Show Report: IDSA 2005

31 Aug, 2005 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Pondering the attainability of sustainability

About 500 of some of the most creative minds in the world of product design just convened in Washington, D.C., for the 2005 Industrial Designers Society of America National Conference. Being an industrial designer, I always look forward to attending this event to meet with other designers and check out the many interesting products in the Design Gallery.

This conference is unlike many professional conferences where you just sit and try to take in what is presented (as well as try to stay awake). At this conference most attendees are drawn in and really want to engage and challenge each other — it's a very participatory atmosphere and experience.

Call for Responsible Design

The first — and I felt, most important — of the several thought-provoking events that occurred during the conference was the opening keynote address given by architect, designer, author and activist Bill McDonough. McDonough issued a call to action for what he termed responsible design, challenging designers to think about their work in a truly global context. It’s no longer acceptable, he believes, to create products and systems that contaminate the planet. Even developing so-called “sustainable” products is no longer good enough. All this has been said before, but McDonough provided what I felt were some of the most compelling reasons yet to change the way things have been done.

He spoke of the “Strategy of Tragedy,” wherein environmental tragedies persist because most people, companies and governments seemingly have no plan or end game in mind as products are developed, used and discarded. Unfortunately, these types of designs are prevalent and persistent today.

Instead, McDonough said we should be developing a “Strategy of Hope” — that is, a more circular, infinite game, wherein the end of a product’s life is truly considered at the beginning. Human product design needs to more closely follow the rules of nature. McDonough urgently referred to several changes in the environment that will occur in the next few generations and adversely affect all of us if we don't actively change the way we design and consume products. For example, a recent survey in the Pacific Ocean found more plastic than plankton, McDonough said, a situation that is lowering ocean pH levels and beginning to dissolve coral and other life forms. This could lead to environmental catastrophe in as little as 100 years.

Interestingly, McDonough was somewhat critical of products in the IDSA design gallery, questioning the reasoning behind some of them and saying that the designs and materials chosen had seemingly no regard for the environment. Materials choices such as plastics and some metals as well as design choices such as the use of disposable batteries are all environmentally irresponsible, he said.

True Leader

I have to admit, though, that McDonough leads by example with his work. His clients include the Gap; Ford Motor Company (he was instrumental in designing the new Rouge plant); the United Kingdom, where he’s designing a museum dedicated to the history of the industrial revolution that actually creates more energy than it uses; and Chinese governments, where he is helping to design a new city that is virtually invisible in its natural surroundings. McDonough’s work demonstrates that the human creation endeavor does not have to impart a negative impact on our world.

Overall, McDonough believes that we should finally begin to consider green and clean over just lean in our design and manufacturing processes. Responsible effectiveness is as important as, if not more important than, mere efficiency. He stressed that we are rapidly coming to the end of degenerative technologies that are one-way cradle-to-grave cycles, and should instead promote regenerative technologies that employ products and processes that reconstitute themselves in what he termed a perpetual cradle-to-cradle cycle — something that really has no beginning or end as we know it.

Cradle-to-Cradle Design

At the end of his keynote speech, McDonough referred to his recently released Cradle to Cradle Design Protocol, a manifesto founded on the Intelligent Products System developed by Michael Braungart and his colleagues at EPEA that will help designers and architects create eco-effective products. The protocol includes McDonough’s database of environmentally acceptable materials and chemicals (6,000 of the approximately 104,000 currently used in industry). That database will be integrated into future releases of Alias design software to help designers become more aware of the characteristics of and risks involved in specifying certain materials.

McDonough also mentioned his Cradle to Cradle Certification program, which evaluates products and materials based on their human and environmental impact, to what extent they can be recycled, the quantity of water and energy used to produce them and even the workplace ethics involved in their production. For more information, visit McDonough’s Web site.

In the final analysis, McDonough said, sustainability in product design is in many cases probably attainable, but he wondered aloud about the bigger question: “Is it enough?” To reinforce McDonough’s thoughts, conference chair Shaun Jackson said, “We can’t just talk possibilities anymore; we have to act on them.”

For those not familiar with the organization, IDSA is now in its 40th year in the United States and is the voice of the industrial design profession, advancing the quality and positive impact of design. The organization's mission is to lead the profession, inspire design quality and responsibility through professional development and education, and elevate the business of design and improve the industry's value.

Next year’s IDSA conference will be held in Austin, Texas. I’m already looking forward to it.

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