Design and/for Sustainability

15 Mar

We had a visit in the MDes studio last week from Dr Stuart Walker.

He works at Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts and the blurb on his page, which reflects the theme of his lecture, says:

Research Interests
Product Design for Sustainability – explored from a variety of perspectives but emphasizing, in combination with critical reflection and writing, the creative activity of ‘designing’ as a legitimate research element. Explorations in theory and practice that examine the inter-related issues of social equity, ethics and the spiritual, aesthetics, localization and the environment. The relationship between localization and globalization, and design for sustainability.”

His work struck a chord with everyone, I would say, because we could all see relevance to our individual projects. But more than that, although I can only speak for myself, I think he hit on the nerve that tells me that everything that is wrong with commercialism and consumerism has been touched by a designer and by default, it would seem, ‘all’ designers are implicated in this crime, however small their guilt.

I’ve certainly had the ‘commercialism’ tag aimed squarely at SuperFly when, at the beginning of 2010, I did a street poster art exhibition that was also an advertising campaign for a Pop-up event in Dundee; an exhibition that is all about the ‘art’ is somehow more valid than an exhibition that also incorporates ‘advertising’. The advertising didn’t take up any more of the poster than the sponsors logo section had on the previous poster, neither was the art compromised as a result; but of course, the advertisers did pay for the exhibition!

However, that aside, their is no escaping the fact that, for Product, Packaging and Graphic Designers in particular, there is always a question of conscience concerning the work that is taken on.

While this had been something I had thought about personally, Neville Brody was the first ‘well known’ designer that I had heard publicly express ‘matters of conscience’ in the context of design.

He has said,

“I think intelligent, questioning design that can somehow help extend and open up people’s awareness is valid. I wouldn’t work for cigarette or oil companies, or even alcohol. I would find it immoral to have my persuasive skills used to encourage people to start smoking.”

While everyone will have their own ‘line in the sand’ with regards to these kinds of ethics, I believe it’s important for every designer, working on any project, to have ‘sustainability’ as one of their key objectives.

You can view some of Dr Walker’s ‘research objects’ here, and while many of them resemble props from Mad Max II, there were two points that I came away with: 1. We don’t need to wait for a nuclear holocaust in order to act responsibly; and 2. design may well be used inappropriately at time, but it can also be part of the solution.


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