Optimistic futurism

XV.3 May + June 2008
Page: 61
Digital Citation

(P)REVIEWMerging design, business, and sustainability

Allison Arieff, Valerie Casey

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In early 2007 Valerie Casey launched the Designers Accord (www.designersaccord.org) to encourage design and innovation firms to focus on creating positive environmental impacts. Recognizing the near impossibility of changing both consumer and business behavior, the Designers Accord asserts that the firms that design everything from graphics and packaging to user interface to physical products are ideally suited to get the design-for-impact conversation rolling. By collectively agreeing to discuss environmental impact and sustainable alternatives with every client, designers will be able to change the way products are designed, and that in turn will change the way business works and consumers behave. As the expanded Web presence of the Designers Accord approached, I spoke with Valerie about this groundbreaking initiative.

Allison Arieff: The Designers Accord seems to coincide with an upsurge in interest in collaborative models for business and innovation. Tell me how it works.

Valerie Casey: The Designers Accord (DA) started as a call to arms for designers to meaningfully contribute to the environmental movement, and to infuse it with optimism and creativity. It is now a major coalition of designers, educators, researchers, engineers, business consultants, and corporations, who are working together to create a positive environmental and social impact.

This movement has scaled so quickly—with now tens of thousands of adopters throughout the world—because there is a general acknowledgement that our ability to make changes is amplified when we work together.

With the Designers Accord, we're creating a cooperative competition model. I believe this is where design is headed—innovation and impact through collaboration. Designers can create greater impact if we work together instead of individually as we've traditionally done. This will be a radical change.

Allison: What compelled you to put this idea out there? What put you over the edge?

Valerie: The inception of the initiative was actually quite simple. My revelation—or, the "spear through the heart" moment, as Ray Anderson of FLOR calls it???????????????????????—happened as I was sitting on a 50-seater jet, crossing the country for the third time in a month. I had just pitched a packaging project for one of the world's largest delivery services. Earlier in the week I had discussed new diaper design with one of the world's largest paper-product manufacturers.

I was acutely aware of each company's middling environmental record, but I was ill-equipped to engage in a productive conversation with either of them about their environmental impact, or to propose sustainable alternatives. I was anxious about bringing up this sensitive issue and risking losing their business. The negative rhetoric about the cost of green alternatives and accusations of greenwashing has made many companies bristle before a meaningful conversation can even begin.

That was the winter of 2007. I decided to educate myself and my design teams about green design so that none of us would be in that awkward position again. Throughout my 15 years of design experience, I have been able to learn about technology, market trends, and organizational behavior, and speak about them with credibility and confidence. I believed I could do that again with this critical issue. I didn't feel like I had a choice—it was an imperative. As Paul Hawken wrote to me in an email, "...once you see it, it is impossible to unsee."

Allison: It's terrific that you followed up on that "spear in the heart" moment with action instead of sitting around feeling powerless about it. Can you tell me about the DA's basic principles? Did you arrive at them on your own, or through the collaborative process that the DA espouses?

Valerie: At first, I quickly dashed off a statement—what I called a "Kyoto Treaty of Design"—on that plane trip. Over the past year I've had various colleagues and experts help refine and clarify the parameters of what we now call the Designers Accord.

We have lightly tailored versions of the guidelines for corporate adopters and educational institution adopters. Across these diverse groups who are involved in the creative community, there are two key components: We want every adopter to have a conversation about environmental impact and sustainable alternatives with every client and customer. And we ask every adopter to share information so we can raise the environmental literacy of the creative community and start to apply our knowledge actively.

Allison: Several years ago I participated in a panel with an interior designer. He was speaking about the design of the hotel we were in (for which he was responsible) and was waxing poetic to the audience about how he'd been so inspired by the patterns and colors of nature. Someone asked, "You mention nature as inspiration. Wondering if you used any green materials?" Without hesitation, he said, "Oh no, that sort of materials don't exist for the design work I do." I wanted to sink into the floor. Similarly, I remember you telling me about a client who asked you for "the iPod of diapers." Do you think the DA will help designers combat this kind of mind-set, which seems still to be pretty ingrained?

Valerie: That's such a great point—one of our major barriers to creating impact is a lack of knowledge in this space. I think designers are generally curious and open-minded, but there is definitely a gap between what we know and what we need to know.

This also poses an interesting challenge in the interaction design community. Compared with our industrial design and graphic design colleagues, the footprint of our work is hard to measure. The nature of interaction design is less tangible, and while people talk about energy-efficient server farms, that's not really tied to our craft.

