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What can designers really do about all this [environ­mental responsibility]? First, as a graphic designer you can learn more. You can begin to reeducate yourself based on a different set of values than those you might have learned in school or in traditional business. Part of the trouble is that the quality of information available to address environmental issues is inadequate for taking the appropriate action. By learning more about environmental problems and taking the lead in developing solutions, we can use our talents and insights to help people understand what they can do. We can make environmental information more approachable. Next, as a graphic designer you can imagine for the rest of us how to incorporate these values into our everyday world.” —The Ecology of Design: The AIGA Handbook on Environmental Responsibility in Graphic Design by John Ortbal, Mike Lange and Michael S. Carrol, 1996.

In grappling with sustainability on a regular basis, it has become apparent to me that the largest hurdle is education (initially of oneself, then of everyone else). Because I am an educator, it is conceivable to think that I cannot help but view every challenge through that lens. When you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? However, reach­ing back into our collective design past provides evi­dence that this dynamic has been persistent—the previous passage from twelve years ago could have been written last week.

This is no small undertaking—and one from which we cannot retreat. Grasping the totality of sustainability (and one of the central tenets of sustainability requires that we do grasp its totality) requires a thorough examination. There is no such thing as a pinch of sustainability, or an isolated incident; by definition sustainability requires a larger perspective and a tremendous amount of outside homework. Aside from those who are in school right now, there is a lot of catch-up to incor­po­­rate this “new set of values” into one’s personal and pro­fes­sional life. It goes further than changing all of the light bulbs.

To understand the sheer scope of what’s at stake, I ask you to consider that virtually everything you have learned is incom­plete (at best) or dead wrong (at worst). Everything: civic planning, agricultural practice, energy usage, capitalism itself. All of it is askew, misguided and/or unhealthy.

Indeed, when faced with the daunting prospect of coming to grips with sustainability, many individuals undergo what IDEO’s Bob Adams refers to as “The Curve of Optimism.” This curve is a simple sine wave that begins its upward tra­jectory with uninformed optimism (i.e., blissful ignor­ance), followed by a steep plunge into informed pessimism (a result of the overwhelming prospect of reading the inevitable stack of books), which eventually rebounds into the desired end state of informed optimism. The happy ending of this journey is that once there is understanding, it is generally accompanied by a sense that one can actually do something about sustainability.

As a profession, as a country, as a species, we are all stand­ing in front of this curve—beginning to make the move into informed pessimism due to the high-profile work of the Nobel-winning Al Gore, increasing media coverage of important international events, such as the Bali Climate Change Summit, and the willingness of many companies to fold these principles into their marketing messages. The issues are profound and the potential changes they imply on our lifestyles are disruptive to say the least. However, despite increased percolation within the collective consciousness, there’s still a lot to learn.

Problems abound. The dominant global economic paradigm of capitalism is not sustainable. Virtually all current business thinking is predicated on unmitigated growth. To some degree, that is now being tempered by things like triple bottom-line reporting, but it would be overly optimistic to think that the “people” and “planet” components are as important as the “profit” in this particular equation.

Our rich design history reveals a wide variety of roles for design, but in recent times its role as a lubricant for rampant commercialism has eclipsed most other design functions. The net result is design’s complicity in creating a consumer culture based on disposability and convenience. The pro­fession has done itself no favors by so closely aligning itself with consumerism. Consider the following observation from designer/educator Terry Irwin: “Design is everywhere, and yet it is widely misunderstood within western culture, and often seen as an activity of little consequence; profitable in economic sectors dominated by rapid cycles of redundancy and obsolescence and associated with matters of individual style in a consumer-led marketplace.”

The elephant in the room is overconsumption. By now, every­one knows that Americans consume a grossly dispro­portion­ate amount of the planet’s resources, yet few are actually doing anything to change this dynamic. The business community, while making notable inroads into sustainable business practice, is still reinforcing bad habits: We are being extolled to simply change our consumer choices, without altering our consumer habits. Slactivism—the idea that we can solve this problem with­­out really doing much of anything—is rampant.

Traditional values of thrift, resourcefulness and civic respon­si­bility have been usurped by marketing campaigns and furiously-paced cycles of planned obsolescence. As citizens, the expectations placed upon us continue to diminish. The acute crisis of leadership in this country is perhaps mani­fested nowhere more clearly than inaction—or denial—regarding global warming. Our government asks nothing of us other than that we continue shopping.

