David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 14 Apr 08 10:08
We're very pleased to welcome Ann Thorpe to Inkwell. Ann Thorpe is the author of The Designer's Atlas of Sustainability (Island Press, 2007). At university, Thorpe studied product design, and later, energy and resources. She has worked on issues of sustainability and design in varied settings, such as a large, private company, a non-profit organization, local government, and UK art and design colleges. She also helped found the first regional chapter (Cascadia) of the US Green Building Council. Thorpe is a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. She is currently researching the topic of design activism. Leading the conversation with Ann is our own J. Eric Townsend. J. Eric "jet" Townsend is an unintentional comprehensivist. During his career he has developed software for massively parallel supercomputers, participated in the "garage virtual reality" community, made art for Burning Man, and held positions ranging from Online Communications Manager to sysadmin to security engineer at a variety of consumer electronics companies. He currently burns the candle at both ends, working at a consumer electronics company as a security engineer while studying Design at Carnegie Mellon University. jet's design interests include sustainability, local fabrication/recycling, and involving non-designers in the design process through the use of computation. Welcome, Ann and Jet!
I dare you to make less sense! (jet) Mon 14 Apr 08 13:45
Hey everyone, thanks for joining us in this discussion! I'm going to assume that some of us have read "The Designer's Atlas of Sustainability" while others have never heard of it until now. If some of my questions seem rather obvious, they're probably questions for the people who haven't read the book yet. Now, on with the show.... Ann, I was initially quite curious about how one could discuss design and sustainability using the structure of an atlas. After I started reading your book, however, it made quite a bit of sense and I'm intrigued by this approach to discourse. Could you tell us a little bit about your personal background and how that led to your writing an "atlas" instead of, say, an "encyclopedia" or "dictionary"? What was it like trying to convince others that this was a good format, or did anyone even require convincing?
Ann Thorpe (ann-thorpe) Tue 15 Apr 08 14:35
Ann Thorpe (ann-thorpe) Tue 15 Apr 08 14:59
Oops -- I'm not used to these controls -- I think I may have just "scribbled" out my response... try again Thanks Jet. Yes, the atlas concept did give me some trouble... But I've always loved atlases and maps -- I remember getting my first, oversized Times Atlas of the World when I was in high school--and I loved geology and earth sciences in college when I was also studying design. We also traveled around a lot when I was growing up, and I have family overseas, so looking at maps was a way of making sense of where I was and where I wanted to go. I guess I like the way a single map can show the intersection of several different planes of information, in the same way that design ultimately has to meld together different planes of information into one artefact, such as a product or building. I've used maps in projects before; I did a website that was a "map" of recycled content buildings and linked to map service so that you could do a real tour of the building in addition to the "virtual" tour (that site's not up anymore). As far as the book goes, though, an atlas wasn't the first idea. I first had the title, "sustainability as a language for desgin" with the idea that designers speak a lot of different "languages" (eg technical, artistic, financial) and now they need to add a new one. One of the publishers that I approached told me that it needed a new title. Soon after I was looking through some source material and came across "The Gaia Atlas of Green Economics" and I realized the atlas concept might solve my problem. An Atlas sounds useful and, more than an encyclopedia, visual. The first people to read the manuscript with the atlas format gave it mixed reviews though, and their feedback helped guide its development. One reviewer suggested the metaphor of food-- that I was offering ingredients that could be used to make different "sustainability" meals; this is what prompted me to call the "how to" books recipe books. All that feedback caused me to add the introductory part-- "why an atlas?" to set the readers' expectation more clearly. I also tried to carry the metaphor through with the "summary maps" and "landscape features" -- both ideas that resulted from the reviewers frustrations! Now that the book is out I kind of regret not calling it something more like "Sustainable Design: An Atlas," which would have been much more search engine friendly. Why didn't anyone suggest this to me?? Coincidentally, my friend Kate Fletcher, who recently wrote "Sustainable Fashion & Textiles: Design Journeys" also used traveling and landscape metaphors--but we did this entirely independently of each other.
I dare you to make less sense! (jet) Tue 15 Apr 08 16:30
Something else that I was surprised and then happy to see included was the section on economy. It seems to me that the majority of the design books I've read (other than the likes of Papanek) have been focused mostly on capital-d Design and rarely cover the larger context of the economy unless it relates to pricing. I wonder how many design students -- or professional designers, for that matter -- could pass a pop quiz based on the content of the section on economics? I think the only reason I could pass such a quiz is my life experience working at startups and investing in the stock market. Could you talk a little about the relationships between design and economics? Do you think enough designers understand the ramifications of their design outside of simple profit/loss? Should design schools include a business ethics class or an economics class in their coursework?
