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Week 3 - Social & Environmental Responsibilities of the Designer

Many design (and art) movements have been deeply concerned with social welfare. For example, the Arts & Crafts Movement and then the German Bauhaus looked at the possible social impact design could have.

And what about today? Does a contemporary designer have social and environmental responsibilities? Yes indeedy!

Many designers do pro-bono (free) work for worthy causes as a regular part of their practice. This not only contributes to their profile, it also has the added advantage of giving them a warm inner glow. Some good examples of this: www.commarts.com/CA/feadesign/pg04/

Green issues are becoming increasingly important. The amount of wasted paper, for example that used in unsolicited advertising (eg Junk Mail) is almost unimaginable, and growing every year. It's not the raw materials in the paper that's the primary problem - trees after all are a renewable resource, but the energy expended producing the paper. Paper manufacture is the third largest consumer of fossil fuels, which not only means using up unrenewable resources, but also contributing to Greenhouse gasses.


In the US, the Government is making efforts to encourage designers to be more environmentally aware with it's Design for the Environment Programs, including such steps as giving preference in government contracts to companies who can demonstrate that their products are produced in an environmentally sustainable way: www.epa.gov/dfe/ and the Fit To Print Program, which encourages development of work practices and changes to manufacturing processes that are more environmentally sound: www.epa.gov/region1/assistance/printers/

Examples of ways in which Industry is addressing this issue is the development of soy-based inks to replace those made from carbon-black (which is produced from fossil fuels). In addition, the use of pratially recycled paper products is being encouraged.

An emphasis on sustainablility can in itself be a niche marketing tool. Consider the following sites:


What can you actually DO about it though? Can you make a difference? Here are five suggestions from "Ethics and Sustainability: Graphic Designers' Role" By Susan S. Szenasy

"So what can you do to be part of this eco-revolution? I offer five quick suggestions.

1) You--designers--should get out of your darkened rooms with their big, flashy images and figure out how to talk about design in the sunlight. In fact, just try talking about design once in a while without showing anything. It astounds me how creative people can readily buy into the mind-numbing, homogenizing visuals of corporate blandness.

PowerPoint presentations have killed thinking in the late 20th Century. We're living in new times now. Stop using PowerPoint for everything. Give others credit for being able to follow your argument without the aid of bullet points for every factoid you flash. Spend your time and our precious energy resources on creating truly inventive and persuasive presentations.

Let's cut back the time we spend looking at screens in mechanically cooled rooms that always hum with the powerful machines required to keep them a steady 70 degrees. Let's design rooms that take advantage of the great and beautiful world outside with its shimmering waters and colorful foliage and cooling breezes.

2) This shift of world-views is a complex and serious business. It needs all kinds of expertise and it needs every one of you, and more. Many of you are already involved in education. Turn your involvement into something significant, relevant, and timely.

Develop courses where collaboration, research, social justice, and scientific and cultural understanding are at the heart of the design problems being solved. Make universities--with their unique capacity for research and analysis--into the intellectual leaders of your profession, with you as their collaborator. We know what happens when the design professions--all of them, including architecture and graphic design--lead academia. That's what we have now and everyone's unhappy.

3) If you teach at a university where there's a teachers' college, infiltrate that teachers' college with your design ideas by making friends with the professors there. While it's great that some designers do wonderful programs with public schools, these efforts are few and far between. We have an urgency here.

It would be more productive to educate the educators. Help them figure out how to add your design methods to a more linear way of learning. This can lead to a better understanding of the designed environment by future grade-school and high-school teachers and their students.

Such an understanding is crucial to a well-informed citizenry. Nowhere was this need for design-informed citizens better demonstrated than during the so-called design debates about the schemes presented for rebuilding the World Trade Center site. Our esteemed architecture critic on our newspaper of record confused a planning and massing document with architecture; the architects--except for Daniel Libeskind--spoke in jargon that even they couldn't penetrate; and the public had no idea what they were looking at and what the design debate was about.

4) Become citizen designers. When architect Beverly Willis and I launched our civic group, R.Dot, in those heartbreaking days after 9/11, we didn't know we could attract politically savvy designers who'd want to attend regular meetings and work very hard pro bono. As it turns out a graphic designer, Roland Gebhardt; an industrial designer, Brent Oppenheimer; and an architect, Ron Schiffman, became the guiding lights behind several of our detailed and comprehensive position papers on managed streets, culture zones, and housing.

Roland and Brent, for instance, used the kind of anthropological and anthropometric studies they learned as industrial designers and office planners to create a whole new system of maps. They called it experience mapping, which is a way to understand what works and what doesn't work in neighborhoods by interviewing residents and visitors about how they use the neighborhoods. Experience maps are great graphic presentations of people's everyday lives. They're much more revealing than cold statistics.

The citizen designer is on the ascendant, especially post 9/11. [Esteemed graphic design critic] Steve Heller even named one of his books after him and her.

5) Find collaborators in whatever area of expertise your project requires. Become a design detective, a forensic designer: the path has been cut for you by others, make it wider.

One of those pathfinders is Kirsten Childs, the interior design partner in the Croxton Collaborative, which has become a sought-after green architecture firm. But 15 years ago Kirsten just began looking for the ingredients of the chemical soup she was brewing with the furniture and furnishings she was specifying. So she hired a chemist. Together they started asking questions about the fibers, fiber-boards, finishes, and glues she was putting into offices--usually located in sealed buildings designed to control the temperature.

Individual decisions. Personal, ethical choices. That's what Kirsten started out with. Others in her field are flowing.

She's a good example for you, too. Thousands of these personal choices put together will make our world, as Bush the Elder so memorably hoped, a "kinder, gentler" place. But I'm also with Blanch Du Bois on this. We need to start relying more on "the kindness of strangers." metropolismag.com/html/sustainable/case/ethicssustainability.html

And another great article from the same writer, editor of Metropolis Magazine who in 1988 bravely ran a picture of garbage on their front cover, pointing out that that's where the magazine would one day, inevitably, end up:

"Our cover shot was taken at the overstressed Fresh Kills landfill. On it, we pinpointed the problem. The design of garbage, our headline reads. "What package designers create is a form of advertising for their clients' products. What happens to a package after a consumer buys it, uses it, and throws it away has never been the designer's concern," we explain, then go on to say it must concern designers."

There's even a competition you could enter, for sustainable design:

"It's not about the world of design, it's about the design of the world":

Australian organisation encouraging Green Design by everyone from architects to graphic designers: www.green.net.au/srd/


retrokat.com quite nice sites

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