Designer guilt: why sustainable design matters


‘This rising tide of disaffection [towards design] tends to share two themes: a distaste for the superficiality of design’s media-celebrity nexus; and a growing discomfort with design’s role in generating ‘useless stuff’,’ McCullagh wrote on the design site Core77. ‘So just as critics from outside design are sharpening their knives, designers are becoming racked with self-doubt and -loathing.’

But as any thoughtful designer knows, design problems are merely opportunities for design solutions. In a world where concerns about the environment have become mainstream, the creation of ‘useless stuff’ may not just be cause for hand-wringing, it might also signal bad design. So, for a growing number of designers and architects, sustainable design is not just a salve, it’s the design approach that chills the tension.

‘Some people argue that there is no such thing as sustainable design. These principles should form part of any good design,’ says Angelique Hutchison, product design curator at the Powerhouse Museum. ‘Design for sustainability focuses on reducing the environmental impact of a product during its manufacture, use and disposal or reuse. It uses strategies such as avoiding use of toxic substances during production, minimising materials used, minimising energy or water required during use, and designing for repair, reuse or disassembly and recycling.’

‘I think that design’s ability to address sustainability is limited by its focus on the object or product,’ Hutchison continues. ‘Designers need to consider the larger systems within which they (and their objects) are operating. They need to reconsider the ‘needs’ that they are trying to address through the design of a new object, and question if those needs can be met in another more sustainable way, through a different type of product or system or mode of use. For example, car share systems reconfigure the perception that the consumer needs a car, when what they really need is transport. Designers also need to work in a more interdisciplinary way, not only with other designers but across technical and social disciplines, to understand the complexities of social, economic, technical and ecological systems that influence their design.’

Designing living systems, and not only considering the built environment, has been a liberating shift in her architectural practice, says Sydney designer Alexandra Matyear. After five years of practice, Matyear undertook serious study in permaculture and the approach has marked a radical shift in how she approaches design problems.

‘It has been really liberating as a designer to not feel like you have to keep reinventing the wheel, to be original and amazing and instead ditch that ego thing. You have to design because there are bigger issues, not for your career,’ she says. Matyear is interested in creating inner-city structures that would enable their occupants to grow their own food and create less waste. ‘I feel ready to jump out of bed because everything I make now has to be part of the solution, part of making the world a better place.’

Matyear may be motivated by ethical and moral issues but growing demand from the population at large means that designers are also turning to sustainable practice because it’s good business. Trend forecasters such as The Future Laboratory in London, are tossing around phrases like ‘conscience consumers’ and hyping ‘nu austerity’ as this year’s answer to last year’s ‘bling’, all the while assuring marketers and brand strategists that the market is out there, that the green consumer cuts across political lines and that the highly desirable, upper middle class market is ready to spend. Green design, that is, may be green in more ways than one.

Architect Caroline Pidcock, president of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, took the plunge early. She was among the first wave of architects in Australia to launch a sustainable practice, and it might come as a surprise to some that her ‘Eureka moment’ was prompted by the business plan she had to write for a small business course she was taking.

‘You have to identify what your unique selling point was and I thought, ‘What a pivotal, important question’, because the answer to that will determine what sort of work I attract and I can no longer hold anyone other than myself responsible.’ She stumbled across a book about sustainable design and found herself captivated and certain that this would distinguish her in the marketplace. ‘I thought, wow, this is what I want to do. It’s morally and ethically right, creatively inspirational, it’s technically interesting, and it has got to be the way of the future.’

Pidcock has seen a radical change in attitude since she started her business in 1992, and the past year, in particular, she sees as a turning point. Government regulations that require new buildings to meet certain standards of energy and water use such as the introduction of BASIX in Pidcock’s home state, New South Wales, are crucial. So too, recent reports from leading economists, scientists and business lobby groups are all beginning to share a common refrain: it’s more affordable to do something about climate change now rather than later. If sustainable design is good design, then good design is good business.

For Pidcock the momentum is heartening and her mission remains unchanged. She says, ‘Sustainable design is about creating environments that allow people to live, work, play in such a way that the opportunities to do similar will not be compromised in the future.’ For designers and architects, sustainable design may not only be ethical, it may be the opportunity of a lifetime.

Icon Magazine
Alexandra Matyear
The Future Laboratory
Architect Caroline Pidcock
Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council