Design and Social Responsibility: The Designers Accord

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An interesting site brought to my attention by fellow DRG member, Sorcha O’Brien, can be found here. It is mentioned in very positive terms at this blog.

You will recall our enthusiasm for Valerie Casey’s Kyoto Treaty of Design proposal back in frog’s Design’s June Design Mind, and her presentation at AIGA’s conference last October. It’s definitely time for another update.

The initiative has been renamed The Designers Accord (the possessive apostrophe’s been dropped since no one could agree on where it was supposed to go :), with a new logo (designed by Eric Strohl), and a tighter spec. Core77 will be throwing its weight behind the initiative by providing member design firms to badge themselves over at DesignDirectory.com (coming soon!), and the open-source website for member firms to share resources and knowledge will be firing up in the new year.

According to the Designers Accord website the following describe the fundamental mission of the new organisation.

The Designers Accord is a coalition of design and innovation firms focused on working together to create positive environmental and social impact.

This movement started as a call to arms for designers to engage in the environmental movement with optimism and creativity. We believe it is our obligation to use our knowledge, experience, and reach to positively influence what we design and consume.

The Designers Accord calls for the following:

We ask all designers, globally, to proactively engage in a dialogue about environmental impact with each and every client, and to evaluate sustainable alternatives in design. Our rationale is that by collectively committing to having this conversation, our client base – the world’s manufacturers, distributors, and services providers – will be compelled to evaluate sustainability as a key vector in decision-making around the products and service they create for their base – the global consuming audience.

We promote openly sharing knowledge about green design and sustainability. We believe that building environmental intelligence should be a collective exercise. For this cause, we advocate for inverting the traditional model of competition, and encourage pooling knowledge so that all may benefit and build on marketable and sustainable solutions.

Adopting The Designers Accord provides access to a global community of peers who share passion and ideas around environmental innovation. Our reach and influence grows exponentially when we act together. View a full list of adopters.

The Accord is for all designers – interaction, digital, industrial, graphic, advertising, architecture – and those involved in the design industry, including engineers, business consultants, researchers, marketers, and educational institutions. Any designer, consultancy, or organization creating consequence at scale should join.

The actual principles are as follows:

The goal of The Designers Accord is for designers to come together as social and cultural influencers to create positive impact. Instead of just reacting to information and data, we are radically evolving our values and practices as designers.

There is a two-tier system of participation for The Designers Accord:

New adopters have embraced the Code of Conduct, and are working toward meeting the guidelines listed below.

More advanced adopters have fulfilled the general guidelines of The Designers Accord, and are demonstrating leadership by publically enacting sustainable practices. Positive impact is demonstrated by bringing new products or services to the marketplace, or by undertaking activities that change the behavior of clients or consumers.
These graphics are placeholders for the badges that will indicate adoption in listings on Core77/BusinessWeek Design Firm Directory.

The 10 guidelines of The Designers Accord range from directed to aspirational.

All adopters agree:

– Publically declare participation in this movement

– Undertake a program to educate your teams about designing sustainably

– Provide strategic and material alternatives for sustainable design

– Measure the carbon/greenhouse gas footprint of your firm
(includes operations and client engagements)

– Pledge to significantly reduce your firm’s carbon/greenhouse gas footprint annually *

– Initiate a dialogue about environmental impact and sustainable alternatives
with each and every client

Advanced adopters lead:

– Publically share exemplary practices and case studies

– Advance the understanding of environmental issues from a design perspective

– Rework client contracts to favor environmental responsible design and processes *

– Contribute actively to the communal knowledge base for sustainable design *
* Will be audited/evaluated by third-party on an annual basis

Designer Valerie Casey is the originator of the Designers Accord and in an interesting essay Changing the way we think about design to better tackle the challenges of environmentalism reproduced on the website she discusses the rationale for such organisations. She suggests that:

Elisha Otis did not invent the elevator.

Elisha Otis did create the safety catch that would prevent a vertically mobile enclosure from plummeting from great heights to great depths at very high speeds, injuring its passengers. This invention was demonstrated at the 1853 World’s Fair in New York, almost five thousand years after the elevator first came into usage.

