Professor of Design for Sustainability at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Calgary, in Canada, Stuart Walker is author of several books and his designs have been exhibited at several highly regarded institutions. After a review of the book “Designing Sustainability”, we’ve decided to reach his views about design, values, society and progress in a less academic setting.
Interview by Tiago Krusse
Photographs and images: Courtesy of Stuart Walker
How do you approach or define the meaning of the word design?
The area I explore is product design or, more accurately, object design – as many of the objects I create are not what are normally considered to be ‘products’. To me, design is a discipline that combines two ways of thinking. When we design we require rational thought, objectivity and systematic intellectual inquiry and we also draw on intuition, subjectivity, the creative imagination and aesthetic sensitivity. This is the meaning of design for me – this integration – and I find it a wonderful and fascinating discipline because it reflects who we are as people – both sides of our nature, including our values, our priorities and our dreams.
Why is there this feeling that there isn’t yet a clear perception of the discipline?
Much contemporary design is too wedded to corporate models that promote consumerism for the purposes of profit generation and shareholder return. When design is positioned in this way it becomes just a means to an end. For design to have integrity, it has to be an end in itself – not simply a creator of discontent for the purpose of profit-making. Designing built-in obsolescence and slightly new models of the same product deliberately and consciously creates discontent. Why? Because it sells more stuff and generates profits. Profits are, of course, important for any enterprise but when profits become the raison d’être and other concerns are swept aside, then the priorities become distorted. When design becomes a branch of marketing and is used primarily to drive consumerism it does more harm than good.
In your opinion who are the best contributors for the comprehension of the profession and those who left some good reflections or orientations of what it should be the work of a designer?
The person who called on designers to wake up to the realities of what they were doing, and to change course towards ethically responsible design was, of course, Victor Papanek. His Design from the Real World was published in the early 1970s and is still relevant today because it’s concerned with ethics and human values. His Green Imperative from the 1990s places greater emphasis on environmental concerns – and he discusses this in terms of people, localization and place. More recently, the Welsh architect Christopher Day and, in Italy, the academic Ezio Manzini also tie localization, people and place to the development of new ways forward. These approaches in design not only provide an alternative to globalization (a trend that especially suits large corporations) but they also prioritize the ethical, social and environmental considerations of design. I also find the work of Andrea Branzi to be inspiring in the way it addresses issues that matter.
How do you evaluate the teaching of design worldwide?
My impression from the places I visit and the work I see is that design students are doing very high quality work all around the world. I also see that they are hungry to deal with the big issues of our time. They are very aware that we cannot continue to think about design the same way as in the past. Design – like broader society – is in a state of transformation. We are (slowly – perhaps too slowly) leaving behind the priorities of modernity and postmodernity and evolving into a new era. This is partly driven by the potential of digital technologies and partly by the increased social and environmental awareness of the costs of consumerism. In this, digital futures is a two edged sword – on the one hand, development and proliferation of digital products is allowing us to communicate, share information and learn about what is happening in the world but on the other hand, this proliferation is boosting consumerism even further – with huge costs in the form of socio-economic disparity, e-waste, emission and so on. On the whole, I don’t think design teaching is tackling these issues strongly enough or showing that new forms of imaginative design can actually provide creative ways forward to address these apparent conflicts. For example, product disposal and e-waste is, at least partly, a design issue. I’d like to see far more emphasis on these critical aspects – which are some of the defining issues of our time.
The Quadruple Bottom of Line of Design for Sustainability (Walker 2011 & 2014)
Practical Meaning (utility for human benefits and the environmental consequences – few degrees of freedom – we have to furnish our practical needs)
Social Meaning (a greater degree of freedom – we have the choice to act morally towards others)
Personal Meaning (maximum degrees of freedom – we can choose to lead an examined like – or ignore thisdeeper aspect of the human endeavour and fill our time with worldly occupations and distractions)
Economic Means (a means for achieving the other three – not an end in itself; even though it has become an end in itself in contemporary society)
“The design process is not easy – in fact it’s very uncomfortable because it’s very uncertain.”
How do you evaluate design students in terms of comprehension, skills and attitude?
Students need to be informed – so they need to read extensively and understand these issues. Then they have to address these issues through design – and to do that they have to have at least some basic skills so they can externalize and develop their ideas. The key things in my view are an eagerness to engage with the source materials and become informed, and a passion for the subject, which is expressed through a willingness to struggle with complex ideas by engaging in the design process. The design process is not easy – in fact it’s very uncomfortable because it’s very uncertain. Creative ideas are hard won – so you have to have a passion for the subject. The skills can be developed over time, the more you engage in the process.
