Finding our true north


[Article cross-published in Climate Designers]

Designers are part of a global economy. Our imprint is present everywhere in our built environment, from buildings to furniture, to products, and clothing, to less-tangible outputs like brands, trends, and digital services.

Design professions are a byproduct of an industrial model of production and the modern era. To a great degree designers still focus on tangible form-based creations, but we have yet to better understand the relationship between design and the larger systems in which design as a profession exists: social, technological, ecological, and economic systems. Today there are more specialized design professions than ever before. Just in the last few decades new practices have flourished driven by technological innovations: UX design, content creation for social media, augmented reality, and videogame design.

With information flowing quickly across the world, it is now well-known that our current economic system where we operate as designers has produced such a large concentration of carbon dioxide particles that they can’t be absorbed by the planet’s ecological systems quickly enough, leading to a heating of the atmosphere. It is also well known that the world needs to urgently reduce its carbon emissions. How design professions contribute to a warming climate is still a question we are grappling with. How much of this damage are we responsible for? And how can we collectively correct course and influence society to also steer towards an emissions-free planet?

Natural disasters, now intensified by climate change, including a growing number of hurricanes, floods, and fires each year, are evidence of the effects of our current paradigm that relies on the unabated extraction of natural resources. Currently, only three countries including Bhutan, Panama, and Suriname, absorb more carbon than they produce. Every other country produces more carbon emissions than their national habitats can absorb.

Current proxies like environmental footprint calculations or greenhouse gas emissions measured by weight are useful indicators to evaluate how far we are from our ideal scenario: a world with zero emissions. Designers need indicators for our profession: signposts that guide our decisions knowing whether we are headed in the right direction.

In aviation, pilots rely on GPS to know where their planes are at any given moment, regardless of the cloud formations that might block their view. Thousands of years ago, before GPS and the invention of the compass, ancient Polynesian navigators relied on careful observation of the stars, clouds, birds, and ocean currents to learn where they were going. They were able to travel thousands of kilometers in the Pacific Ocean with their learned methods. This knowledge is passed on orally to the next generations.

Like GPS and the Polynesian voyagers, designers are developing methods or ways of operating in the world that are helping us know where we are in relationship to where we want to be. Architects have LEED. Product designers have Cradle to Cradle. Fashion designers have many circular design frameworks.

Years ago, I became involved with a group of visual communication designers from various countries. The group periodically holds informal conversations about design and sustainability with the goal of identifying opportunity areas for our profession to have a positive impact on the planet. As a result, the group developed a framework called the Sustainable Design Standard: a set of criteria that designers should consider in their designs. The 52 criteria are organized in four categories: environment, society, culture, and the economy and are available to any designer to inform their design process.

Key actions identified by the SD Standard for visual communication designers to make a positive contribution to the world

The SD Standard is one of many frameworks and evaluation tools available for designers. Exercises like the SD Standard or similar projects where designers come together to figure out how to create value to society and the planet are useful to understand where we are in relation to where we would like to be. These collective tools are creating a communal wisdom that can guide our actions going forward. Our greatest legacy for this generation of designers should be to learn how to quickly adapt to rapid changes and develop a collective intelligence that allows future generations to seek the collective greater good as the ultimate goal of design.

By learning about the larger systems, whether ecological, social, or economic, we can readily find ways to expand our sphere of influence as designers. Frameworks and tools that broaden our perspective and help identify opportunities for making a positive impact on the planet are helpful.

The field of design impact evaluation and value-chain traceability are still in their infancy, but they will help us navigate our way forward and make designs transparent: making evident how far or near our designs are from being carbon neutral, both to ourselves and to others.

Since climate-related issues are intertwined with social issues, design should also address the social fabric in a broader way, to learn whether a design is contributing to the protection of human rights and dignity; or preserving local cultures. We need designs that use GPS, but also designs that support the wisdom of local cultures, like the Polynesians.

The latest IPCC report confirms the effects of climate change will continue for many decades to come. Having a set of principles that guide the design community towards decisions that are life-supportive, will help us navigate our way forward, regardless of the clouds that might block our view.