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Design an outcome, not an object

It’s quite a while since I looked seriously at design degree shows, the frantic climax of three years’ sustained effort from the thousands of design graduates across the country. This year, for an assortment of reasons – mostly because I realized I’d be a fool not to – I was able to take in at least some of the untold amount of work to be seen at New Designers (the great innovation of the much lamented Peta Levi, who died, sadly, earlier this year) and try to get a fix on what the new generation of graduating design students is thinking about. And what, crucially, they are being encouraged to think about by their teachers, mentors and indeed sponsors.

Naturally, one would assume that the ‘S’ word is top of the agenda, and everything else follows on down the list of priorities. Design isn’t design any more, after all, unless it is sustainable, unless it deals with sustainability, or unless it is making some sort of comment about sustainability (although there is plenty of blood on the carpet when it comes to a debate about whether it’s design’s rightful place to comment on anything at all). Forgive me, that was the impression I had gained from every recent conversation I have had with practising designers, architects and others connected to the industry – exhibition organisers, retailers, a host of others. If it ain’t sustainable, or engaged in the sustainability arena, it ain’t design. Yes, there are huge obstacles to the practice of sustainable design, not least the inconvenient truth that definitions change daily as new facts, new methods and new ways of looking at the problem come to the surface. There’s no single, reliable, defining source, so we flap around from idea to idea and argument to counter argument. Notwithstanding all this, overall you can’t be a designer these days without grappling with the key issue.

I say ‘forgive me’, because with one or two notable exceptions, this imperative seems to have escaped the design education community. I had obviously got it badly wrong. Sustainable design – and thinking about sustainable design – was so lacking in evidence at New Designers that I began to suffer from ‘vision panic’ – was there something out there really important that I was missing? If so, what was it? And where was it?

A similar chill ran down my spine at Central St Martin’s, when I was looking at the results of a materials and textiles project proposing new ideas for luggage, sponsored by Samsonite. The quote taken as a guiding principle for the scheme, displayed prominently on the stand in the entrance hall where the work was on show, talked about the attractions of global travel, its ease and cheapness, and how all this means we need to rethink luggage. I had to blink and read it again. What about neutralising your carbon? What about tonnes and tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere? Did the project encourage such a line of enquiry? It didn’t. Smart materials there were, and some nice ideas too, but none of them making a connection to what is surely now the abiding concern for all forms of design.

No surprises if the sponsor hasn’t yet quite got around to asking the question: ‘What happens when people decide not to travel (at least by air) and therefore don’t need luggage any more?’ – because that would require a complete reinvention of its business model. But if design colleges are where the blue sky thinking is being done, why wasn’t that question or a similar one being asked as the project progressed? Any amount of self-folding suitcases and Bluetooth locking handles are not the point.

And so, with a sinking heart, to New Designers. Not that there was no sustainable thinking, of course there was. But it was by no means dominant, and in most colleges’ cases, it seemed that when individuals were working on sustainable principles, they were following a self-charted route. Without being able to interrogate every course leader, it is easy to conclude that sustainability is not yet at the top of the majority of the course agendas. I hope to God I’m wrong.

And so, with a rising heart, to the BA Hons in 3D Design for Sustainability at University College Falmouth. Here we have Dave Capewell’s wood burning stove that is no ordinary wood burning stove: ‘”FireFly” is a wood-burning stove designed specifically for thermally efficient eco homes’ he says. ‘Pre-heated air from the outside is mixed with flue gases for more efficient use of the fuel, and a system for creating carbon neutral castings is realized by using waste vegetable oil to melt the metal.’ Here we have kitchen accessories, clothing, furniture, sportswear, proposals for public space, for children with learning disabilities and for busy X-ray departments. Here we have an ‘inbuilt’ ethic of sustainability and communality, an underlying sense of social and environmental context that drives the thinking that drives the work. Not all of it is impeccably worthy and super-sustainable, of course; I liked Chris Bowsher and Iain Jones’ TeaFix, the instant cup of British tea complete with doily, saucer, teabag and teaspoon – even at Falmouth you can get away with design as comment, it seems.

What overall I found very impressive was the quality of the thinking, the acceptance and absorption of the idea that sustainable design demands that we think about community, behaviour, the nature of the manufacture – market – consume – waste cycle, the consequences of design, the nature of user-centred design. All the ‘soft’ bits, in other words, that don’t really look or feel like design as we have known it, but that might lead to the designer, in the words of course leader Su Vernon, asking the dread question: ‘Why do we need another blah? We’ve got too much stuff already.’ These people are working at design where ‘the outcome might not be another object,’ says Vernon. ‘It might be a system, even a way of thinking.’

Refreshing indeed. And the sting in the tail? – You know there had to be one. Jeremy Whitaker, the college’s Head of Marketing and Recruitment, has argued successfully for ‘Sustainable’ to be dropped from the course name, so it becomes just plain old ‘3D Design’. A backward step? All is not as it seems. The ethics and philosophy of the course will stay, says Vernon, while Whitaker’s own rationale, once he explains it, makes perfect sense. ‘It’s partly whether we see sustainability in the context of the college as a whole, or just one course. Because of what, and particularly because of where we are – four hours from anywhere – environmental sustainability is very important to Falmouth. We don’t want to put a ‘tag’ on it that could be accused of greenwash. It’s a more fundamental – and a longer – communications task to make people understand that everything at Falmouth is sustainable, so we develop the course in that overall context. If we didn’t do something that is intrinsically sustainable, we’d be selling the students short.’

This point is tellingly close to the idea that ‘sustainable design’ is a misnomer, or soon will be as the idea becomes increasingly stitched in to design culture, because all design should be intrinsically sustainable without having to say so in its title. Has he, I say, jumped the gun a bit, got Falmouth a little too far ahead of the game? Has sustainability yet been so far absorbed into design culture that it doesn’t need to speak its name? No, it hasn’t, if you go by the offerings of the other colleges. Whitaker, whose job is to attract students to Falmouth – to make them, in his words, drive past Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth to get there – has to play to its strengths and aim for the position of market leader. ‘We are small and specialist. We can’t be small and mediocre and stuck right out on the end of England. We’re already out on a limb.’ To which we say, risky but brave. All power to them.

Posted in FX Column - assorted design writings.

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