Do qualified designers fully comprehend their role as professionals and do they keep their values and their sense of responsibility towards society to themselves?
Practising designers are often caught between a rock and a hard place. They may wish to do the right thing – to work according to their values and their sense of responsibility to society. Some find a way to do this in their work – but if you work for a large corporation the decisions may be out of your hands. Or if you are an independent designer, not every project may align with your values and principles – but you also need to put food on the table. These are the dilemmas that face many designers. We do not live in an ideal world. I’m sure many designers try their best to do the right thing – but it’s not always easy – there are always conflicting priorities. This is life, this is what we all have to deal with – it’s a question of where you draw the line and trying your best to adhere to your principles and values.
Why are you so critical about industrialization?
It is not that I am critical of industrialization per se, I am critical of the way that a great deal of industry has developed and is operating today. Priorities have become very skewed. Too often, it seems, the primary objectives are short terms profits and shareholder returns and, because of this, other important considerations have been set aside, such as ethical behaviour and concern for good quality work, fair wages, the social good, preservation of the commons and environmental care. Milton Friedman style economics are still widespread but they are outdated and they are having a very damaging effect on societies around the world. But there are industrial models that operate in other ways – with different priorities. For example, there are industries that are based on different ownership and operating principles that take a more balanced approach to the purpose of industry. They do things rather differently – they take seriously the commitment to community, longer term thinking, social justice and environmental care. For example, many cooperative models, family owned businesses and grassroots enterprises can and do have different priorities. Also, I think the question of scale is important. When things become very large, people and broader values tend to get forgotten. Many years ago E. F. Schumacher said Small is Beautiful – and this remains the case today. At a smaller, local scale we retain connections with people and with the natural environment – and we remain more directly aware of the effects we are having – both good and bad – when we produce, use and dispose of products.
“Also, we must not forget that there is a multi-billion dollar advertising industry – paid for by the manufacturing industry – that is solely geared to persuading us to buy more stuff.“
Most of the times we hear industrialists saying that it is up to consumers to force dramatic market changes by requesting better products with better made production procedures. Is there any reasonable point in this type of argument?
No, this is a ridiculous argument. This is simply passing the buck and avoiding responsibility for your own actions as organizations. Also, we must not forget that there is a multi-billion dollar advertising industry – paid for by the manufacturing industry – that is solely geared to persuading us to buy more stuff. When ordinary people, grass roots organizations or NGOs speak out against such consumerism and when research is done that demonstrates the negative effects on the planet of such consumption – then big industry uses its substantial resources to thwart opposition and to confuse the debate. Look at what happened in the tobacco industry – it was known for years that tobacco products kill people – but the in- dustry confused the debate and used their resources to create doubt and confusion in the minds of the public. The same is happening today – millions of dollars are being directed by big industry to confuse the debate about climate change – even though the vast majority of scientists agree that human actions are having potentially catastrophic impacts on climate. People can try to make more informed choices – but often the only choice is between virtually identical products with different brands. This isn’t real choice. In this, politicians should be playing a stronger role. Politicians should be striving to uphold the interests of the people and the common good – but democratic politics is based on short-term thinking and often, it is big industry that is financing political campaigns – so you can see the problem here.
Research and development departments – are they overrated?
Independent scientific research and academic freedom in deciding what areas to research are critical to the advancement of knowledge. However, when we go from research for its own sake to the application of that research in the development of technological products for mass-consumption – we are faced with values-laden questions about purpose, priorities and effects – we need to pay far more attention to these questions. I would also add that within large corporations scientific research is rarely independent – it’s directed towards company goals. And increasingly, even academic research is being directed towards goals of economic growth and impact for industry – this is eroding academic freedom and it’s narrowing the scope and potential of research – this is a very dangerous road. If academics want to secure funding to support their research, increasingly they are forced to direct that research to extrinsic goals. This undermines academic freedom – to use Chomsky’s phrase, it’s a way of manufacturing consent.
How can we substitute industrial capitalism for something balanced and focused on harmony between man and nature?
The transition will, I think, have to be bottom-up – from grassroots organizations, from people developing new kinds of enterprises with new priorities. We have to change from a model based on consumerism, which uses advertising to constantly encourage the buying of new products, to a model based on the idea of sufficient consumption. Big industry has too much vested interest to change very quickly. It will be a slow process. But the only way change will occur is if people create change – people of goodwill and good intentions trying to do the right thing – and this starts in the local context. Policy changes within the political system could help bring about this kind of change.
