This world has a lot of objects, many of them unnecessary. Since industrial designers play a key role in bringing objects into the world, it’s natural for the conscientious among us to feel bad about it.
“I have to admit, I often feel guilty while designing,” writes G.L., a product designer based in Sweden, on the Core77 Boards.
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“There’s no other reason why my design should exist in the sea of products other than [because] people would still buy it and the company makes more money, which goes to my salary. I know that people need products, but there’s a difference between need and want another Yeezy. Especially when I go to the landfill, I felt disgusted with myself and our consumptive behavior.
“[A typical design brief from my company] says ‘Make it look cool.’ In other words, make consumers impulse-buy it. Toxic CMF, unrepairable, new model every year, et cetera.
“I’m thinking that in the future our [grandchildren] will think about how stupid their grandfather’s generation was.
“Do you ever feel the same? Opinion? Advice?”
First off, G.L., congratulations: At the very least, you’re not a psychopath. Psychopaths feel neither guilt nor remorse. They blame others for their own harmful actions, rationalize them, or deny them outright. So the fact that you feel guilt is a positive thing and demonstrates that you have empathy, an important quality for a designer.
Now the question is, what to do about this guilt? As someone who spent at least a dozen years of his ID career helping to create countless plastic objects and suffered guilt similar to yours, I wanted to share some thoughts on a plan of action–as well as organize the thoughtful, excellent advice of the many working designers who sounded off to answer G.L’s query.
A Plan of Attack for Dealing With Designer’s Guilt
1. Get Information.
Wipe the guilt away for a moment, and go into cold analytical mode. Look the ugliness in the face. What is the actual damage you’re doing? What are the known environmental consequences of the products you help create? How long does the typical consumer hang on to those products? How easy or difficult is it to recycle those products?
A good designer is an informed designer, and you really need to do your own research–the deeper the better–to guide any future changes you’d like to make. For instance, you might encounter the fact that the U.S. only recycles 9% of its plastic. Further digging might lead you to discover that some types of plastic get recycled more than others; PET bottles and jars had a recycling rate of 29.9% in 2015, while HDPE bottles were at 30.3%. Why is this? What changes could be made? Assuming you work with plastics, would you like to equalize the percentages of the less-recycled plastics, or focus on further increasing the ones with the higher rates? Where do you stand the best chance of making a difference?
2. Identify Your Limitations
That plastics example above assumes that you are a designer with some influence in what your company makes. But what if you’re a junior designer with little ability to enact change? Can you propose new initiatives to your boss? Do you have the patience to climb the ladder to reach a position where you can make changes?
Take stock of your overall situation. Are you a single student about to graduate, who can move and take a job anywhere that they like? Are you an established designer with mouths to feed? Are you tied to a particular geographical region?
Most design projects start with limitations that you must create within. Your life, which is essentially a design project, is no different. Your limitations must be clearly defined, so that you can figure out where you can and can’t make changes.
3. Understand Your Powers
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A percentage of designers bring shitty, wasteful products into the world. Is this any worse than the programmers of reality TV? Fracking? Predatory lending? Producing weed killers that contain known carcinogens?
No. Design, as a profession, is benevolent. Corporate interests are not. Industrial design is by definition tied to mass manufacturing, which requires deep-pocketed corporations for funding, and that’s where things can get shitty. But as a designer you will ultimately be attached to the part of that corporation where you have at least some say over what gets made, how it gets made or what goes into it.
If you decide the organization you’re working for is untenable, or that you will never reach a position of influence within it, then you have some tough choices to make. But you’re in a better position than most to make them. Your design training is to research, then use creativity to solve problems. If your problem is your employer, then you can design your way into a different situation.
4. Working Your Way Towards Guilt-Free (or Reduced-Guilt) Design
This is obviously going to vary wildly depending on what you’ve answered to some of the questions above, and where you’re at in life. I’ll break this down into some of the basic situations any given designer might find themselves in.
A. Get Any Job You Can
This is for the fresh-out-of-school industrial designer, particularly if you’re under intense financial pressure to start clocking paychecks immediately. Let’s say you want to work for an environmentally-conscious company designing your dream category of objects, but you can’t get that job. And the only job you can get is for a soul-less corporation making disposable plastic junk.
Take the job. Show up, do the work, and learn every single goddamn thing you can about design. Yes, you are part of the problem now, but the idea is that you’re playing the long game, quietly gaining design experience, learning how corporate cogs fit together, building up your portfolio and connections. And when you’re ready, you’re going to look for a new job, or create your own, where you can put your skills into service for something you believe in.
B. Stay at Your Job and Change What’s Within Your Power
For the designer who can’t switch jobs due to circumstance, or who must occasionally design things they’d rather not. Maryland-based designer Scott Snider hasn’t indicated that he’s in that position, but he does offer good advice on what you can do, within any design organization, that jives with good juju. Here’s his response to G.L.’s guilt-driven query:
“Hang in there, I’ve struggled with that guilt as well (I consider it remorse, not guilt) but like you, I live in this same consumer-driven, materialistic, cost-abundant society so we don’t turn down many projects. Because that’s the case, I strive to accomplish the following every time I design something:
“1. I research the user extensively. If I can make sure the product fulfills the users’ wants and needs and solves their frustrations, they will be more likely to use and keep it longer. If we can delay that dump into the landfill by even a year, we’ve done something good.
“2. I make every attempt to minimize waste, both in the packaging, the instructions, any accessories, etc. I designed a zero-waste package for a series of products that launched way back in 2005, they’re still on the shelves today! Imagine how many pounds of waste we’ve saved.
“3. I make every attempt to insist on recycling icon communication for every part of a product. We know it doesn’t take much: A simple piece of artwork, 20 minutes of CAD time and identification of contrasting part texture to make it stand out. I’m one of the few people who still disassemble products to recycle any part possible. I’m sure there are at least a few others like me out there, so every part that gets recycled is a small step in the right direction.
