• 11.16.10

Why Don’t Regular Joes Care About Sustainability?

Day by day, there’s no visceral sense that we’re actually destroying the planet. And that’s the biggest problem we face, when it comes to fixing the environment.

Why Don’t Regular Joes Care About Sustainability?


I was in a videoconference last week with our offices in Boston, Los Angeles, Milan, Seoul and Shanghai when we ran into a major technical problem ” potato chips. Boston had ordered chips for lunch. Between the crinkling of the bags and the crunching of the chips it was a disaster. Finally Los Angeles spoke up, ?Hey Boston, lay off the chips, we can’t hear a thing.” The meeting got back on track.

Noise pollution: in this case a simple problem, easily detected by our senses, and with a simple solution. If only global warming were that straightforward. Part of the challenge of our impending sustainability disaster is that our usual problem-solution process isn’t working. Sustainability is a complex problem: we cannot see, hear or otherwise sense what is happening real-time, and there are no easy solutions ” it is a classic ?wicked” problem. Designers excel at the creative processes needed to take on complex problems, are blessed with extraordinary communication skills, and are looking to help tackle our global sustainability challenge, but I?m not sure we have been doing it right.

Design has been so focused on making things better that we have neglected to use our talents to show what is bad.

A couple of years ago at Continuum we made a study of how regular people think about sustainability. We learned that basically, people care most about themselves and their family, and then they care about problems they can see. People focus on recycling because they can see the stuff they recycle; they are concerned about plastic because they can see that it is not a natural material. People cannot see greenhouse gasses, and they cannot see the history of what they use, so it is difficult for people to care as much about meat, lighting, travel, heat, air conditioning, etc. Even though these elements are a far larger part of our carbon footprint, they don’t feel unnatural in the moment, and you cannot see the environmental impact of their production.

As citizens we vote with our wallets, and then we all have to live with the choice of the majority. But along with the right to vote we have the responsibility to be informed, and I think that as designers we also have the responsibility to inform. The problem is that design has been so focused on making things better that we have neglected to use our talents to show what is bad. The bravest designs would make visible the energy and materials consumed to produce a product.

When society decides that it really cares about something that is harmful, we make it look or smell clearly bad: warning signs on cigarette packs tell that you are going to die; mercaptan is added to otherwise odorless natural gas so that it smells bad and we can tell if there is a gas leak. If we could just see the carbon dioxide spewing from the back of our cars it would be a lot easier to muster concern to do something about it. If nothing else, the last few weeks of the mid-term elections have shown us that negative advertising is the most effective.

As director of design at BMW, Chris Bangle talked about three fundamental steps in the design process: understanding; believing; seeing. What I love about how Chris talks about design is that seeing is the last step. People don’t act until they can see and designers help people to see. How can we in the design community help people to see more clearly the environmental impact of what we create?


[Top image by Kevin Collins]

About the author

Harry West is the CEO of frog, a global design and strategy firm. He lives design and innovation.