Sarah Rich

Earth Day and the Past Year in Green Design

by , 04/22/09

sustainable design, green design, earth day, compostmodern, allan chochinov, industrial design

It’s hard to believe another year has gone by since we marked Earth Day here at Inhabitat, and yet so much has happened. From the monumental highs of Obama’s election to the equally remarkable lows of the economic downturn, plenty of major factors have influenced the directions of both sustainability and design.

sustainable design, green design, earth day, compostmodern, allan chochinov, industrial designPhoto credit: Mark Adams, AIGA

One of the moments that stands out in my mind as I reflect on the past year in the green field is a talk by Allan Chochinov (of Core77) at Compostmodern 09 in San Francisco. He began with a premise I think most of us agree upon—one that doesn’t seem to change with the whims of Green—which is that all good design is sustainable design. He moved from there into a presentation that touched on several of the themes I would call “this year’s”—the topics that have been top of mind among sustainable designers who are trying to steer green design away from becoming an industry as gluttonous and wasteful as any other:

1. “Designers think that they’re in the artifact business, but they’re not. They’re in the consequence business.” (Read more on that here.)

2. Start looking at design from a humanitarian and service-oriented perspective.

3. Keep innovation open. You don’t need permission to undertake something that is open and free.

sustainable design, green design, earth day, compostmodern, allan chochinov, industrial designPhoto credit: Mark Adams, AIGA

In the case of Chochinov’s presentation, he asked a class of emerging design students to apply their skills to creating new models for prosthetic arms. From the start they planned to make their concepts freely available to several groups who could move any worthy ideas toward manufacture or further study. The students came up with a fantastic array of designs that were clearly capable of expanding the conversation, if nothing else, about how prostheses can address the many challenges an amputee faces.

The general philosophy behind Chochinov’s course is an anchor for many other design studios and organizations. Architecture for Humanity’s Open Architecture Network pulled the rug of proprietorship out from under architects who wanted to help create shelter in disaster areas, launching their plans into the realm of open source design and social networks in order to spread useful ideas. Project H Design (founded by former Inhabitat managing editor Emily Pilloton) has activated a dynamic channel between socially-minded designers and communities in need of life-improving design. Plenty of other designers are working on projects with purpose, and almost all of them focus heavily on education and the potential contributions of students.

So as we head into the next 364 days between Earth Day and Earth Day, my hope is that designers take an ever longer view of the future before creating a product. If we’ve learned anything about the business of consequences in the past year it’s that investments for maximum short-term gain bode very poorly for long-term security. As Allan Chochinov said so eloquently: Stop making crap.

(Unfortunately the Compostmodern talks are not freely available on the Web. If you are looking for other resources, it’s always good to check out the Designers’ Accord.)

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