I like to think about the relationship of interaction design and sustainable thinking on three levels:

  1. Providing the connective tissue between disparate concepts and geographies.
  2. Enabling alternatives to traditional products. We often talk to clients about different service models that might supplant the traditional build-a-physical-product mind-set.
  3. Creating forums for conversation. The richly woven conversations that we experience in online communities are provided for not just by the interaction designer who constructs the system, but also by the engagements provided between people and their community, and ultimately their environment.

Allison: So does the DA point us toward a future in which toothbrushes, cell phones, and MP3 players will last forever and use all green materials?

Valerie: The DA does not guarantee that every product a firm designs will be a green product. This movement is more about creating awareness of the effect of our work. Traditionally, designers have measured success by the objects they put in the marketplace. Now we see success as the degree of positive impact we can create. There are several vectors: human, business, social, cultural, and environmental. This imperative should further change the boundaries of what designers can do, and what our responsibilities are.

It makes sense because there is this huge issue: sustainability, and the environmental and social impact of what we do as a profession. There is a staggering amount of information that is so abstract and overwhelming for people. If we can reduce the core elements of the issue then we can provide a focus for ourselves and our clients and show clients a clear path forward. Designers are in a unique position to do this because of our ability to make complex information accessible through form, experiences, graphics, and so on. In fact, I'm not sure if anyone other than designers can do this.

The next step isn't just to create a better product with better material and more efficient manufacturing, but also to rethink the behaviors that the products we already have in the marketplace are creating. With that we need to be thinking about business models that reconfigure our values around consuming.

Allison: Who has signed up so far?

Valerie: The adopters of the Designers Accord represent dozens of countries, tens of thousands of design practitioners, and every design discipline. Most of the major global design consultancies have adopted the accord, and there are literally dozens and dozens of small firms who are also moving this work forward. We also have adopters from other entities involved in the creative community, like software companies, paper manufacturers, and educational institutions. The degree of innovative thinking and passion in this coalition is inspiring, and its diversity is helping to tackle this almost intractable problem from multiple angles. I am very hopeful that this is the group who can create real change in the industry.

Allison: I am hopeful about the future of this sort of collaboration. But I am also painfully aware of situations such as with one designer I know, who would tell me he was working on something "top secret" or proprietary. I'd see his prototype and it was always a blatant rip-off of other designers' better work. I think this guy felt that secrecy lent credence to his effort, but it made me immediately uninterested. What I found amazing about the growth of the modern prefab movement that I've been immersed in was the staggering niceness of everyone, an absolute willingness to share information, contacts, tricks of the trade. There was a core group that understood they'd get further by learning from and sharing with one another. How can we get designers to act like that, to play nicely with one another, if they're more like the shrouded-in-secrecy designer?

Valerie: The element of "we're all in it together" is not apparent to everyone. But to be effective in the sustainability movement, we'll have to learn our way out of the challenge. That's what designers do so well—we are constantly learning new things and adapting to all sorts of different pressures and conditions. It's the nature of a designer to be agile and open-minded. I believe in the commitment by many of the firms to share methods and best practices and resources on the Web platform, and I hope that pro-social sharing mind-set is contagious.

This also brings up another point—the power of the Designers Accord is in its ability to change the values and practices of the individual designer. It's a new way of thinking about design. The concept is fairly basic and is in our code of conduct, that we expect everyone—whether that designer is on an in-house team, a major innovation consultancy, in school, or in a small firm—to fulfill:

  • Do no harm,
  • Communicate and collaborate,
  • Keep learning, keep teaching,
  • Instigate meaningful change,
  • Make theory action,

This initiative is not just about environmental change; it's about creating impact in an ethically informed way. Essentially, the DA is about practice, not just theory. That's where the Web platform, which we're launching in summer of 2008, will come in.

Allison: But do you foresee any resistance from designers or clients to this collaborative knowledge sharing?

Valerie: The greatest barrier we have to making change is our lack of knowledge in this area. There is a staggering amount of information—and ridiculous amounts of misinformation too. This model proposes that we share the burden for our education so that we can focus on the more important goal: to innovate, to improve, to change. We can't afford to keep knowledge to ourselves. I think there's some trepidation about the notion of sharing, but the site will be structured to surface important methods and practices while protecting the intellectual property of our clients. That's critical. When designers see how much more time they have to be creative when they aren't looking for data and information all the time, they will see the merit of this model.

Allison: What are the benefits for business?

Valerie: Businesses are great beneficiaries of this movement. The designers that businesses engage will be more proactive on environmental issues, and the network of contacts and resources they can draw from will be broader.

