We are taught in design school that the best designs have a lasting quality. We see beautiful commercial objects in venues like New York’s Museum of Modern Art and are led to think it represents the ultimate achievement of a design project. Designers are then inspired to create solutions that might one day be next to Raymond Loewy’s Studebaker Avanti or Henry Dreyfus’ Bell Model 302 telephone.
Design artifacts are important for scholarly work, but by definition, museum pieces have been removed from their context. By preserving them, their existence is isolated from the regenerative processes that dominate the earth and the universe.
Yet is a Woolly Mammoth proud to have her bones in a natural history museum? She would have liked it better if she was still using those bones, and more importantly, that her DNA got passed along and her species adapted to this changing world.
Establishing a permanent place in history is what so many of us unconsciously strive for: to create a design fossil. Instead we should be focusing on building a code for design that will help our species survive.
It is essential to designers that we recognize our place in history. In fact, it is essential to our development. Buckminster Fuller recognized that in order for society to progress, children must learn more than their parents. (1) If we cannot build upon the ever-evolving revelations of success and failure in culture and the making of things, we are denying the human drive for a better future.
Building relevant expertise is an exceptionally complicated task at this point in time, for we find ourselves in the throes of globalization. Whereas previous generations of designers would have had little choice but close proximity to their material sources and how they were fashioned, a modern work of architecture might span the globe for components as simple as a screw. This gives us a lot more latitude to make decisions…that we may regret.
Designers are now expected to be aware of conflict minerals in Africa, labor practices in Asia, transportation effects in our oceans, greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, and mountains of undefined trash. These are pressing and important issues. As local communities become less integrated in providing for itself, today’s designer is forced to make up the difference and become ever more connected with complex issues around the rest of the world. Meanwhile, supply chains are being optimized for massive scale, and social media regularly spurs enormous demand with furious spikes of commerce. Small decisions can have multiplying and unintended effects. Simply put, ignorance is more dangerous than ever.
We see a drive towards design complexity driven by a fractal-like expansion of technologies. We challenge traditional know-how by cutting wood with a 5-axis Computer Numerical Control or growing Monocrystalline Photovoltaic Cells. These technologies combine ever more materials and processes together in new ways, challenging a designer’s control of the process and the final product.
We live in an environment filled with man-made composites. Apple’s iPhone embodies an immense amount of materials and processes compared to the Bell phone just a few decades ago. With this added complexity, there is expanded responsibility of the designer to steward a process of increasing unknowns. Today’s designer cannot afford to be a stylist but must be part engineer, part manufacturer, part psychologist, and part biologist. Thus there is a building reintegration of the professions. As they stand on uncertain ground, designers must seek a unique foothold in this new paradigm.
Even Designers Have to Obey Thermodynamics
The Law of Conservation of Mass is not a suggestion. Antoine Lavoisier taught us that “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed” (2) The same building materials that made up our world four billion years ago are still here today. With every breath, we inhale about five billion of the same air molecules that Leonardo DaVinci exhaled centuries ago. (3) What if designers took this to heart and designed accordingly?
All a designer can really do is temporarily change the state of selected matter. A building may require sand to be transformed into glass, or iron ore turned to steel, but these molecules will far outlive the building and the designer herself. What we are left with is the realization that our designs are simply a temporary configuration, even if it is as old as the Pyramids of Giza. An elegant design must take the long view on the sources and destinations of these materials. Despite the desire for many designers to leave their mark on the world, most don’t want it to be in the form of a landfill.
Ironically, landfills are probably the best place to preserve our design fossils. The highly compacted, anaerobic environment of our waste sites prevents life from digesting and transforming man-made materials into a more naturally usable state. So while our designs might not last, as discarded waste they will not effectively go away either. Landfill is an increasingly expensive and toxic option for our growing global community and the accelerating design cycles we are producing. Designers can no longer afford to focus on the temporary manifestation of their realized design, but must also now care for where their materials came from and where they are going.
Only once we realize that we are not creating designs, but are temporarily transforming materials within a bigger system can we find our place in this world. Fortunately, Mother Nature is a fantastic teacher.
