The Designer's Dilemma

Changing the way we think about design to better tackle the challenges of environmentalism.

Elisha Otis did not invent the elevator.

Elisha Otis did create the safety catch that would prevent a vertically mobile enclosure from plummeting from great heights to great depths at very high speeds, injuring its passengers. This invention was demonstrated at the 1853 World’s Fair in New York, almost five thousand years after the elevator first came into usage.

Technically, Otis did not invent the elevator, although he is regularly credited with it. But it was his incremental improvement to an existing technology that launched what we now know as the elevator industry, the great facilitator of skyscraping cities, of vertical living, working, and buying.

Otis exemplifies what I call the designer’s dilemma – the tension that exists in the space between inventing and improving. If the designer’s role is to drive innovation on a large scale, how can we resolve ourselves to the incremental improvements that are necessitated by today's increasingly complex culture?

Now, this question is more relevant than ever: there is no single innovation that can counteract the innumerable injuries we have done to the global ecosystem. But if the key to tackling our environmental challenges lies within this world of iterative change and cumulative improvement – and I believe that it does – then what does this mean for design as a whole?

Cultural Pressures for Radical Change

An oversaturated consumer market and increasingly sophisticated end-user have made it difficult to differentiate products and services in today’s economy. Design has become the de facto solution for pursuing, and owning, the habits and routines of consumers. So strident is the competition for shelf-space and mindshare that incremental improvement is often thought akin to colossal failure. While designers excel at making the small changes that shape everyday experiences, in this competitive climate we are compelled to pursue the next big thing with great ferocity. We seek change in the Orwellian sense – paradigm-shifts, phoenix products, dot-something web landmarks. And success has a short memory; we are measured only by our most recent achievement: the last to-market, the newest award-winner, the latest recognition by the digerati.

It is a challenge, then, that in this time of fierce competition and creative pressure, we are pummeled by the tsunami of the green movement. It is virtually impossible to avoid the daily discussions of climate change, G8 debates, and company manifestos. This is the single most significant movement of our generation – a veritable perfect storm of social awareness, corporate interest, and technological advancement. All things “green” have entered the cultural vernacular, and our contemporary currency is a fluency with these issues. Just as the market pressures us to create more individual design contributions, it has become obvious that the key to meaningfully addressing environmental issues is through additive change – continual improvement, rather than discrete invention. There is no magic bullet, no single a-ha moment, no “iPod” of the green movement.

So in this time of transformation, when new thinking is so critical, why are designers at a standstill? Why has design not been at the forefront of this movement with new solutions and roadmaps for change? In many ways, the green movement is threatened by the prevailing mentality in design today – one that equates sustainability with stasis, and collaboration with mimicry.

Of course, there are the requisite resin-seeped art pieces, recycled coated paper packaging explorations, and sunflower-seed kitchen cabinets. But at this cultural inflection point, we need to do more than create niche products and art pieces. We need to do more than play corporate catch-up or throw our hats into the ever-enlarged PR ring of greenery. We need to stimulate mass change.

In the same way that we approach design challenges – not by purporting to have all of the answers, but instead by assuredly asking the right questions – we must recognize that we don’t have the solution yet because our formula has been wrong. Our addiction to sweeping change has hobbled us from seeing the most obvious opportunities for improvement. In order to create a radical position around sustainability, we need to change our concept of design. Our first green products must be ourselves.

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