Design and global priorities ~ Abaster

15 April 2008

Design and global priorities

Three design principles will increasingly underpin design strategy and design generally in the future: sustainable design, inclusive design and transformation design. Why are these three principles so important? They broadly correlate (from a design perspective) with a range of critical issues related to energy, resources, the individual and society that are the focus of considerable debate both today and for the foreseeable future.

Simply (and crudely) put, sustainable design ensures that a product or a service's environmental impact is minimized through the use of "innovative design and industrial practices"; inclusive design ensures that "goods, services and environments are accessible to more people" through understanding and meeting user needs; and, transformation design looks at the application of design skills and processes to bring about change in systems and organizations (even segments or structures of society).

Issues related to the environment, the individual and organization/society are at the nexus of many of the increasingly complex pressing global priorities we face, whether global warming, resource depletion, population growth, etc. In the past design has been perceived as largely unconcerned with global issues but this is changing, led by some impressive exponents such as Architecture for Humanity, and through the design of increasingly relevant products and services and the application of design processes to key problem areas.

The challenge, however, is that none of these considerations - environmental, individual or societal - can be addressed in isolation: the linkages between them are becoming more acute. Any single strand in this interwoven world is hard to isolate: a design success or failure may be a catalyst of change, negative or positive, unimagined by the designer. We now recognize that the impact of an energy inefficient design goes far beyond the product or service itself and has a bearing on issues such as climate change and economic welfare and therefore on the individual and society.

Which leads us to an obvious but important statement: no product or service (even the most trivial) should be designed without taking into account resources and materials involved, its impact on the local environment, its accessibility for users and the impact it may have on society from its use, etc. To design in a vacuum is to be singularly out of touch with societal, environmental and economic trends and is to ignore the increasingly interrelated nature of our planet.

If, as many suggest, design is going to contribute to addressing global challenges - whether related to resource management, population accommodation or key societal concerns such as more effective education, more innovative public services - then it needs to reflect the underlying principles embodied in sustainable, inclusive and transformation design. In many ways this boils down to a set of simple questions that every designer should be asking: how is my design - whether for a new utensil, new low-income housing, or a new public service - going to impact the individual, society and the environment?

A more holistic approach embodying sustainable, inclusive and transformation design needs to be adopted in this increasingly challenging design environment. There is an incredible opportunity for design - through innovation, new technologies and processes - to help address some of the critical global priorities we face today, from water and housing shortages to overflowing landfills. But for this to occur there has to be a commitment to these three underlying design principles and to their holistic application: considerations related to the individual, society and the environment must underpin all design, no matter how trivial or inconsequential it is perceived to be.