Strategic design is about thinking more deeply and more broadly

What’s wrong with industrial design

What’s wrong with industrial design?

I feel misrepresented.

In an article authored by industrial designer Geoff Ledford and published last week on Core77 , Ledford writes that:

“if designers do our jobs well, we actually encourage people to buy more stuff, not less”

And that:

“we can’t do much to discourage society’s obsession with stuff.”

What? Can that be right? I think this is called “sticking your head in the sand.”

As an industrial designer I take offence to Ledford’s representation of the industrial design profession. I believe that both of his statements are incorrect and the remainder of his article a misguided attempt at marketing; greenwashing.

I recently lamented the lack of thinking that designers, particularly industrial designers, are doing around the role of industrial designers in a post-industrial world. Ledford provides an example of what I believe to be both a systemic failure of design education and a conceptual misunderstanding (also systemic) of what it means to design.

Let’s consider his suggestion that in order to do our job well designers need to “encourage customers to buy more stuff.” Good design is about solving discrete problems with sound solutions. Financially sound, socially sound and environmentally sound. It is entirely the designer’s responsibility to take these three spheres into account when designing. Do we want a solution to be profitable? Of course. But not by shifting the burden of financial prosperity onto society (through, for example, creating a health epidemic such as obesity) or to the environment through resource consumption and the release of damaging emissions to air, water and soil. Not at the expense of our humanity, our communities and the natural world, of which we are just a small part.

Of course, thinking like this requires designers to think outside their normal spheres of thought. The very existence of “human centred design” is evidence of an attempt to shift designer’s focus from materials and manufacturing and features to humans and society. The advent of “ecodesign” and “sustainable product design” are evidence of an attempt to help designers consider the environmental impacts of their decisions.

Ledford goes on to explain how his studio has created a product that aims to raise awareness for the environment by utilising “manufacturer excess” (waste product), thereby “saving” it from entering landfill. While this attempt to do something good for the planet is admirable, it’s saddening to see the lack of deeper thinking. Does the world need another hiking stick just because it’s made from salvaged golf club shafts?

It’s blatantly obvious that the problem that Ledford should have been working on is: how do we help companies who “routinely purge scraps and ‘manufacturer excess’ as an accepted part of their business practice” to design out the need to do so?

That’s the real problem. It’s working on problems like this that better define the role of industrial designers in a post-industrial world. In order to broaden our perspectives and deepen our engagement with real problems three things need to happen:

  1. We need to teach designers how to think first and how to apply technical skills second. We need to change the idea that the role of designers includes improving the speed and efficiency of selling more stuff.
  2. As designers, we need to educate ourselves beyond our normal spheres of thinking. It is every designer’s responsibility to understand the broader societal and environmental implications of their decisions. A plethora of online courses, like Greening the Economy, are freely available.
  3. Everyone needs to understand that the designer’s circle of influence goes far beyond the upstream supply chain. It also goes downstream to the societal and environmental impacts.

If designers like Ledford applied their thinking and technical skills to solving the deeper, broader problems of manufacturing excess, rather than relying on it to create more stuff, a true shift towards design that is good for us and the planet will begin.