Babel (left) – brick, slime, stone, and pitch (i.e. human made and natural) Cana (middle) – stone, water and wine
Whereof one cannot speak, one should remain silent (Wittgenstein) References to the transcendent in the visual language of modernity and science
Land (disposable plastic ink cartridges – with toxic ink remnants)
Water (disposable batteries – with toxic chemicals)
Air (mobile phone charger)
Pollution and environment issues are always in the agenda of so many different and important institutions and organizations. Why do most of the resolutions proposed not go beyond intentions?
As I said earlier – there is much vested interest in global corporations to keep things the same. There is considerable power and influence today in global corporations. And contemporary democracies seem impotent when it comes to serving the common good. There is an urgent need for reform on many levels; for legislation that has teeth and for international agreements that are binding.
Why is waste still tolerated in so many ways?
Overproduction is very lucrative and therefore so is waste. Today, our products are far too inexpensive. This is because they are produced by low wage labour in countries with lax environmental regulations. Our products are so affordable because the companies that produce them ignore the costs of social division, social injustice and environmental pollution and waste. These costs are either picked up by the taxpayer or they are ignored. If corporations were more accountable – if they were responsible for their products at the end of their useful life, if they were forced to pay living wages, then products would be far more expensive. And if they were more expensive they would not be disposable – they’d been repairable and upgradable. So there would be far less waste. What if companies that produced bottled water were responsible financially for the costs of their clean up? I think we’d find that water would no longer be sold in disposable plastic bottles – another way, a better way, would be found. Imagine a mobile phone or a laptop computer as a heritage item – something that lasts over generations – but which can be upgraded regularly? Why not? We do this with houses – they often endure over generations but are regularly refitted to suit contemporary needs. Transition to a different way of doing business will depend on increased awareness and on the de- velopment of new grassroots enterprises. And design can contribute to both of these. First, de- signers – especially designers in academia – can create visions of a different kind of material culture. This is a way of raising awareness – by creating and visualizing alternatives – this is where design can contribute to education in a broader sense – not just in the classroom. Second, designers can work with local enterprises to create new, imaginative design solutions that are both ethical and environmentally responsible.
For you which are the most important elements to consider when we talk about evolution of human behavior?
The enduring project of being human is to strive towards the good – to transcend selfishness and self-interest and consider others. Today, we also have to extend this to the planet itself. We have to work towards a society that is caring and compassionate, and which creates a desirable, livable and just place for everybody. Today, social equity and environmental care are two of the most important goals that we should be striving towards. And in my view creative, imaginative design has an important role to play – designers have the opportunity not just to speak about a different way forward – but by using their knowledge, skills and experience they can show a different way forward. This can be a very powerful contributor to change because it allows people to see that an alternative way forward is possible – and design can visualize what a well-researched, creative alternative might actually look like.
What is your vision of progress?
Today the word progress tends to be intérprete as ‘technological progress’ tied to economic growth. This is an extremely narrow interpretation. Politicians talk about ‘winning in a global race’. This is nonsensical and destructive when that means more consumption, more waste, more pollution, more resource extraction and more environmental destruction. Within this kind of rhetoric there is no concept of sufficiency. It is a very destructive notion of progress that usually also means more privatization, an erosion of public services and less emphasis on the common good. For me, real progress is about more profound questions of human purpose. It’s about access to high quality education for all, advancements in the care of the most vulnerable in society – the sick, those living with disability, the aged, and it’s about a fair distribution of wealth – so that every- one benefits from the fruits of enterprise, not just the executives. The wealth is created by everyone so it should be fairly shared. And again, design has a role to play in this. Designers can work with enterprises to design products that are made in ways that produce good, interesting and fulfilling work opportunities. They can design products that are worth producing and that make meaningful and lasting contributions to our material world – not just a disposable novelty designed to break and be quickly replaced. With the opportunities offered today by digital communities and digital services, designers can work in different ways – and contribute to new types of enterprise models that do things quite differently to the ways we have used in the past. This requires imagination, creativity and ‘good’ design.
A contemplative object
This object, inspired by the work of Duchamp and Cage as well as the writings of Ruskin, is selected from Nature – a Nature-created ‘readymade’ as it were. As such it is beyond human conceptualization, beyond human expressions of the numinous, and beyond artifice.