“We’re not helpless in this cause to do better, and there are plenty of small steps we can take to instill a culture of responsibility in the companies we run or are employed within.”
Netherlands-based designer Ralph Zoontjens has similar thoughts: “I do cut down on impacting the environment by researching new materials, processes and constructions, and taking note of what I buy and consume personally,” he writes. “But mostly I like to focus on creating value for people and developing business.”
C. Switch to a Different Design Job/Field
One option is to “switch to working for a company that makes durable goods,” writes veteran industrial designer Michael DiTullo. “A co-worker of mine at frog [who is a] crazy talented designer took a job at a renewable resource company. The physical devices he is working are not sexy at all, but I bet he sleeps well.”
Another option: “Get out of [physical] design,” DiTullo continues. “I’ve heard a few digital designers say they went into app work and UX because they didn’t want to make physical waste.” However, DiTullo points out that this isn’t guilt-free either: “As an app designer, your job is to keep people using their device as long as possible, which still wastes energy.”
California-based industrial designer Francisco Hernandez acknowledges the choice a lot of conflicted designers have to make: “Which feels ‘better’ in terms of contributing to society? Easy, if I design a prosthetic or something that prevents somebody from getting hurt or sick, it would make me feel much better than designing a shiny black box. However, I definitely enjoy designing black boxes and those get the most clicks.
“I remember seeing a video of deaf patients being able to hear for the first time or kids getting their first prosthetic. Now that would be worthwhile and gratifying.”
D. Focus on a Field with More Influence Than Design
“I think the [designer’s guilt question] has kept most of us up at least a few nights,” DiTullo writes. “In those moments I think about quitting design all together and working as a policy aide to a political candidate or something. If you want to change the world that seems like a more direct route.”
Along those lines, the ballsiest example I’ve found is that of Austrian designer Bernhard Lenger. On a visit to the International Criminal Court–the worldwide body that prosecutes for genocide, war crimes, threats of aggression and crimes against humanity–Lenger asked if they prosecute environmental crimes. Their answer was “No.”
“That’s very strange,” Lenger recounted during 2017 Dutch Design Week. “One of the biggest courts in the world doesn’t deal with [something that] can kill a lot of people but just takes a longer time.” Lenger then researched the history of the ICC, and discovered that ecocide–the extreme destruction of the environment–was actually one of the crimes listed on the ICC’s original charter. However, it was removed due to lobbying from four countries (thanks U.S.A, Great Britain, France and Holland! Assholes).
Lenger subsequently tracked down Polly Higgins, the lawyer who drafted the ecocide rules, and partnered with her to create This is Ecocide, “a public awareness campaign about introducing ecocide as the fifth crime against peace.” (Sadly, Higgins died earlier this year, age 50, of terminal cancer. She did not live to see ecocide being taken up by the ICC.)
Lenger’s thinking in attacking the problem from a legal angle is smart. If the CEO of a company making environmentally-harmful products had any fear of being prosecuted by the same body that prosecutes for war crimes, it’s safe to say shit would change pretty fast.
E. Start Your Own Business
Call your own shots. Starting your own firm can take years and isn’t easy, but we have ample stories of people who pulled it off. Michael DiTullo’s story of how he built up to his own design firm will probably be the example closest to the average Core77 reader’s heart. Dan Hellman and Eric Chang took a crazy long journey to get their furniture design/build firm off of the ground. Tom Sullivan started a bamboo products company by undergoing one of the most tumultuous career paths we’ve ever heard. Austin Roberts couldn’t find a job, so designed a useful new tool and launched a new company to manufacture it exactly the way he wanted it.
All of their stories and backgrounds are very different, but the common thread among all of them is hard work, patience, smart decisions–and, of course, the freedom to make things the way you want, or not make them at all.
F. Volunteer for Design That Matters
If none of the options above are currently possible for you, there’s still another way to use your design skills to better the planet. It’s sort of an industrial design version of volunteering at a soup kitchen, with far more impact than doling out single meals.
Tim Prestero is the CEO and founder of Design That Matters, an NGO with an unassailable cause: Designing and producing medical devices that save babies’ lives in developing nations. To conduct their work, Prestero relies on ID-savvy volunteers–so far 850 and counting–to help them complete various design tasks from afar. The impact of your work here would literally affect millions.
“We are setting the standard for best practice in design for poor communities in the developing world,” DTM writes. “We are pushing the limits of technology in rapid prototyping and low-volume manufacturing to bring great design to communities currently missed by commercial markets. Our goal is to deliver a better quality of service, and a better quality of life, to millions of beneficiaries through products designed for our partner social enterprises.”
If you’ve got time and design skills to spare, contact Design That Matters here.
G. Stop Trying to be Famous
I don’t want to call people out by name, but I think we’ve all seen a lot of young designers on Instagram trying to make a name for themselves–and to me, they seem more interested in seeking fame than in producing good or useful design.
To them I would say: Stop designing bottle openers, bookends, paperweights, salt-and-pepper shakers and goofy chairs. The world has enough of that shit. If you want to get famous on Instagram, get abs and learn to play the violin while riding a unicycle and spouting extreme political beliefs–I guarantee you’ll get your 15 minutes.
Designers should realize that good design is often invisible, its heroes unsung. “We were acquired three years ago by a Fortune 300 company,” writes Core77-er IAB, who goes on to explain:
“The other business units make treatment devices. We make prevention devices. Their videos typically highlight a single person whose life was saved by the device. If we do our job right, the patient never becomes a patient. Our video shows nothing.”
Thanks, as always, to the many Core77 Discussion Boards contributors who made this post possible!