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Getting the Conversation Started
With the Living Principles

by Phil Hamlett

In October 2009, the Living Principles for Design were introduced as a framework to help designers facilitate development of their sustainable solutions, ideas and visions. Additionally, by serving as the means to critically evaluate their efforts, the Living Principles are intended to establish the ground rules for the inevitable critical discourse that surrounds them. (Built upon widely-accepted triple-bottom line reporting standards, the four integrated streams and 21 discrete principles can be found on the Web site.)

A quick look at the principles themselves will reveal that the “cultural component” is not simply one of the four streams, but instead functions as the broader contextual setting in which the other myriad (integrated) sustainable components unfold. As such, the cultural considerations of any design undertaking usually contain the highest level of interest and the most entry points—and thus the most likely place to get the conversation started.

Living Principles Project Scorecard Worksheet form.

This quality is of particular interest since one of the defining attributes of a vibrant culture is lively dialogue. Accordingly, the Living Principles’ capacity to stimulate and shape dialogue has emerged as one of its most promising areas of ongoing development. By creating the visions of the future to which we can all aspire, designers can create scenarios in which all other conversations revolve around their efforts. Conveniently, this is the arena where designers have the most to offer and stand to play the greatest role. When design is called upon to build consensus or alter behavior, determining what kind of dialogue will take place is usually a key component of the brief. (And as design increasingly assumes interactive and participatory forms, “dialogue” becomes even more central to what is taking place.)

One of the conditions upon which constructive dialogue depends is mutual understanding: an agreement of terms, a common language. As designers and their collaborators endeavor to develop and refine the language of sustainability, the Living Principles serve as a critical reference point.

One simple—yet effective—means to accomplish this feat is a basic checklist that directs the conversation back to the principles themselves. An easy enough item to include in creative briefs and/or the critiques that support them, such a worksheet encourages project stakeholders to return to the same basic terms and ideals again and again. By doing so, pathways are built and mental circuitry is reinforced over time, eventually solidifying to form a chassis for ongoing development. By staying on target, maintaining focus and reiterating key points, designers ensure the most salient components of sustainable design solutions are thrown into high relief.

Design’s ability to create interest and provoke response can be directly responsible for stimulating dialogue. One example of that notion put to the test can be found in the nascent “Grafik Intervention” project. Originally conceived as a graduate thesis by Academy of Art University student William Culpepper as a means to spark urban revitalization efforts, Grafik Intervention has become an ongoing series of independent events deployed in a wide variety of contexts as a means to get the ball rolling in cities across the country.

While living in Charlottesville, Virginia, and pursuing his degree online, Culpepper began to ponder the numerous buildings in town that had been sitting vacant for several years due to past and present economic hardships. These buildings had become eyesores in the community, daily reminders of grim circumstances (not exactly an anomaly, similar conditions and buildings can be found in communities across the country). As he set about how to bring more awareness to the future potential of these abandoned urban spaces, he determined that the broadest possible engagement with the community was going to be required in order to be effective or to have meaningful impact.

In order to fully understand how these potentially valuable buildings became the source of urban decay, Culpepper embarked on an ambitious research phase. Within the local community, he interviewed neighbors, business leaders, members of the local historical society, librarians and city officials. In the course of doing so, he exhumed tremendous amounts of fascinating historical content relevant to the specific structures on which he had decided to focus his efforts. Armed with old photos, newspaper clippings, historical documents and anecdotal information, Culpepper created a series of large-format images specific to each property. Hamlett
Trained as a graphic designer, Phil Hamlett has over 22 years of experience in a wide variety of design and communications roles, working for studios and clients large and small on both coasts. Currently, he is ensconced as a design educator (hence the use of words like “ensconced”) at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. As the driving force behind the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design and the founder of Compostmodern, his interest in developing sustainable business practice rounds out his time.