Paint the town green

November 8, 1996

Design education must reflect the growing need for environmentally sound products, says John Sorrell.

Designers are renowned for finding inspirational solutions to highly complicated problems. There is one problem, however, that designers cannot solve alone. Politicians, engineers, manufacturers, industrialists and investors as well as designers, all need to work together to find a holistic solution to the detrimental environmental impact of the modern world. But I believe designers can lead the way.

Over the past ten years, since the Montreal Protocol in 1986, we have seen some positive steps towards reducing environmental damage. EC production of ozone-depleting CFCs has fallen by 80 per cent and Britons now recycle nearly twice the weight of steel cans they did in 1989.

To date, much of the work to improve the sustainability of products has focused on the ability to disassemble for remanufacture, minimising materials in packaging and using those materials that can be recycled, all for existing products. The challenge is now to go beyond redesigning existing products and respond to, indeed shape, changing consumption patterns by offering products from a completely new green perspective. Designers need to create practical and exciting visions of more sustainable living, not just minimise the damage caused by existing products.

Designers are involved in the very early phases of product development. Design Council research has shown that 70-80 per cent of a product's future environmental impact can be determined during this early, low-cost design phase.

Most research also shows that consumers are prepared to spend more for green products. Shoppers in Britain claim they are prepared to pay between 10p and 16p more for environment-friendly produced food. Businesses are also prepared to incorporate environmental considerations in their operations. Over 60 per cent of all firms have a corporate environmental policy. The downside of these policies is that 40 per cent of those companies are motivated, not by moral obligations as you might expect, but by the need to comply with environmental legislation.

Legislation certainly has a role to play in pressurising companies to be more environmentally aware. However, many companies regard legislation as a hindrance rather than a help and are therefore not supporting its enactment. Our challenge as designers is to harness legislation as a framework for creativity and not to see it as a barrier.

Forward-thinking businesses are beginning to see advantages too. Companies are now recognising strategic opportunities for products and processes that are environmentally sustainable.

So if consumers are ready to buy environment-conscious products and business is ready to produce them, what is the implication for design education? There is a growing move to include sustainability within design courses to help design students understand more about environmental issues. It is vital for designers to understand why it is important for products to be energy efficient and which appropriate materials give these properties. Armed with this knowledge the young designer can add an extra "green" dimension to the usual "added value" scenario.

If colleges accept this responsibility, the students they turn out will be better placed to take the environmental initiative. They will be able to bring new and sound ethical and business arguments to their future clients. If they do not, designers run the risk of neglecting the opportunity to influence a better future.

Britain has the largest design education infrastructure in Europe, offering more than 1,000 courses at 100 universities and colleges. And 30 per cent (9,000) of Europe's design graduates leave British establishments each year. But a holistic solution is only feasible if many different individuals, organisations and businesses are brought together to solve the problem. Design courses are leading the way in bringing a "multi-functional teams" approach to their teaching. Design students need to be given training in how to operate in teams that bring together a whole range of different personalities and professional dynamics. This move to multifunctional teamwork is in direct response to a similar shift in industry. Not every design graduate is fortunate enough to gain employment in their chosen field. A design graduate schooled in the multifunctional approach is well placed to contribute to the world of work in a variety of roles. This can only improve the UK's chance of having a design conscious workforce at all levels.

Designers must grab this opportunity to serve as mediators between business and the environment, to challenge and to inspire real change. The future is bright. The future is green!

John Sorrell is chairman of the Design Council.

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