by: Lisa Slagle
I used to date a guy who worked at the dump.
It was the only job he could find when we spent a summer in Bend, Oregon three years ago, and he was a champ for going with it. At least it paid well, and toddlers stared at him in awe from their car seats as if he had the best job in the most interesting place possible. Citizens dumped their trash in Location A at the landfill. He transported an open-bed semi truck bursting with trash from Location A to Location B, dropped it off, and went back for more. He came home and told me about the strange or magnificent, often pristine, usually usable items that he moved around that day. It was actually illegal for landfill employees to bring anything home from work, so he simply told me about the truckloads of furniture, exercise equipment, building materials, and electronics that he moved from A to B. We talked about it a lot, and these images of piles of inflated soccer balls and retired iPhones stuck with me. I think about the amount of trash we all produce. I try to be conscious of my resources, and I often think about sustainability in my personal life and at work. How can I, as a designer, work sustainability into my company? What is my version of sustainable design, and how can I do it better?
Sustainable design is a bit of a catch phrase in the creative industry lately, but that is a good thing. It is important to think about the impact we have on the planet, even (or maybe especially) as dorky, computer nerds in our offices, behind our giant iMacs. We live in a "linear" economy. Take, make, toss. Take more, make better, toss it in the landfill. This process of producing, using, and trashing is a habit that is literally driving our resources straight into the ground. This line is finite, and we will run out of resources. Yes, it is important to practice the typical sustainable design efforts that give a project green credibility-- recycled paper, soy inks, etc.-- but I think we can do more. I think we should (and many companies do) take that linear thought process and bend it. This is referred to as a circular economy.
Tall order, right? A circular economy transforms the take/make/toss process into a more complicated ideal: lease the resource (think renewable energy)/make/recover the resource/remake. A prime example is Netflix. We don't need to purchase a DVD when we can rent or stream the product instead. It takes a talented group of marketers and designers to visually explain to consumers that leasing is as easy and as good as (hopefully better than) buying. Brands and designers are going to have to work hand-in-hand with consumers to clearly explain and market this shift in consumption. Companies have to be willing to rethink their products, too.
I always explain my job as a designer by saying, "I make art that people use." I know it's not as noble as being a firefighter, a doctor, or a teacher, but the great thing about being a graphic designer is indeed creating art that people actually use. We, as designers, should try our hardest to do this with environmental accountability. Are we going to do this perfectly, with every client and every project? Doubtfully. Even Apple is rocking a solid juxtaposition in its product line-- The same company that is responsible for iTunes--a perfect example of circular thinking--produces the Macbook Air and Retina Macbook Pro, which are actually glued together so well that changing the batteries is extremely difficult, and the lifetime of the product is limited to a few years-- as linear as it gets. (You can read more about that HERE.) I'm suggesting that as designers, we try our hardest to integrate circular thinking into our workload. Whether that's taking on clients with likeminded thinking or simply opting for digital proofs instead of prints, we can make this world a better, smarter place one mindful design at a time.
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