Describing the Designers Accord, and our intention to make sustainability a key part of the decision-making process, actually relieves clients because they don't have to make the decision to prioritize or dismiss environmental impact. Sustainable design is as embedded in our thinking as aesthetics, business facts, human-centered design, or technology. Clients respond positively when you say to them, "Whatever design studio you walk into, you will have this conversation." And it's also good business, considering sustainability in design is economically beneficial because it's about efficiency at every stage of the value chain. This is a positive strategic shift in the mental model for businesses now making an investment in the context of their success, rather than rushing to market with a series of shortcuts that impair the product and have a negative impact on our environment. In this respect, green design is not different from good design. We should talk about sustainability in the same way as we do quality—it's expected in everything we do.

Allison: When we began advocating the cause of sustainable architecture at Dwell magazine, the ultimate goal was to make green architecture "normal"—meaning that eventually, you'd never really need the qualifier, that all architecture would, of course, be sustainable. Is that essentially what you're shooting for with the Designers Accord?

Valerie: Precisely. For me, this initiative will be successful if it fades away over time because the integration of design and sustainable thinking are so intertwined. I think we're setting up that integration in the principles where we expect firms not to offer "green" design as a separate offering, an optional line item, but as the standard.

But product design is different from architecture. We make consumer products. They're used differently. They may last six months or two years compared to a building that hopefully lasts 100—or at least 20 years. The mental model is different: Our industry has been built on planned obsolescence, and we've trained the consuming public to want a new product (and I say product as a catchall for physical products, digital experiences, and services) all the time. We have created that constant craving. And now it's driving the way our clients think, and how they expect us to work.

Allison: One of the principles is for firms to "undertake a program to educate your teams about designing sustainably." Initiating that conversation with a client is easier said than done. Will the DA provide workshops or guidance on how firms—and more specifically, the designers who work for them—can do that?

Valerie: Being educated on the topics around designing in a sustainable way is the first hurdle. We're fortunate to have two of the largest design organizations in the country—the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts), the professional association for design, and the IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) endorsing the Designers Accord. Our alliance with these organizations creates the platform for building awareness and an educational structure around these issues. I imagine a series of workshops on the most salient topics.

Engagement with clients is also challenging. Our plan is to share experiences and methods with each other through the Designers Accord network. There may be questions or provocations that have worked for one firm that wouldn't be applicable to another. Each firm will have to create the tone for this discussion organically. My hope is that we'll be able to do this more effectively and efficiently by sharing each of our experiences. That will create the scaffolding for forming your own talking points.

Allison: Will this be open source? Can anyone access the DA case studies, or will DA membership become a means of access?

Valerie: Because we have to protect clients' intellectual property, I prefer to talk about this as an open network, not open source. However, it is conceptually like open source in that we are building on each other's work of knowledge acquisition.

We should talk about sustainability in the same way as we do quality—it's expected in everything we do. Our industry has been built on planned obsolescence, and we've trained the con suming public to want a new product all the time. We have created that constant craving.

While the full Web platform will be a terrific resource, I would like to keep it in line with the design of the accord—high concept, low tech. It will be a resource and a community, but not the next Facebook, Wikipedia, Yelp, or Flickr. It should promote action in each designer's practice and community. Its function is not to be a destination, but a conduit.

Allison: It seems like this could help to connect disparate groups—I'm thinking designers, business, the green community, even government and public policy makers—in new ways. I've become obsessed with the notion of this kind of positive symbiosis. How can we think about creating products and services that work with, and in concert with, one another? I imagine the Web platform can act as a catalyst for more of that.

Valerie: Absolutely! This is the tricky thing about the introduction of a new concept, versus the ultimate goal of that concept. In fact, in helping people understand, I've applied some of the same methods to creating the Designers Accord as I would in creating an interaction design project.

Good interaction design is seamlessly integrated with our everyday lives. We start with a clearly articulated need—design to create environmental and social impact—and determine how to address that need in one or more channels, such as a call to action on an individual and firm level. We have a mechanism to initiate an experience—this is the Web platform—and the ability to engage in conversation and provide feedback. At the moment this is all happening in a high-touch way through email and calls. With the Web platform, that conversation will be facilitated more easily and will also enable a broader community to join in. The Designers Accord outlines an achievable goal with an amplified effect. Like good design, and good business, there's a great return on investment!

Allison: In January you received the official endorsement of the country's largest and oldest design organizations—the AIGA and IDSA. What does that endorsement signify for the Designers Accord? Are there any business or environmental groups whose endorsements would be productive here too?

Valerie: The endorsements signify an extension or evolution of the definition of a designer. It's important that this is stated when we describe our alliance. The Designers Accord will help shape the principles regarding social responsibility in the code of ethics for both organizations. The primary role for both IDSA and AIGA will be around awareness and education. The DA philosophy will become integrated into the AIGA and IDSA statement of principles to fulfill requirements for eco awards and eco-excellence awards. IDSA and AIGA will also be represented on the DA's committee that monitors how adopters have fulfilled the guidelines, like measuring their carbon footprint.