Technically, Otis did not invent the elevator, although he is regularly credited with it. But it was his incremental improvement to an existing technology that launched what we now know as the elevator industry, the great facilitator of skyscraping cities, of vertical living, working, and buying.

Otis exemplifies what I call the designer’s dilemma – the tension that exists in the space between inventing and improving. If the designer’s role is to drive innovation on a large scale, how can we resolve ourselves to the incremental improvements that are necessitated by today’s increasingly complex culture?

One of the more interesting aspects of studying design history in the 20th century is the way in which everything, or almost everything, reappears. Styles are refined, reappropriated, reconsidered. Technological advances permit the reworking of ideas which were constrained in previous decades or centuries. And one feature of this is the emergence every decade or so of some new “manifesto”, whether as a self-contained document or expressed through a book or other work, that details in considerable detail a singular approach to design. From the Futurist manifesto through to “First Things First” written by Ken Garland in 1964 and updated as recently as 2000 by both him and other contemporary designers we see a reiteration of ideas. In “First Things First” the concerns are centred around consumerism: [we have been] bombarded with publications devoted to this belief, applauding the work of those who have flogged their skill and imagination to sell such things as: cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste, aftershave lotion, beforeshave lotion, slimming diets, fattening diets, deodorants, fizzy water, cigarettes, roll-ons, pull-ons and slip-ons.

Of course this isn’t coincidence. The 20th century was the century of the grand social and ideological project, of continent spanning political federalisms, of an urge not merely to represent the world, but to change it. Why would design be any different, particularly since it too was an intrinsic part of this social and political change? That the various over-arching political narratives ‘failed’ in some respect or another towards the latter half of the century led to a retreat, but then with the rise of environmentalism (in the ‘West’ at least) a new – albeit somewhat inchoate narrative appeared to replace the more dogmatic certainties of earlier decades.

Quentin Newark has argued that ‘the desire for change is often very powerful and this informs the language of the manifestos that simultaneously draw up the battle plan, and call others to the cause. This urge to remake society begs the question ‘as what?’.

I think it is also telling that as with previous initiatives this is rooted very firmly in contemporary issues. Environmentalism is the centre point around which the Designers Accord rotates – and note that it was originally called the ‘Kyoto Treaty’ of Design (although the 2000 reworking of “First Things First” stated that “Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention”). But note also that the environmental concern links into a familiar discourse… one of:

An oversaturated consumer market and increasingly sophisticated end-user [which] have made it difficult to differentiate products and services in today’s economy. Design has become the de facto solution for pursuing, and owning, the habits and routines of consumers. So strident is the competition for shelf-space and mindshare that incremental improvement is often thought akin to colossal failure. While designers excel at making the small changes that shape everyday experiences, in this competitive climate we are compelled to pursue the next big thing with great ferocity. We seek change in the Orwellian sense – paradigm-shifts, phoenix products, dot-something web landmarks. And success has a short memory; we are measured only by our most recent achievement: the last to-market, the newest award-winner, the latest recognition by the digerati.

So, is this merely another plea for increasing the prominence of social design? I think not, although having worked in social and political design all my professional life to date I’m far from certain of what the best way forward is to promote it. The reason I think this project might have more traction – or rather that socially responsible design might achieve a greater centrality to contemporary design – is that there is a serious push at political and societal level towards a more efficient, technologically advanced response to environmental issues. That this push encompasses much of the political spectrum places it in position that previous calls were unable to match. And Casey clearly identifies this when she writes:

Perhaps the most revolutionary characteristic of the environmental movement is its sheer scope. Activist Paul Hawken describes it as the largest and fastest growing movement in the world, comprising more than 2 million organizations worldwide. This vast reach provides a great opportunity for facilitating change – but it also poses a unique set of challenges regarding the management and self-identity of such a broad, loosely connected network.

Designers are just one of many groups clamoring to contribute within this space. NGOs, commercial businesses, technologists, academics, and governments are all forging ahead with their individual visions, sharing the public’s attention. Together, the many voices of this movement form a harmony, deeper and more complex than any solo the designer alone can offer.