Ann Thorpe (ann-thorpe) Wed 16 Apr 08 03:16
Its funny you should mention a pop quiz on the economy because I have developed just such a quiz for the teaching guide that goes with the book (the guide is free to download at www.designers-atlas.net/teachguide.html, the quiz starts on page 42). I use the quiz to start discussions about the economy with some provocative facts and show its relevance to sustainability (through the issues of fairness and good causes). These provocative facts also then lead to the idea that we must view the economy critically. I think youre right that design students and professional designers shy away from economics and I dont think that most of them understand that they have the ability to use the economy, rather than just letting the economy use them. From a sustainability perspective, using the economy is critical. In that regard I think designers who want to work on sustainability wont be truly effective until they have basic economic literacy (thats what Im hoping to impart in the book). The biggest problem I find is that designers only see the private sector, what we might call the market place, or commerce. They dont see or understand the public or nonprofit sectors of the economy. This is a problem because, as I try to point out, most of the central concerns of sustainability (for example cultural heritage, ecological integrity, or democratic freedoms) are not adequately captured in the market place. If you want to work on design that addresses these concerns in their fullest form, then typically you have to look outside the marketplace. But its easy to understand why most designers only see the private sector. Designers typically view themselves, and others view them, as commercial actors. Designers are trained to respond to clients, to consumers, and to add value to businesses. Governments have historically developed policies that position design as a tool of economic growth (the UKs Design Council, here in London, is a good example of that). Professional design associations largely concern themselves with business practices and responsibilities to clients. In all those ways design is placed as a key cog in the wheel of commerce, so it is no wonder that most designers have trouble conceiving of their work in any other form than commerce. They simply would never think of structuring their design studio as a nonprofit organization instead of a business. But then wonder when they have trouble getting clients to pay for things that so obviously fall outside the marketplace. Those are the things that they might be able to get grants, individual members, or public sponsors to pay for, but not a commercial client. Government, academic and professional design association views of design are gradually starting to broaden, especially with recent pressures from the climate stabilization agenda (which is GREAT), but the commerce mindset and model of practice still dominate, which I see as problematic. Now about design schools and economic or business ethics classes more on that later
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 16 Apr 08 08:44
(NOTE: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to this thread by emailing them to <firstname.lastname@example.org> -- please be sure to put "Ann Thorpe" in the subject line. Thanks!)
I dare you to make less sense! (jet) Wed 16 Apr 08 15:21
(Also note that Ann is in the UK, about 5 hours ahead of me and 8 hours ahead of the west coast.)
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Thu 17 Apr 08 18:13
Ann, the book is *just* *beautiful*. It covers so much ground, in such interesting ways, I'm trying to figure out whether I could make it work as a textbook in a philosophy and technology course, or in a general class for first-year students. Was it daunting to take this on? How did you work to insure that the book not only discussed, but also exemplified good design?
Ann Thorpe (ann-thorpe) Fri 18 Apr 08 12:54
Thanks. And no, it wasnt daunting to take it on because in the beginning, I didnt realize exactly what I was taking on I started out doing bits and pieces, mostly for my students. There is a lot of material available on sustainable development, but little of it was suited to designers, so I started out just trying to convert existing material. The process then took on a life of its own. I ended up not only converting, but also synthesizing, re-evaluating, analyzing and developing a lot of new material. Somewhere along the way I realized that other people might find it relevant. But all along I knew that the book had to be visual if it were to capture the attention of designers. As to ensuring how the book looked .well thats a long story. But the short of it is that I didnt have too much involvement in the books design, aside from insisting that the book be very visual and delivering the diagrams and 200 odd images to the publisher. Island Press has done few illustrated books like mine so they really cut their teeth on this one. And as anyone who looks at the books website knows, I was disappointed with the cover (Ive posted the authors cuts for the cover at www.designers-atlas.net). I think the cover resulted from a standard process that works fine when there is no look and feel to the inside of the book, but the process didnt work so well for a book with a distinctive internal layout. On the good side, the book got published -- and it doesnt look that bad!
I dare you to make less sense! (jet) Fri 18 Apr 08 14:03
Have you thought about how you're going to integrate this book back into the classroom? Are you working on something like a "teacher's guide" to go along with it?
