Designers Take Responsibility
One of the most famous quotations in design literature is Victor
Papanek’s: “There are professions more harmful than industrial
design, but only a few of them.” The source of this quotation is
Papanek’s book Design for the Real World, which first appeared in
1971. By 1995, he published The Green Imperative: Natural Design
for the Real World. He was not alone. There are many other authors
of design literature whose writings predate the present-day pervasive
awareness of sustainability and social awareness as a design issue,
including Victor Margolin and Tony Fry.
The accompanying transcript of a dialogue between Allison Arieff
and Valerie Casey on the Designers Accord—an organization
targeted at promoting awareness of sustainability issues among
designers in all contexts—is an important effort that shows how
sustainability is no longer an issue for the design-theoretic literature
alone, but now invites prominence among modern-day design
In launching the Designers Accord, Valerie Casey joins a chorus
of sustainability-aware designers and has created a potential focal
point for the gathering of like-minded practitioners. The task she
sets before herself and her constituency involves learning how
to change the frame in which design participates and influences
economies of consumption and waste. From Casey’s point of view,
the responsibility for changing this frame rests with designers
themselves. Some of the key elements of Casey’s approach include:
1. creating sustainability innovations and impact by means of
fostering “cooperative competition” between designers in which
knowledge and data concerning sustainable practice is shared, but
creativity remains proprietary, 2. making tangible action possible by
means of key basic principles and advanced principles of practice
to promote sustainability to which designers and design firms may
ascribe, and 3. encouraging designers to take responsibility for their
practice along the sustainability dimensions of human, business,
social, cultural, and environmental effects.
Casey asserts that changing consumer behaviors may be near
impossible. Even if this is so, design does take place in the context
of consumer behaviors that are constantly changing. Casey
aptly asserts the core of the problem in stating, “We need to be
thinking about business models that reconfigure our values around
As another catalyst toward sustainable design, the Designers
Accord is a welcome addition, distinguished by its emphasis
on coalition building between designers and design firms and
carrying endorsements by the IDSA, AIGA, and the international
Cumulus Association. Ken Friedman, dean of the faculty of design
at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia
has committed the Swinburne design school as the first to adopt
the Designers Accord, and one expects others to follow. The
difficult task of effecting real, positive change toward sustainable
practice—not just positive green publicity for designers and
their firms—is the responsibility the Designers Accord adopts.
The difficulties of such ambitions notwithstanding, the time for
widespread concern about sustainability in design argued by
Papanek so long ago has finally arrived. —Eli Blevis
sultancy, in school, or in a small firm—to fulfill:
s $O NO HARM
s #OMMUNICATE AND COLLABORATE
s +EEP LEARNING KEEP TEACHING
s )NSTIGATE MEANINGFUL CHANGE
s -AKE THEORY ACTION
This initiative is not just about environmental
change; it’s about creating impact in an ethically
informed way. Essentially, the DA is about practice, not just theory. That’s where the Web platform, which we’re launching in summer of 2008,
will come in.
Allison: But do you foresee any resistance from
designers or clients to this collaborative knowledge sharing?
Valerie: The greatest barrier we have to making change is our lack of knowledge in this area.
There is a staggering amount of information—
and ridiculous amounts of misinformation too.
This model proposes that we share the burden
for our education so that we can focus on the
more important goal: to innovate, to improve, to
change. We can’t afford to keep knowledge to ourselves. I think there’s some trepidation about the
notion of sharing, but the site will be structured
to surface important methods and practices while
protecting the intellectual property of our clients.
That’s critical. When designers see how much
more time they have to be creative when they
aren’t looking for data and information all the
time, they will see the merit of this model.
May + June 2008
Allison: What are the benefits for business?
Valerie: Businesses are great beneficiaries of
this movement. The designers that businesses
engage will be more proactive on environmental
issues, and the network of contacts and resources
they can draw from will be broader.
Describing the Designers Accord, and our
intention to make sustainability a key part of the
decision-making process, actually relieves clients
because they don’t have to make the decision
to prioritize or dismiss environmental impact.
Sustainable design is as embedded in our thinking as aesthetics, business facts, human-centered
design, or technology. Clients respond positively
when you say to them, “Whatever design studio
you walk into, you will have this conversation.”
And it’s also good business, considering sustainability in design is economically beneficial because