The rise and rise of 'anti-design'

Designers who focus on producing only meek and sustainable things are denying their own creativity and impact on the world.

Philippe Starck is possibly the world’s most famous designer. He has put a sense of style and fun into many people’s lives, furnishing their homes, offices and public spaces with his trademark French flair. He has made millions by doing everything from designing lemon squeezers to styling airport lounges. But Starck has said enough is enough. In March this year, he told the German magazine Die Zeit that everything he did was ‘unnecessary’. For Starck, ‘design is dead’ (1).

Shocking stuff. Is this another outburst from a well-known and impetuous maverick? Perhaps. But it is also clear that Starck has become a convert to green design, turning his back on his past ‘unnecessary’ misdemeanours.

All is not lost, however - or so it seems. Next year, Starck is launching the first of his new ideas: a wind turbine for homes costing just £400, which he claims will produce 60 per cent of the power needed for heating and lighting. He is intent on making green ‘sexy’. He is also going to produce a variety of other products such as electric cars, solar- and hydrogen-powered boats, and a solar-panel film that sticks on windows (2).

Starck is the latest prominent designer to bolster the ranks of a growing green design bandwagon. No doubt he is also partly responding to pressure from critics who blame design for an avalanche of consumer waste which is, in their view, draining the world’s resources and filling up landfill with unnecessary crap.

Paradoxically, many people who are privileged enough to be able to buy Starck’s stuff seem as willing as ever to buy it. The reason is simple: Starck surpasses many other designers’ talents by turning seemingly inane, mundane objects into desirable, beautiful things that many of us want and take great pleasure from. Yes, we could all do with less badly designed crap in our lives. But when someone like Starck comes along and turns the mundane into the beautiful, that’s a good thing.

Likewise, there is, of course, nothing wrong with Starck making wind turbines sexy (although his claims about the amount of energy his turbines will produce seem over-the-top), or his desire to tap into a growing ‘green’ market. After all, designers, together with engineers and scientists, are capable of producing hybrid-cars, low-energy appliances and products that use less resources. These are all useful and innovative examples of saving energy, which is generally a good thing.

However, what underpins the general shift towards green design is a widespread sense of guilt and self-doubt felt by many designers about blighting the world with too much stuff. The paradox is that the big idea they turn to for salvation - environmentalism - means that rather than endeavouring to produce something new to solve the problem, one that makes use of the best possible processes, ideas and resources, designers will attempt to regain a sense of purpose and credibility by preaching to the rest of us to lower our horizons.

Indeed, calls to ‘cut back’ seem to be loudest from within the design community. Take A Manifesto for Sustainability, published earlier this year on the popular America Core77 design website (3). Its author, Allan Chochinov, didn’t pull his punches on the design profession.

Taking the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath as his starting point for design, his manifesto insists that designers, like doctors, should ‘Do no harm’. The manifesto continues by suggesting that design is a modern-day plague. Under the heading of ‘Stop making crap’, the manifesto argues that we are all ‘suffocating, drowning, and poisoning ourselves with the stuff we produce’, all because of the designer. Chochinov’s manifesto is only the tip of the iceberg in this anti-design outlook.

The UK’s Design Council is also pinning its colours firmly to the mast of green design. Instead of a forthright manifesto, it has just announced a three-year national strategy for design that - surprise, surprise - is built upon sustainable design, reaching the same conclusion as Chochinov’s manifesto. In its sparsely worded pamphlet (surely an anathema to green design?), the Design Council says: ‘Good design is sustainable design. It results in objects, systems or services that work aesthetically, functionally and commercially, improving people’s lives and making the smallest possible impact on the planet.’ (4) [My italics.]

Hang on. Isn’t design always about making an impact? Not according to the green-design movement, or the ‘design deniers’ who argue for placing limits on human ingenuity and creativity. Put bluntly, they want less of it, not more. Of course, there is no ignoring climate change. While the science, causes and effects are by no means given (as discussed many times on spiked), placing limits on ingenuity will itself deny us imaginative and mature solutions. The greening of design will only contribute to more climate change panic if our hands are tied in finding the best means to deal with a warming world.