You Are What You Eat
From soil to stem to leaf and back to soil, nature has designed ecosystems that elegantly flow matter from one temporary state to another. The efficiency of these systems not only minimizes the entropy (second law of thermodynamics), but incorporates organizational growth to counteract the entropic forces of chaos. So how can the designer, burdened with the responsibility of globalization, apply nature’s lessons?
We learn from Fritjof Capra that living systems are comprised of a circular network defined by dissimilar but complimentary parts, and that the output of one neighbor becomes the input of another. (4) To be a viable member of the system, it means that you not only need to “eat another’s garbage,” but that you need to find who will eat your garbage afterwards. The more we can define material flow in this system, the more likely we are to define a circular economy. That is to say, good design can stabilize our economic and ecological future as a single pursuit.
For a designer, this means we are not just designing a product. To do it right, we must design the whole material flow system – pre-product and post-product – to make sure each part of our “creation” has a place to go after its temporary state as our designed product. We learn from William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s work that a Cradle to Cradle approach means finding sustainable sources of healthy materials and then creating products that are easily upcycled into future high value products. (5)
This means avoiding typical one-way processes that create monstrous hybrids of undefined materials and adhesives. Instead the designer should be thinking about how each material can be easily harvested and recirculated within the same defined system. This process becomes highly efficient when we close a tight loop on the material flow and make our next design from the same materials of the previous one. Companies like Shaw Industries are already leading the way on this type of manufacturing with their “closed loop” carpet tiles.
Design Beyond the Third Dimension
Of course, reduced component products like carpets are simpler to utilize closed loop approaches. Most designers are now working with a highly diversified bill of materials. If designers are intending for these materials to be recirculated within a defined system, she must build it into her design from the outset. “Design for disassembly” is an unintuitive, highly challenging but essential puzzle. How can a designer who has been trained all her life to make something durable be simultaneously working towards making sure it can come back apart?
Most of the disassembly we see in nature is via biological processes. Chemically, we see bacteria acting as a multitude of disassembly and assembly machines. Applying biomimicry principals, we can create objects that are simply and efficiently deconstructed after their use period has passed. (6)
The traditional Japanese Shinto Temple is designed with disassembly in mind. The structures are held together without nails, screws or glue. A precise set of geometrically intersecting members allows the puzzle-like structure to be stable and even become stronger with vibration. However, if environmental conditions change, the temple can be disassembled and moved elsewhere. The key to doing so is to know which components can be moved first to start the process. That is to say that the key to the temple is knowledge.
Taking A Step Forward with Shoes
The more creative a person becomes, the more responsive they are to their environment. How can you be a creative person if you can’t perceive things that need solving? And once you turn that skill on, it becomes quite difficult to turn it off. The trick for a designer is to keep their heightened senses alive and their discontent constructive.
Upon my first visit to a shoe factory, I became aware of my own contributions to a system I did not like. I watched the cycling shoes I designed glide down the assembly line while hundreds of workers were being exposed to a world of undefined rubbers and leathers lasted together with toluene adhesives and cured in giant ovens. I was horrified by the toxicity and intensity of modern shoemaking.
After years of research and innovation, I launched Lyf Shoes to explore how to make shoes according to my own values – which boils down to a production system I would be happy for my own children to work in. What has resulted is a shoe that does not use glue, and, to reinforce our transparency, is assembled at the shoe store on-demand –right in front of the customer.
Building on our work in the creative community, we have invited people to fully design their own all-over prints, while incorporating open source computer chips that can track your footwear performance however you program it. Each component is made from sustainably sourced single-material components, allowing us to upcycle the shoes at their end-of use into a new pair.
After many years of refining the product, we have come to realize that most of our work hasn’t been about shoes at all: it is about supply and reuse systems. The shoe might be the thing we focus on, just like we may focus on a single leaf of a tree, but the leaf cannot exist without the many other miraculous components embodied in that tree. To do sustainable design, we must focus on the whole organism and circular path of healthy and thoughtful materials. But to do this we need to add another element to the design toolkit – being a cheerleader for change.