In a recent Orion magazine article, author Rebecca Solnit cited the challenges inherent in advocating for the ineffable quali­ties in life when she declared, “The language of real estate ownership is loud, clear and drilled into us daily; the language of public life...is rarer and more complex.” The close parallel for sustainability is that messages coercing us to consume are far more prevalent than those urging restraint or modulation of our habits.

One example of this frustrating dynamic is the Seafood Watch campaign developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. An impressive effort to persuade restaurants and diners to resist eating fish whose survival is in jeopardy, it represents the lone voice advocating for fish amidst a veritable cacophony of demands that we eat them instead of meat. OK, sure, who hasn’t seen The Meatrix by now? But stack it up against the daily onslaught of hamburger commercials extolling us to eat red meat in vast quantities and the nature of problem becomes apparent.

Virtually every component of our economic infrastructure is built upon the assumption of cheap fossil fuels. That’s not playing out so well right now. The scientific consensus on climate change is in—now we’re just talking about degrees of severity. The paradox we face today is that America’s success as the dominant world power and economic jugger­naut is built upon a faulty foundation, which is not well-suited to carry us into the future. Upon close inspection, winning is start­ing to look more like losing. Many of our basic assump­tions about how the world works need to be reexamined.

To paraphrase Alex Steffen of Worldchanging, we have inherited a broken future. He reflects the beliefs of other sustainability leaders when he says, “The real problem is that we lack the imagination to conceive of a new future.” This observation should provide designers with some cues.

Back to the matter at hand—education. To fully understand the complexity of the challenges we face, and to have the wherewithal to develop alternate business models and new cultural value sets, we must look to the full spectrum of educational possibilities. This needs to be a full-court press. Education has a responsibility here.

Fortunately, there are plenty of educators, and schools, who agree. For my own part, working with students has been a joy—they embrace the topic with gusto, partially due to ideal­ism, but largely due to their concerns about the world in which they will live. The math is simple: Students care more about the future because they are going to be spending more time there.

In my hometown Berkeley, California, there are some inter­est­ing places that exploit this dynamic and work exclusively with children as the audience upon which they can affect the most change. With a “no child left inside” attitude, the Center for Ecoliteracy instills a love of nature into children in their formative years. The Edible Schoolyard Project has also achieved a bit of notoriety; it even warranted a visit from Prince Charles.

Specific to design, in addition to my own initiatives at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, AIGA Center for Sustainable Design co-chair Marc Alt is unveiling a course at SVA in New York this spring. There is an online certificate avail­able from MCAD, and CCA is conducting a summer inten­sive. Other efforts can be found in larger public institutions as well: University of Illinois, New Mexico State University, CSU Chico and NSCAD University Nova Scotia are but a few of the pro­grams that can be found scattered about this country and Canada.

At the other end of the educational continuum, many tra­ditional colleges and universities have begun to aug­ment or support existing curricula with special classes, certifi­cate pro­grams and green campus initiatives. An overview of these efforts can be found in a recent article from the online environ­mental publication Grist; more formalized reports are being issued annually by the College Sustain­ability Report Card.

These reports demonstrate that many schools are facing the same struggles as businesses: Individual silos within most organi­zations are taking stock of their own efforts and quickly realizing that how they relate to the other silos is a critical component for developing meaningful solutions. Many schools are trying to coordinate programs in which they align their facilities, operations, partnerships and curricula along this new set of values.

As in the business world, traditional institutions are facing challenges from smaller, more focused upstarts that have focused on these issues from their inception. New schools such as The Presidio School in San Francisco, Bainbridge in British Columbia and Schumacher College in the U.K. are running degree programs in which student populations tend to skew older as professionals return to the classroom to acceler­ate their understanding. This is a particularly fortunate develop­ment, because the challenge for many younger students is that they lack the business acumen necessary to implement change. Getting seasoned business people up to speed quickly and back out in the field is critical.

But not everyone has the luxury of going back to school. One of the most important things Al Gore has done is underscore the sense of urgency attached to climate change and eco­logi­cal responsibility. We cannot afford to wait on the education of a new generation—action is needed now. We cannot rely on educational institutions alone to develop and deploy this gar­gantuan body of knowledge. Professional organizations of every stripe are trying to get their arms around sustainability, as well they should. Change is afoot and everyone needs to prepare for it.

There is tremendous opportunity here for designers. Not since everyone scrambled to develop a Web strategy—or create a business that capitalized on it—have companies been so willing to reexamine their business models, value propo­si­tions and/or strategic position­ing. This is being done willingly in many cases, but other businesses are respond­ing to legislation or shifting industry practice beyond their control. No endeavor is exempt from consideration. Furthermore the amount of general knowl­edge is wildly disproportionate rela­tive to the gravity of the subject and the impact it will have on our lives. Despite recent awareness in the media, con­sider for a moment what the average person knows of sustainability com­pared to any num­ber of random, more thoroughly covered matters such as Britney Spears’s parent­ing skills. The mind reels.

