many people choose that option for their lives, and we celebrate them (Jim Morrison, Joe Columbo, etc.). After we answer that question, I think people will make wiser decisions about what they do in quick measure.

Already though, I see signs of change. There is Home Depot’s announcement to have a ‘green’ product line. GM has canceled plans for for some gas guzzling new cars. Maybe things are changing?

A few random points to close with:

  1. Chrome is a wonderful process that has been given a bad name. When done properly, it protects steel from corrosion and creates a super hard barrier. It also can last for many years. Unfortunately, most people don’t chrome plate properly, even in the US…let alone China (remember, I worked in lighting for while rolls eyes).

Nickel plating is a better alternative. In fact, luminaires sold in Europe can not be chrome plated, they have to be nickel. I couldn’t find the difference in our samples.

Most of the chrome you see on cars is not chrome. It’s aluminum vacuum plated onto plastic. Polished aluminum has long been a cheaper alternative to chrome. All of the brightwork on old VWs is in fact aluminum.

  1. That NYT article on Home Depot pointed out two things that I thought were critical: 1. people, en mass, have not bought products based on energy savings or impact as of yet and 2. Home Depot says that customer’s have the idea that an environmental product is less effective than the alternative. I think those two statements sum up what should be done if we want to take action.

Let’s give people environmental products at the price they already pay. In Quebec, there are many refunds for products which use less electricity, thus subsidizing the higher cost. This program can be duplicated. The alternative, is an environmental sin tax to raise the price of bad products. Either way works.

The second point really came home to me as a product designer. How many cheap products do we throw away every year because it was designed badly? Probably a scary amount. We, as designers, can demand a higher standard for ourselves. Let’s make sure that we abuse our prototypes. Take another hour to make sure that everything functions properly. Follow up on quality control issues. If products aren’t prematurely breaking, or aren’t ergonomic failure, chances are that people are going to use them longer. Best part is…this is something we DO control!

I am really glad we are talking about this on such a high level (as in not the often Core rantings).

It is interesting for me to get the US point of view since I have been gone for about two years. Everything I am reading in the international press and specifically here in Asia, makes me think of the following:

  1. Non-sustainable living is drug - We know it isn’t good for us, but we don’t want to quit. It is nice to see that we are beginning to move from the finger pointing stage (Everyone blaming US and China, China blaming US, US blaming China). I am not saying that the blame is not factual, but I am saying that it is keeping us from moving forward, or maybe allowing us to keep from moving forward. We (from here on “we” means the world) have to accept the fact that there will be no Hollywood “magic bullet” and we are going to have fundamentally change the way we live. I know this is unfashionable but it is the truth.

  2. Big problems ahead - From the Asian side, the Himalayan glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. These glaciers are the major water sources for China and India. China’s major rivers are already so polluted that they cannot support life. That means that very soon 1/3 of the worlds population will be without clean drinking water or water acceptable to grow crops. What are the choices when this happens? a) a lot of people are going to die. b) there will be mass movements of populations to other areas of the world, and with the choice between no water or fighting to move I think fighting will win out. and c) This being a much lower issue than the above, the world’s factories will be gone.

Also China is making strong moves to gain their natural resources from Siberia and Africa. Over this next 100 years we will probably see Resource Wars on a global scale. For the developed countries the loss will initially be in human resources. They will lose the "world factory/China and the “world IT center/India”. This means prices for everything will quickly rise and consumerism will have to change.

  1. What can designers do?
  • Work with new partners to do things in a different way. One example would be to work with biologists to create living products (products produced living matter). After you get done rolling your eyes, think about the fact that thus would move us back to more of a sustainable agrarian society and greatly reduce the pollution levels. We have to group together and work with world governments to look for wholly new futures. Who better than us could do this?

I will right some more later. hopefully this will continue to spur the kind of great thinking that has already been going on here.

Hey, where did everybody go?

Sorry if my last post was a downer. Those who know me, know that I am a very happy and positive guy. I just think this issue is very important for us to really think about.

I also think that we are one group who could greatly expand the solutions that need to be developed.