Over the last 60 years, unrestrained and seemingly guilt-free consumption has dominated Western developed nations, informing the production and design of everything around us.
Today, the impact of these habits is clear and present. Confronted with an increasingly unhealthy planet, society is finally acknowledging the damage that has been – and continues to be – inflicted upon the Earth. Designers, alongside legislators, businesses and consumers, need to reframe their practice in radical ways in response to this challenge, and time is of the essence.
Pearson Lloyd has spent 25 years designing products for manufacture and consumption. We know our craft well and, across multiple sectors and territories, we have long embedded principles of fitness for purpose, circularity, durability, and efficiency as cornerstones of our design thinking.
But since we started our practice, the metrics with which we judge the value of design, and the priorities that are built from them, have changed significantly. We have steadily evolved from practising within a culture that prioritises human need over planetary, to operating in one which recognises that humanity and nature are equal stakeholders.
The question we continually ask ourselves today is:
‘How can we make changes in our process, in our conversations with clients, and in the execution of our products that will serve the needs of the planet alongside those of the user, so that we may become allies to the planet?’
Throughout the 20th century, an all too common narrative existed around the theme of the ‘added value’ that design brings to a product, making manufactured things more desirable, more efficient, more sellable, and more profitable. Today, the role of design must remain to add value, but the value proposition itself must be reconsidered. The building blocks of our relationship with the built environment and the vocabulary of design are being redefined:
From human-centred to nature-centred
From novelty to longevity
From exclusive to inclusive
From designed to co-designed
From owned to shared
From linear to circular
From extractive to regenerative
What can we do?
Firstly, we must acknowledge the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in. From the urgency of the need for change, and the metrics of how we measure the impact of our trade, to the methods of change we employ, the debate is complex and contradictory. We must progress in the knowledge that the subject is in a state of flux. What we believe is an appropriate action today might not be so tomorrow. While there are gaps in our collective knowledge, progress will be uncertain, and full of compromise and frailty.
But we cannot afford to wait for complete knowledge or consensus. The stakes are too high. We should not wait to be asked by government or clients or end users. Designers often have more knowledge, more understanding of context, more varied access to information and data, and more objectivity than those we serve. There are actions that we can confidently take now.
- we can help reframe the conversation, to place the planet as a stakeholder in all our decision making
- we can help rewrite the brief. The value proposition needs to change
- we can help challenge behaviour of ourselves, manufacturers, buyers and users
- we can be open to learn and understand the new landscape of our professional lives
- Above all we have to be ambitious on behalf of the planet
In real terms, as designers – alongside our manufacturing partners – we can live these actions by embedding the following policies in our practice:
Focus on material inputs in the supply chain with regards to responsible sourcing
Work to minimise toxicity and pollution in production
Work to minimise carbon inputs during production
Minimise carbon in storage and transport to customer
Maximise every product’s useful lifespan
Avoid designing for short-term trends, ensuring cultural durability
Design products that work for their defined purpose
Re-pair / re-new
Design for repair and renewal
Design for disassembly in mind
Re-use / re-cycle
Choose materials that can have multiple effective cycles in their lives
These actions may be relatively simple, but they have the potential to make a significant collective impact. And they are only the earliest steps in a complex and ongoing process. As work continues and our understanding grows – informed by an expanding body of research and continuing advances in material technology – new urgencies will become apparent, and the steps we must take will become clearer and more certain.
As problem solvers, designers always need a challenge in order to thrive. Today, the problems we are facing are the biggest and most important in our planet’s history. The situation is serious, but we believe that if we acknowledge the stakes, commit to the problem, and step up and make the change, then we can look to the future with hope.