Ann Thorpe (ann-thorpe) Sat 19 Apr 08 08:58
OK, heres a long answer for you Yes --- a few of the questions have brought up the issue of education and teaching, and I think this is one important use for the book. I elaborate on that below. I think there are several other groups who will also find the book useful: - designers, whether recent graduates or seasoned professionals, who are new to the concepts of sustainability and want to get the big picture in one place. - designers who are already conscious of ecological or green design, but who want to build a broader understanding of sustainability and design, including how ecological design is ultimately tied to economic and cultural issues. - Professionals who work with or manage design processes who want to get the basics in one place Sustainability is a broad subject and one could spend a great deal of time reading many books and articles on issues such as time, consumerism, humanist economics, and panarchy in ecology. Ive tried to take the important elements from that broad range of ideas and interpret it through the issues of design, so that readers can get the big picture more quickly and then follow up as needed in areas of particular interest to them. Im heartened when friends and colleagues of mine who have followed sustainable design for a number of years have said to me that they found new ways of thinking in my book, a common refrain was, I never thought about it that way before. So my sense is that the book does meet the challenge of appealing to both neophyte and seasoned sustainable designers. But back to students and teachers of designthey are also an important audience. In a sense they are the books genesis. I use the book in teaching as I had used drafts of it in teaching, and the book has a teaching guide (as I mentioned, free to download at www.designers-atlas.net/teachguide.html) which is pretty substantial. Its about 70 pages long, contains 13 design briefs, about 12 in-class exercises, and a range of ideas for events (trips, films, guests speakers) and writing assignments. The content in the teaching guide is adaptable to a range of design disciplines such as architecture, industrial design, fashion design or interiors. The guide also offers some background and reflection on teaching sustainable design. I update the guide about every 8 or 9 months and I use the material in my own teaching (currently at the Bartlett School of Architecture) which is partly how new material for the guide emerges. Ive structured the guide so that it will be easy to add new elements and I hope that over time people who are using the book or guide will add to it. I also have a sense, as Bumbaugh (sorry I dont know your name name) suggests, that the exercises and some of the events could be useful in other settings. For example the exercise that asks participants to estimate the number of items (eg sunglasses or umbrellas) that exist in the world and how often they turn over could be used in professional settings as well as student settings; it could be used in philosophy of technology or in design settings In an earlier comment Jet asked if we should be teaching design students economics or some sort of business ethics class. I have a section in the teaching guide on the challenge of economics and I think there are many different ways to address it, depending on the type of educational institution. Part of the problem may be that members in the faculty of design may not, themselves, feel comfortable trying to teach it. But do they have other options from within a large university that offers degrees in economics? Or are they at a small, specialized design school where there are no alternatives other than tackling it themselves? My teaching guide has 4 design briefs and 3 in-class exercises that address economics, so those may be a starting point. I think it is also worth challenging the institutions where we teach. Those institutions need to acknowledge that the tools students need for sustainable design include an understanding of the economy and even some training in how to approach design in the nonprofit or public sectors. Instead of simply concentrating on final year resume and portfolio for private sector jobs, lets talk to students who want to pursue sustainable design about the practical realities related to working in the private, nonprofit and public sectors. Im trying to address this with the Q&A section of my blog on design activism (http://designactivism.net). I got my own first understanding of the three sector economy (eg public, private and nonprofit) in graduate school when I took a class at UC Berkeleys business school on the theory of the nonprofit. In retrospect it was one of the things that has gradually made me conscious of thinking about how to use the economy for sustainable ends.
I dare you to make less sense! (jet) Sat 19 Apr 08 09:07
I'm only familiar with the design curriculum at one university, and there's nothing in it about contemporary business practices. Students can choose an elective in their later years, I wonder how many consider business? I know I wish I'd taken something like "Intro to Business" when I was getting my first degree. We've been talking about education a bit, but I don't want people to get the idea your book is primarily a textbook aimed at undergrads. It'll go on my shelf next to things like "Why Things Don't Work" and "ecoDesign". How are people in practice responding to your book? (And my bad: I thought you'd only mentioned the teachers guide in email to me, forgot that you'd also posted a link here.)