The greening of design, as epitomised by the likes of Starck and others, preaches to the rest of us on how to live differently. In practical terms, this means choosing sustainable or ethically acceptable design practices over those that are capable of making more of an impact using the best, newest and most innovative materials and resources. Sometimes things are produced that are both innovative and green even though they didn’t start out that way. But in many other cases, ideas are more likely to be dismissed out of hand if they don’t fit into the environmental outlook.

And amongst all the debate about limits, there is something else under attack, something distinctively human that is tied up with the idea of the designer: the degradation of objectivity. This is something the designer must treasure over all of his pencils, computers and skills. The designer should, wherever possible, stand firm and assess problems without prejudice, unlike the client or end-user, who are often too bound up in the problem to notice a way out. By remaining steadfastly objective, the designer is able to offer the best guarantee of being able to come up with the right answer: hopefully something that is either novel, surprising or compelling.

Okay, these opportunities don’t always arise. Clients often get annoyed if you attempt to do something different, or not what they originally wanted. But every so often, moments do arise which push the boundaries a bit further, or if you are lucky, by a long way. That’s called innovation. And when it occurs, it must be seized upon. However, the greening of design ‘thinking’ only seeks the opposite effect: the deliberate curtailment of that freedom to think. The designer makes a virtue out of doing less and thinking small. This is ‘anti-design’. Holding back ideas inevitably means crap solutions. And that affects us all.

Take the recently established American Designers Accord movement. This movement is all about re-educating clients to adopt a sustainable, do-no-harm approach to design. It is hell-bent on educating the world on the merits of sustainable design. Already boasting 15,000 designer members worldwide, its aim is simple: members must re-educate clients on alternative design practice that is green and sustainable. In practice, this means using alternative processes, materials and expertise that minimise any environmental impact.

As its website says: ‘Rework client contracts to favour environmentally responsible design and work processes. Provide strategic and material alternatives for sustainable design.’ (5) This is no minor movement either. Two of America’s largest design organisations, the American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA) and the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), signed up in January.

Next month in the UK, we will be getting more of the same. Green design will be a major theme at September’s London Design Festival. A series of events, masterclasses and ideas are being packaged up into ‘Greengaged’, which will showcase green design and bring together leading thinkers, practitioners, clients and policymakers to ‘focus the design industry on the urgent problem of climate change and start one big conversation’ (6). And, we are told, at the end of the festival the Design Council wants to draw up its own ‘green manifesto’.

The greening of design seems almost inevitable. The guilt designers express about design will drive them to spend more effort in trying to regain credibility and worthiness. While green design appears to be about being relevant to the world’s problems, it can also end up avoiding tackling problems with sensible, mature answers. Instead what we get is green posturing. Starck’s wind turbine ticks all the right ‘green boxes’ and may well become a best seller - but it is no answer to energy production. It creates the illusion that the energy problem is one of consumption, not of production. We need bigger, better and dependable power stations (including nuclear ones), not small home generators. Starck’s green worthiness only helps obscure the problem and does design a disservice.

Let the government, politicians and policymakers take the flak for the consequences of design, while leaving the designer with the job of recreating the world around us. The designer, while living in the real world, cannot be constrained by it, because it’s his or her job to make it better.

Martyn Perks is a design consultant, and a writer and speaker on design, IT and business. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Martyn Perks asked whether designers should try to cut crime and argued that political ends were distorting innovation. Rob Johnston described green light bulbs as not such a bright idea. James Woudhuysen called Europe’s energy policy a retreat from development. Or read more at spiked issue: Innovation.

(1) Philippe Starck tells magazine design is dead, Breitbart, 27 March 2008

(2) Philippe Starck turbine creates green juice for homes, The Times (London), 10 August 2008

(3) 1000 Words: A Manifesto for Sustainability in Design, Core77

(4) The Good Design Plan, Design Council, 1 July 2008

(5) Designers’ Accord, February 2008

(6) London design festival goes sustainable, Design Week, 13 August 2008

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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