Rethinking Sustainable Design: Question 3 – Design

What is the greatest influence in design today? Is it environmental? Economic? Sustainability? Convenience? What is the greatest motivator in the design world?

This is a broad question. I think that one of the biggest coming constraints on design in the next decade is going to be more expensive oil. The extent to which all design is dependent on this depleting resource means that the significant rises in prices that are inevitable will have massive flow-on impacts on all aspects of the economy and our lives. Almost no designers have been trained to do oil-less designing.

In terms of influence, as opposed to constraint, I think that all design (worth calling design, as opposed to rendering what the marketing department specifies) seeks to open people to new experiences, to new ways of living and working. Design can only do this by simultaneously reducing or replacing some way of living and working that is habitual today. Every creation involves destruction, not just of the resources to make the new thing, but also of the old things that that new thing makes redundant. This means that design is never just about improvement, especially in ‘convenience.’ Design is a about change – from one lifeworld to another. Each lifeworld has its own advantages and disadvantages, or things it makes possible and things it makes difficult, or efforts and rewards. Convenience is totally relative; it is not some absolute value against which we could say that things have been getting progressively more convenient. What seems inconvenient at one stage (in history, in different cultures, at different times in our own lives) is not considered inconvenient at another stage. If we value something, we don’t think that what’s needed to get it is an inconvenience: it is just part of what you do to get at what you value. Design helps people get what they want. (But it also shows them things that they might want that didn’t even know where possible; not ‘false,’ new needs; just other possibilities, other ways of living.)

This is why sustainable design is not just about making sustainability more convenient. It is about making sustainability more desirable, as part of the ongoing creation of different ways to live that is what it means to design.

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