Having said that I would also be very aware of the ability of the market to adapt to meet any challenge thrown at it and therefore I would be slow to dismiss the prospect that the sort of approach the Designers Accord suggests may well be bypassed by more utilitarian – or conversely – market friendly ‘solutions’.

While much of what is proposed by the Designers Accord is simple good sense and relatively uncontentious there are certain questions require definition. Consider the activities which the Designers Accord suggest are practical steps towards their goal:

Collectively:
– Helping craft a larger social equity protocol for the design community
– Publicly ratifying that agreement, and committing to its compliance
– Contributing to the communal knowledge base for sustainable design
– Advancing the intellectual understanding of environmental issues from a design perspective

Individually:
– Offering green analysis to clients, or partnering with others to conduct this analysis
– Providing material alternatives for sustainable product development
– Investigating manufacturing processes and rewarding green innovation
– Minimizing environmental impact from prototyping or model-making activity
– Publicly reporting the carbon footprint of our firms
– Becoming educated about the environmental impact of our work

One might argue that defining some of the terms may well prove to be a greater challenge. For example… what precisely is a ‘green’ analysis? Anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with green political activity or sustainable design will know that these are far from self-evident terms. Which is not to say that the project is pointless or futile from the off, simply that when engaging in the commercial world (as this implicitly seeks to do – and note too in another section the reference to cooperative competition… that too begs a number of questions) it is necessary to be very clear as to ways and means. Indeed Newark notes the paradoxes evident at the heart of visual communications in particular where he says: ‘Graphic design can be done with fairly minimal physical and financial means, but the means of putting it in people’s hands require substantial capital. Because of this need for capital, designers will always remain locked in a commercial relationship with a client’. But he adds… ‘whilst the designer cannot simply take over and convert the material to her own purposes, she can work to infuse these commercial, or institutional, messages with political concerns and a greater social complexity’. This latter may be too extravagant a claim for much of the work designers in all fields deal with, yet it is certain that a degree of social complexity even in the approach of the designer is arguably a useful means of generating at least a degree of social and self-reflectivity.

Socially responsible design is central to the research of the DRG and we’ve mentioned aspects of it before such as this and this and how that engages in everyday life and therefore this project is one which appears to be entirely laudable.

Yet a small word of caution. It is worth noting that the debate that the Designers Accord is engaged in has relevance to a broader discussion about the nature and role of design. Writing in Eye Magazine in Autumn/Winter Steven Heller noted that there is a self-perception amongst visual communicators (but this can be loosely applied to other designers) that they are ‘liberal’ and left wing. He argues that the reality is that designers of all stripes hold various social and political views. He also posits some interesting – and for some uncomfortable – points.

A 2004 Speak Up discussion of anti-Bush policy buttons designed by Milton Glaser prompted this response: ‘Am I the only one who sees this hypocrisy? Where are the posters and buttons and AIGA conventions and designers voicing outrage against abortion?’ Anti-abortion graphics do rarely make it into design shows, and the accusation that there is a liberal / left conspiracy to deny access of this view in this kind of competitive forum may have some validity. What’s more, there are other concerns that transcend Left versus Right. When in 2002 ‘Don’t say you didn’t know’, an exhibition of pro-Palestinian posters, was hung at the AIGA Voice conference in Washington DC, outrage against images that many interpreted as supporting suicide bombing triggered a fierce debate among otherwise socially simpatico liberals.

It seems to me that the liberal or left self-identification developed early in the century. It was easier for designers to attach themselves to the socialist (or socially progressive) aspects of modernism, easier if only because this went with the grain of their self-definition. Design as a profession and practice was ‘modern’ in the early part of the 20th century. It had broken free from print production, the graphic artist, illustrator, designer began to shape an autonomy quite separate and distinct from other areas of the process of generating visual material. But that wave of modernism, which essentially has continued to this day, broke in part upon the political and social realities of the mid-century period where the styles were appropriated wholesale by commercialism.

Design is not a monolithic whole entirely detached from personal political and social preference. The idea that there is a single response is unlikely. The Designers Accord may well be part of the solution, but that solution will involve many different individuals, groups and endeavours working across a range of areas.

Ciarán Swan

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