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Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories

Date posted: 01/08/2008

Aidan Rowe, Assistant Professor in Visual Communication  / Interactive New Media at the University of Alberta, Canada, reviews:

Book: Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories: a collection of sustainable design essays

Author: Jonathan Chapman and Nick Gant

Publisher: Earthscan

Publication Date: 2007

ISBN: 9781844074129

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Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories
In Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories: a collection of sustainable design essays the editors, Jonathan Chapman and Nick Gant, pull together a rich and powerful collection of essays that attempt to establish the current state of sustainable design, propose some possible futures for the field and most importantly raise discussion and debate about the role that sustainable design has to play in relation to the field of design and more importantly to society in general. To do this they have brought together a group of authors who share their experiences, views, and theories on and in the subject area of sustainable design.

The book comprises seven chapters including the useful introduction and conclusion from the editors. The individual chapters cover a range of territory including philosophical and historical debates concerning the role of sustainable design and case studies of specific projects that deal with implementing sustainable practices. A recurring subject throughout the book is an examination of the term ‘sustainable design’, and how commonly this term has been used to identify a specialist area or niche corner of design practice rather than recognizing that all forms of design have sustainable concerns. The book’s contributors argue that sustainable design is not concerned merely with eco-design, green issues or the environment but rather that it is concerned with the larger and inter-connected relationship that humans have with their surrounding environment. In short that sustainable design is a macro not a micro issue.

The book presents a variety of interesting and cogent contributions that help extend the field of sustainable design. Chapman and Gant set the tone of the book in their introduction when they state that sustainability needs to work within the realms of normal human behaviour, at the core of which is the practice of consumption. They argue that rather than attempting to completely stop consumption practices — as much traditional sustainable thinking proposes — that we need a model of design that “promotes consumption models of long-term sustainability.” (p.7) Alastair Fuad-Luke’s contribution to the book, Re-defining the Purpose of (Sustainable) Design: Enter the Design Enablers, Catalysts in Co-design, makes a case for what he terms co-design, moving design from being primarily focused upon “commercial brands geared to unsustainable consumption.” (p.36) and moving it towards the possibility of design’s focus being the “creation of well-being, not goods or services.” (p.25) He presents a rich collection of diagrams, models and definitions to examine the current design scene and to make a robust case for co-design.

In Design Redux, Stuart Walker discusses the fringes of the design world where he posits innovation, at least in relation to sustainability, is located. He cites numerous examples of designers and artists that recycle and reuse products and describes his own framing project, Design Re-dux, that looks at re-integrating older electronic devices back into everyday use by turning them once again into useable items or by increasing their aesthetic value. Ezio Manzini’s The Scenario of a Multi-Local Society: Creative Communities, Active Networks and Enabling Solutions makes the case for a new working scenario, that of the multi-local society. He proposes that two practices, creative communities and collaborative networks, are key to sustainability and the creation of the multi-local society creates a public that is based on “communities and places that are, at the same time, strong in their own identity, embedded in a physical place and open and connected to other places/communities.” (p.82)

John Wood’s essay, Relative Abundance: Fuller’s Discovery that the Glass is Always Half Full, examines the role that the ‘American Dream’ has played in getting us to our current state and he calls for a new dream, one where designers and producers take control of the future and “accept rewards that place less emphasis on income, and more on an enhanced quality of life.” (p.112) He presents a well-researched and cogent article that makes an empowering and convincing argument for change.

In Clothes that Connect Kate Fletcher presents an eloquent argument for the value of fashion and the role it plays in forming identity and society. She also presents a strong critique of fashion, noting that “Fashion is eating itself…Its products reinforce inequities, exploit workers, fuel resource use, increase environmental impact and generate waste.” (p.119) To explore this dilemma she presents a small collaborative research project, 5 Ways, which involved bringing together a team of designers and five briefs to create sketches or prototypes to explore the “complex and shifting territory” (p.125) surrounding sustainability and fashion, with the ultimate goal to “demand a new type of fashion based more on transformative acts and less on consumptive ones.” (p.119)
The variety of voices, experiences and subject areas touched upon related to sustainable design is a real strength of this book, allowing access points into individual chapters or the option to take the book as an overall whole. My only real criticism of the book is that it is too short, we need more writing that helps to frame the debate and push forward discussion on the role that design can have on improving quality of life.

The book is highly useful for designers, design educators and design students interested in sustainable design and its future — and I like to think that is all the aforementioned. The book forced me to rethink some of my own ideas in relation to the subject area, made me aware of interesting examples and projects being undertaken and introduced me to some new (to me) designers and writers and I will be enthusiastically using within my own teaching practice.

Overall, Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories: A collection of sustainable design essays is a cogent and valuable addition to the discourse and debate about sustainable design and the role that it plays in shaping and adding to society. As the editors note in their conclusion “before you can change something, you must first understand it”, this book moves us closer to comprehending the complex and important area of sustainable design. (p.137)