Business, commerce and society are undergoing tremendous change, and the possibilities for design are changing as well. Anyone who has been paying attention at various AIGA gather­ings will have detected a shift in that organization’s focus. A move towards broader applications of design think­ing is under­way—plac­ing an emphasis on design processes rather than on design artifacts. This dynamic should prepare designers for the one of most fundamental shifts taking place in the world of busi­ness: the transition to a services-based economy. This develop­ing trend should provide the proper motivation for companies to design products for longevity, ease of dis­assembly and proper repurposing of raw materials. For example, con­sider how commercial carpet is now sold: Many manufacturers are committed to not just selling carpet, but picking it up when replaced. They take it back and turn it into new carpet. You are, in effect, leasing the carpet.

There are other business trends that cry out for design assis­tance; sustainability and transparency go hand in hand. As companies divulge more of their internal workings to cus­t­omers, partners and shareholders, communication challenges become far more complex. Supply chain dynamics, lifecycle analysis and third-party certifications are but a few of the com­mon subjects one might encounter when planning a green communication strategy. The back-office story spirals out into infinity. How do we make this understandable? Design­ers thrive on simplifying complexity; there’s a long design legacy here. Ask yourself: What would Ladislav (Sutnar) do?

As companies reevaluate their product offerings and brand attributes, many will try to create trust and develop authen­ticity with sincerity and will need to address sustainability in a meaningful fashion. Designers will find themselves not only concerned with the aesthetics of design, but with the mole­cules of design. Design criteria will shift accordingly. For instance, taken at face value, the Hummer could be con­sidered an attractive piece of industrial sculpture—imposing, well formed, distinctive, commercially successful. But can we call something so environmentally reckless “good design”? Per­haps not. Now extend that observation: The Hummer is an easy target, what happens when we apply this criteria in a broader sense, to all of the objects and communications messages for which designers are responsible? How many could withstand such scrutiny? How do we make such criteria under­standable within our own professional community? How do we get everyone to subscribe to such criteria? How do we extend that criteria into the larger business com­munity? How do we make certain that we are not simply perpetuating “greenwashing”? That oughta’ keep you busy for a while.

Fortunately, we are not reliant on companies alone to make things right. The rise of various non-governmental organiza­tions (NGOs) to supplement our tragically enfeebled gov­ern­ment is also providing fertile prospects for designers. A quick glance at Forest Stewardship Council, Adbusters Media Net­work, Rainforest Action Alliance and Greenpeace should make this abundantly clear.

But let’s hope that we don’t have to discount the government altogether. There is most certainly an expecta­tion that whom­ever takes office in 2009 will have a more sophisticated environmental policy. For a problem of the magni­tude we face, some kind of large FDR-style public works campaign is in order. Consider the vast sums of money going into futile wars (on drugs, on Iraq, on Iran) and imagine them instead at work on the defining issue of our times. In the best of all possible worlds, the AIGA’s advocacy efforts would coincide with real leadership and something truly sig­nificant could be commissioned. If we look at sustain­ability as a process of connecting the dots, that dynamic represents a lot of dots with which to work. Here’s hoping.

At the AIGA national conference, Janine Benyus advised designers to use nature as our teacher. Powerful presentation, but it’s a tall order. Designers aren’t scientists. For the most part, designers are trained to create beautiful things. But as a profession, aren’t designers always looking for opportunities to play a larger role? Don’t we pride ourselves on our inquisi­tive little minds, our unusual way of looking at things? Wouldn’t truly beautiful things work in sync with nature?

As design teams expand to include ever-wider disciplines, should we make room for scientists, anthropologists, policy­makers, planners and activists? Is there a way for design to con­nect to something more meaningful than consumer frippery? Will design’s quest for meaning cultivate cultural or scientific inroads? Will our struggle for deeper meaning inspire us to envision a future that works in harmony with the earth?

That’s the design brief I want to work from. ca

Center for Sustainable Design Resources
The AIGA Center for Sustainable Design endeavors to provide the graphic design community at large with resources and a dis­cussion forum for commentary and inquiry:

The Ecology of Design: The AIGA Handbook on Environmental Responsibility in Graphic Design by John Ortbal, Mike Lange and Michael S. Carrol, 1996.
Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century edited by Alex Steffen (www.worldchanging.com).
An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming by Al Gore.


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.

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