I dare you to make less sense! (jet) Sat 19 Apr 08 09:23
If you're considering buying Ann's book, check out her website for an excellent preview: <http://www.designers-atlas.net>
Ann Thorpe (ann-thorpe) Sun 20 Apr 08 03:32
Practitioners seem to be receiving it pretty well, gauging by individual responses Ive gotten and from talks Ive given. I also use the trade press reviews as a gage and its done OK by them, but it hasnt been covered in what I consider to be some of the central review vehicles (partly because staff turnover at Island Press meant that some didnt get review copies). But the online trade press has generated a lot of interest that I detect from bounces in the numbers to the books website. It is true that the response to the issue, across the board (academic to professional), varies from region to region. For example, I was really surprised by a recent book tour in the Pacific Northwest where more than 100 professionals turned up in downtown Seattle to hear my book talkand many of them bought the book as well. That was followed by even larger audiences at the University of Washington (Seattle) and at Emily Carr Institute of Design in Vancouver, both boosted by local chapters of the regional industrial design associations. Back here in London, despite an equivalent level of publicity, there were about 30 people at the book launch. And I think that points to the fact that the northwest is a hotbed, but England is not. The Netherlands and some parts of Germany are also hotbeds, as are other places in the US, but there are also plenty of relatively dead zoneshopefully fewer and fewer of them Part of the challenge for practitioners, of course, is time. They are understandably interested in focused, how to texts that will help them on todays job. They find it difficult to invest the time now to get a bigger picture that will direct their work over the next 5, 10 or 20 years. As you know, thats a fundamental challenge to sustainability that I write about in the book, the tyranny of short termism! I think this is a shame because practicing design are actually better positioned than students and recent graduates to start making fundamental and substantive shifts, however small at the start, that gradually ripple out across the industry. I really applaud The Designers Accord (www.designersaccord.org), which Ive written about on my blog, and other efforts to open up the space and time for practicing designers to take in the big picture.
J. Eric Townsend (jet) Sun 20 Apr 08 19:37
<scribbled by jet Mon 21 Apr 08 02:04>
Cupido, Ergo Sum (robertflink) Sun 20 Apr 08 19:48
Ann, the Designer's Accord looks good. Do you see the possibility of coordination of strategies based, in part, on assessments of current practices and how amenable they are to change? OTOH, perhaps diversity of strategies might be better than close coordination.
I dare you to make less sense! (jet) Mon 21 Apr 08 02:08
[edited to fix a couple of typos] That's really surprising, the US vs England turnouts. One of my design professors got her phd in design history in England because that's where you go -- design is just too young in the US to have established design history programs. Do you think American designers are more concerned about sustainability on a personal level, or do you think that it's just a matter of following the money? "Green" is becoming an important marketing concept in the US -- do you think designers are just looking at sustainability as a fad or do you think they are internalizing it and making it part of the design process? To be honest, when I arrived at school I was stunned at the lack of recycling. Huge amounts of foamcore and chipboard go straight into the trash bins mixed in with everything from lunch leftovers to plastic bottles. There are recycling containers in every studio, but they're often used as general purpose trash cans. I don't remember professors talking about recycling on a regular basis, much less how to cut/use raw materials to waste as little as possible. (Example: I watched a guy cut a 3" circle of foamcore out of the *exact middle* of a 1' square section.) Like any design school, we're they're to learn form and color -- not production processes or materials selection -- and we seem to develop very bad habits as a result. I wonder how much of an individual's interest in sustainable design develops after someone graduates, gets a job, and discovers how much things cost in the real world. When you're on "meal plan", you don't think about buying in bulk or getting your deposit back on a bottle, you just take what they give you and go with it. Maybe once you're faced with buying 6 bottles of orange juice at $1.75 each or the same amount in a single bottle for $4 this sort of thinking starts to happen?
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 21 Apr 08 12:59
I also wonder if there's too much focus on pure aesthetics in a lot of design programs, at the expense of (for lack of a better term)practical economics. By that I mean things like "how do you get the maximum use out of a sheet of paper" (size brochures so they fit neatly, or gang with another project for example) or "how do you maximize battery life in a mobile device" (make sure to use simpler algorithms so they minimize CPU use, or dim the backlight when possible). It seems like if there was more emphasis on those kinds of cost-of-business issues, the sustainability aspect might take care of itself in some ways.