As an independent design consultant, I am often hearing corporate clients ask us to innovate “outside of their corporate walls.” It turns out that these walls which were built to insulate the company from the enemies of mistakes and uncertainty also separate them from the market and local ecosystems. First hand experience is replaced by focus groups, global market assessments, and supply chain logistics. What we see time and again is that there is simply too much structure for a creative mind to innovate in a meaningful capacity.
Information has become so interconnected that creative entrepreneurs can leverage their small size with a nimbleness to “fail fast” and iterate often. The result is that motivated designers are now uniquely poised to truly change the world.
In October of 2012, our small creative team at Designbox produced a prototype, video and campaign about an inventive new coffee press that conveniently makes excellent coffee without the need for paper filters or plastic pods. We launched it on the crowdfunding website, Kickstarter. Thirty days later we had well-exceeded our expectations and were suddenly in the coffee maker business. Six months later more than 2500 people were using our product and giving us great feedback. Six months beyond that we were growing our business and distributing the product in several countries. After another six months had passed, our coffee maker business had been acquired by a major international brand. It was headspinning for us. During our transition meeting with our new partners, I asked how long it usually takes to take a product from concept to just an approved design. They responded: more than 18 months!
Passing on the Code
With the ability to swiftly make powerful change, designers need to be focused on the days ahead. If we value nature than we must truly learn from her. If we find ourselves in new product ecosystems, it is our responsibility to take on not just the product, but the whole material and energy flow. The more elegantly we flow, the better our design will be.
Nature has also taught a few things about passing on information. The products we design must must be impermanent and move fluidly through future use cycles. Meanwhile, the genetic code of design must continue to be refined and represent the very best surviving solutions to our current environment.
Collaborative constructions like open source hardware systems allow us to not only build on the great innovations of our predecessors, but to also tackle bite-size pieces of complicated projects as a team. Our work ahead in sustainable design is nothing short of a massively technical and vitally important project.
Contrary to celebrating design permanence, it is much more fitting if we consciously build our design genetics to continuously evolve and lead to more sustainable behavior. We can then forget about design fossils and rejoice instead in solutions that will flow through the world as elegantly as a leaf and that our lasting contributions will reside in the code of good design.
About the author.
Aly Khalifa comes to the design profession from a bipolar education at NCSU: Mechanical Engineering and Product Design. His goal is to find the balance of both of these disciplines in each project challenge. Aly’s career is chiefly centered about Gamil Design, a firm he started in 1995. His work experience previously included working for the NCDOT, wind tunnel of the US EPA, Performance Bicycle, and teaching at NCSU’s College of Design.
Aly started Gamil in the interest of furthering the synthesis of creative design with creative engineering into a field called invention development. Their specialty in advanced design, engineering and development of sporting goods accessories (skates, footwear, eyewear, gloves, bags) has led them to many clients, including: Nike, Trek, Bausch & Lomb, and Outdoor Products. This has further developed into partnerships between Gamil Design and Asian manufacturers. Aly travels heavily to Asia to realize Gamil’s projects that are produced in mass-market quantities.
Together with a handful of other professionals, Aly and his wife started Designbox in 2001. Designbox is a creative collaborative located in Raleigh, NC with members honing their creative skills at weekly meetings. Designbox members represent some of the finest talent in the area and are responsible for curating monthly shows in their prominent downtown gallery.
Designbox has sprung a number of community projects in which Aly has led facilitation sessions. These have ranged from sculpting undesirable landfills into fun urban parks to rethinking Raleigh’s own self image. The latter eventually led to the creation of SPARKcon – the Triangle’s first Creative Conference that enabled more than 30,000 people in the Triangle area to stake its claim as the “Creative Hub of the South.”
1 Thinking Out Loud (?) Buckminster Fuller (movie ref to be defined, quote to be verified for wording)
2 The Law of Conservation of Mass, Antoine Lavoisier
4 The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems by Fritjof Capra
5 Cradle to Cradle and The Upcycle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
6 Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, by Janine M. Benyus (Author)