Even though many businesses might not recognize the names AIGA and IDSA, this mass of designer members, in the tens of thousands, by changing the way they work will radically change the face of business too. I believe it should also provide some relief to companies that the decision to address social and environmental issues will be a foregone conclusion, and that the designers they hire will be well-informed. It provides a point of entry, a focal point for companies who may have been interested in pursuing these issues but didn't know where to begin.

For More Information:

Designers Accord, www.designersaccord.org
AIGA, www.aiga.org
IDSA, www.idsa.org
Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coopetition

back to top  Authors

Allison Arieff
[email protected]

Valerie Casey
[email protected]

About the Authors

Allison Arieff works in the realms of architecture, media, and sustainability as Senior Content Lead for IDEO, and writes the "By Design" column for the New York Times. From 2002 to 2006, she was the editor-in-chief of Dwell, and was the magazine's founding senior editor. Arieff is the author of the books Prefab and Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America, and the editor of numerous books on popular culture including Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht. She has written about sustainability for Travel + Leisure and was a sustainability expert for both seasons of the Sundance Channel series "Big Ideas for a Small Planet."

Valerie Casey heads a global practice at IDEO, where she designs socially and environmentally sustainable products, services, and business models for companies. Valerie founded the Designers Accord, a call to arms for the creative community to reduce the environmental impact caused by design and to work collaboratively to inspire sustainable change. Valerie has published and lectured on design throughout the international community and is an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts.


Fred Sampson
[email protected]

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DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1353782.1353798

back to top  Sidebar: The Designers Accord

The basic principles have remained the same. All adopters agree to:

  1. Publicly declare participation in the Designers Accord.
  2. Initiate a dialogue about environmental impact and sustainable alternatives with each and every client. Rework client contracts to favor environmentally responsible design and work processes. Provide strategic and material alternatives for sustainable design.
  3. Undertake a program to educate your teams about sustainability and sustainable design.
  4. Measure the carbon/greenhouse gas footprint of your firm (including operations and client engagements), and pledge to reduce your footprint annually.
  5. Advance the understanding of environmental issues from a design perspective by contributing actively to the communal knowledge base for sustainable design.

back to top  Sidebar: Designers Take Responsibility

One of the most famous quotations in design literature is Victor Papanek's: "There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them." The source of this quotation is Papanek's book Design for the Real World, which first appeared in 1971. By 1995, he published The Green Imperative: Natural Design for the Real World. He was not alone. There are many other authors of design literature whose writings predate the present-day pervasive awareness of sustainability and social awareness as a design issue, including Victor Margolin and Tony Fry.

The accompanying transcript of a dialogue between Allison Arieff and Valerie Casey on the Designers Accord—an organization targeted at promoting awareness of sustainability issues among designers in all contexts—is an important effort that shows how sustainability is no longer an issue for the design-theoretic literature alone, but now invites prominence among modern-day design practitioners.

In launching the Designers Accord, Valerie Casey joins a chorus of sustainability-aware designers and has created a potential focal point for the gathering of like-minded practitioners. The task she sets before herself and her constituency involves learning how to change the frame in which design participates and influences economies of consumption and waste. From Casey's point of view, the responsibility for changing this frame rests with designers themselves. Some of the key elements of Casey's approach include: 1. creating sustainability innovations and impact by means of fostering "cooperative competition" between designers in which knowledge and data concerning sustainable practice is shared, but creativity remains proprietary, 2. making tangible action possible by means of key basic principles and advanced principles of practice to promote sustainability to which designers and design firms may ascribe, and 3. encouraging designers to take responsibility for their practice along the sustainability dimensions of human, business, social, cultural, and environmental effects.

Casey asserts that changing consumer behaviors may be near impossible. Even if this is so, design does take place in the context of consumer behaviors that are constantly changing. Casey aptly asserts the core of the problem in stating, "We need to be thinking about business models that reconfigure our values around consuming."

As another catalyst toward sustainable design, the Designers Accord is a welcome addition, distinguished by its emphasis on coalition building between designers and design firms and carrying endorsements by the IDSA, AIGA, and the international Cumulus Association. Ken Friedman, dean of the faculty of design at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia has committed the Swinburne design school as the first to adopt the Designers Accord, and one expects others to follow. The difficult task of effecting real, positive change toward sustainable practice—not just positive green publicity for designers and their firms—is the responsibility the Designers Accord adopts. The difficulties of such ambitions notwithstanding, the time for widespread concern about sustainability in design argued by Papanek so long ago has finally arrived. —Eli Blevis

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