Ann Thorpe (ann-thorpe) Mon 21 Apr 08 13:02
Jet and David, I guess it fluctuates it seems as though students used to be more idealistic, and then would become jaded as they got out into the world and saw how things really work. But after the 80s and 90s, we seem to have many students who, as one of my colleague says, have no politics. In fact some of them come in already cynical about sustainability and a do good agenda. Maybe these are the students who will, having had the seed of sustainability planted at school, see it germinate after they are out in the work-a-day world for a few years Even with practial economics, a lot of sustainability issues will fall through the cracks, so I don't think that resolve it, but would certainly go some way toward improving it. and re aesthetics and "high design" I think that England, and London in particular, are on the leading edge of "high design" with schools like the Royal College of Art, the Bartlett School of Architecture or the Architectural Association that turn out brand name graduates like Zaha Hadid, Tord Boontje, or Ross Lovegrove. But that brand, as my colleague Julian Lindley recently put it, never included sustainability neither social nor environmental. One of my students at the Bartlett recently said to me regarding sustainability in architectural design, it is so readily dismissed by much of the Bartlett design staff that it is difficult to get it across as a design generator. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that it does nothing but inhibit design. It seems that these brands have not yet figured out how to respond to the sustainability issue. The brand is worth a lot and if they back track and say sustainability is important, yet it is clear they have not been leaders in it, will that devalue or damage their brand? Perhaps theyll put their heads in the sand (that seems to be the approach so far) or claim that they do sustainability already since sustainable design is good design.
Ann Thorpe (ann-thorpe) Mon 21 Apr 08 13:06
Robert, I am all in favor of coordination and getting on with the low hanging fruit (eg practices that are amenable to change). But in reality I think we need a whole range of strategies adapted to local and regional contexts. Some strategies will scale up well, but others might not. I was talking with a group of designers today about the idea of social innovation where innovation is based primarily on innovating relationships and is driven largely by organizations that have a social purpose (rather than a business purpose). We talked about the fact that many social innovations may not scale up, they might suit the 1000 people in this town, but not others in a different town. Just like the Well as an online community its suits some people but not others. You cant really scale it. but in todays world it seems like there is a lot of pressure to scale up, to have the top brand or the "category killer." But today we were also talking about the tension between radical change and incremental change. One designer said you dont want to institute radical change across a whole system because if it doesnt work, youll have a big mess. But it strikes me that we need radical change so maybe the way to do it is to try lots of radical change at small scales (eg a neighborhood or a town). I do think people need stability in some parts of their lives to anchor them while they try radical change, but stories of social innovation do suggest that trying things out on smaller scales is the way to go, and that these solutions may end up being bespoke (we use that world a lot of here in the UK which simply means tailor made). Or there may be elements that can be transferred and scaled up, but that have to also be adapted to specific contexts. Eg there might be an English version of car sharing, an American one and a Dutch one in each case the design of the infrastructure and the cars themselves may differ to suit the circumstances, and that is probably a good thing. I think a McCar-share would defeat the purpose, if you see what I mean.
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 21 Apr 08 13:28
I'm struck suddenly that perhaps one or two designers could be convinced to adopt a radically sustainable aesthetic -- cradle to cradle for example. Even if just a few did, it seems like just as a specific color trickles down through the fashion world from pret-a-porter shows to wal-mart, maybe that kind of radically sustainable aesthetic would as well.
I dare you to make less sense! (jet) Mon 21 Apr 08 13:49
Ann, while it's not directly related to your book, I'd love to get your take on recent statements and actions by Phillipe Starck. From his recent presentation at TED (<a href="http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/197">Why Design?</a> where he described his job as "useless"; to his effective resignation as a commercial designer and his dismissal of his own work as "unnecessary and materialistic", what do you think is going on and where does he go next? Did he wake up one day and do the math on the amount of resources he's helped burn in the name of simply selling products? Did he, as someone suggested on the well, "go off his meds", or do you think this is a logical progression from some inner discovery?
Cogito, Ergo Spero (robertflink) Mon 21 Apr 08 13:54
One of the things I noticed in industry is that the people who were most creative or analytical, i.e. had the new idea or knew what is wrong were seldom the ones to organize and lead the implementation of the new. This I have attributed to difference in skill sets, a little like the revolutionary not being the best at running the government that results from the revolution. This may be most pronounced at larger scales. Do you see sustainability attracting a balance of skills in this regard?
Ann Thorpe (ann-thorpe) Mon 21 Apr 08 14:29
some more good issue --Starck (another designer brand) and revolution...are they connected?? -- since its a little late over here I'll get to them tomorrow...
fat and sassy and laying eggs (wiggly) Mon 21 Apr 08 15:25
Speaking of large-scale system changes, do you think conservation is a cornerstone of a designer's understanding of sustainability? Conservation seems to be implied throughout the atlas, yet the word itself isn't referenced in the index. Was that a conscious decision? The term "conservation" appears to have become a negative in our culture, even among some people who consider themselves environmentalists.
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