We shouldn’t even be talking about sustainable design. It should be integrated into everything we do. I feel the same way about digital design. Why talk about digital design when digital is now the water in which we swim? Almost every project that a designer touches will have a digital element. We’re only talking about digital and sustainability separately because they’re both new – for the most part they haven’t been embedded in our education system and are things that we might need to educate ourselves in, on top of our original training or expertise.
Many people see sustainability as an optional moral stance, an eco or green way of looking at the world. In fact, as people involved in the creation of products or services that will alter the way others live, we have a responsibility to ensure that the impact of every one of our design decisions is positive and not negative.
I’m often asked how a designer can begin to understand sustainability if they haven’t been taught it. It is not easy: sustainability involves complex and sometimes contradictory issues, and at times can appear to conflict with ‘traditional’ design. But if design is about making things better for people, then we must learn how to integrate the wider context into our design process.
In order to do this, you have to become a T-shaped designer. The original idea of a T-shaped person was first mooted by management consultants, then adopted by the highly innovative design firm IDEO last decade who defined them as “specialists with a passion and empathy for people and for other subject areas”
Why T-shaped? A good designer needs in-depth knowledge of one area (the vertical stroke of the T) – a graphic designer knows about type, colour, print etc. and usually learnt this in formal education. The horizontal stroke of the T represents a broader perspective about how design fits into the rest of the world; knowledge of other related disciplines such as marketing or website design and the ability to work across silos, both within their organisation and outside. These kinds of skills are developed as a designer matures, and often leads them into interesting new areas that they then find design can be applied to.
I love the constant extending of that horizontal part of the T. Having to understand how a client’s business works; whether that’s spending time with a shelving company so that you can make them the best possible website, or going to Africa to speak to coffee growers in order to create a communication system for them that really delivers; it’s a massive learning curve and that’s what keeps life enjoyable.
So what the T-shaped designer concept says is that we need to train specialists, but we need to teach them to be aware of the rest of the world. And that of course includes sustainability.
When I am invited to talk at a “Green Week” in an art school, my heart sinks – why isn’t sustainability being taught as part of the core curriculum? If sustainability was taught as part of the vertical part of the T – i.e. one of the building blocks that every designer is taught, what a powerful force for sustainability we would be as an industry. Our broader ‘horizontal T-shaped’ activities could then be focussed on moving the sustainability agenda forward and applying our problem solving skills to safeguard our future. Thankfully there are some enlightened courses. Innovation Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art has found a powerful way to make students take sustainability seriously; they have made it a matriculation requirement. In order to graduate, projects need to demonstrate sustainable thinking.
Clearly, this level of integration is the way forward. In the meantime, for those of us who didn’t have sustainability in our education, we need to build up the horizontal part of our T, and start thinking laterally about the rest of the world; product lifecycles, origins of materials, transportation, human behaviour – what drives someone to repair something or to throw it away? And if they do throw it away where does it go? In my personal experience, this journey is not only essential it’s also really empowering and enjoyable.
From the archives – published in Computer Arts – opinion piece 19th April 2012 sustainability issue.