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Sustainability in Design and the Future of our Craft

By Ashley Arhart on October 16, 2012

Last week I was invited to participate in Seattle’s 2nd Designers Accord Town Hall sponsored by Seattle AIGA to discuss Sustainability. Joining three other speakers—from REI’s corporate office, Velocipede Architects, and Microsoft—I led a discussion on Sustainability in design and the future of our craft.

Some of the questions/statements I posed and the responses that led to more in-depth conversations included:

•  How do you make something MOST sustainable?

Make it precious — an object of desire, not an object of information. Something inherently worth keeping is the most sustainable thing we can make.

•  Understand and recognize the fine line between meaningful and gimmicky.

In our zeal to create something repurposeable, we can inadvertently create monsters—gimmicks that are even worse than their recyclable counterparts and quickly discarded, totally defeating our goal of increased sustainability. Meaningful needs to be something that resonates with the receiver, not cleverness for cleverness’ sake.

  Move beyond Renew, Reuse, Recycle. Strive for Reimagine, Reinterpret, Reinvent.

•  How do we, as designers, innovate to become not just producers of attractive print collateral, but orchestrators of meaningful connections of which printed artifacts are a part?

Graphic designers need to think like designers, not just like “graphic” designers. We need to use our skills to craft communication systems that support business, consumer need AND a healthier planet. As a discipline, we want to make beautiful artifacts we can hold in our hands. When most thoughtfully conceived, they can be delivered to those people—typically a smaller, more invested population—who find them most compelling and most worth sustaining.

•  Is the “book” dead?

Technology births new tools of communication at every age. Is the book dead? As a consumable object of information, perhaps. But it is increasingly precious as an object of desire. The medium must be appropriate to the message, and as curators of communication systems must curate experiences that are most appropriately purpose-built. Ultimately, it’s about knowing the difference between objects of information, objects of desire, and objects of necessity—and how to design for each.

•  What skills should people just coming into the field of design have nowadays?

Print, digital, still image, moving image—we have more tools at our disposal, and more professional requirements to navigate these mediums seamlessly.

•  What can we do as designers to help build sustainability awareness?  

Fundamentally, it comes down to changing the people and their mindsets. Talk about it. Ask yourselves and your clients if making the “thing” is really serving the need. Is there a smarter, better, more relevant way to design the solution that is also the more sustainable solution? And it may not be about making the “thing” better…it may mean we don’t make the “thing” at all. As designers, we are in a unique position to bring new thinking to the equation—literally redesigning the future of sustainability, itself.

Needless to say, by the end of the evening, conversations were still going strong and could have gone on for hours longer. Sustainability if definitely a topic that continues to evolve and elicit dialogue on a variety of levels. Going forward, it’s evident that the solution to being sustainable lies at the root of all that we do. And hopefully one day soon, sustainability will serve as the standard instead of the ideal.

Comments (2)



October 24, 2012 at 12:46pm

Bryce Molenkamp says:

A well led conversation with some great design minds. It got me to think more about what sustainability in design means and how to make a difference with every project. Cheers to Ashely and all who attended.

October 18, 2012 at 1:40pm

Calvin K Carter says:

What a great conversation! Thanks Ashley Arhart for thoughts!