I just got married. Hence have been away for a while, and why the lack of posts. It's not unknown for such activities to cause people to reassess their priorities, and begin to question stuff they previously took for granted. So, this could just be me. Yet I sense something is in the air. Something feels different...
Take the election in the uk right now. The media-spun forgone conclusion we began the campaign with has been thrown open by a number of things, including a TV debate which shook-up the status quo. Every day, social media channels are exposing the bias and vested interests of traditional publications and big business. The entire event feel not only more open, but exciting, and 'different this time'. As Gordon Brown discovered yesterday, you are never 'off record' anymore. And in all of this, among the optimists such as your author, there's a sense that we - the people - can make a difference. Our say somehow feels like it 'matters more' this time.
Then take the auto show in Beijing last week. The western auto companies unveiled products that whispered of a sense of relief. The crisis is over, and now China's growing auto market will allow them to simply continue as they were, thanks very much. Ford, at least, showed a city car. Yet I haven't found many people who are impressed with Mercedes' vulgar - and dubiously dubbed - 'shooting brake concept'. Or anyone who actually needs, or cares about the BMW Gran Coupe concept. And while many were still busy laughing at Chinese 'copies' of western models, those who stood back saw a set of Chinese car designs that had a level of genuine credibility that was unthinkable just two years ago. Some even noticed the Chinese Government initiatives, and the impacts they are having on development of Chinese electric cars, which could have some interesting consequences for the old guard. Better Place gained a foothold in the world's largest country - despite being increasingly poo-pooed by some in the developed world, but Chinese firms are developing similar charging infrastructure plans of their own...
There's a sense that the more switched on people are looking, scrutinising, and questioning the status quo more than ever before. It's apparent in design and design criticism as much as anywhere else. Ultimately, the very role of the designer is being questioned. While this may be somewhat frightening, it at least means we may be moving to the next stage of the debate, beyond dubious tick-box, shiny apple-green sustainability. Rather than become all preachy, the main point of this piece therefore, is to draw your attention to a series of important articles and events reflective of this new, deeper line of questioning. If you're a designer, or design student, I'd argue they're required reading...
The underlying contention they all make, is that many designers are - far from making things in the world better - complicit in simply encouraging people to consume at an ever growing rate - messing up peoples' heads, and screwing the planet in the process. So what role for the designer?
Core 77's Allan Chochinov perhaps framed this most eloquently some time ago, in his 1000 word manifesto for sustainability in design. Now a couple of years old, it nonetheless still resonates and provides a useful starting point. More recently, Munich professor Peter Naumann's "Restarting car design" looks set to become a seminal piece, and is one all students of transport design need to read. Judging by the shock-waves it has generated, and the response to it from those I've spoken to in the auto, design and education sectors, he has hit the nail on the head. Because increasingly, it isn't just industry that's in the firing line, but design education institutions that are being questioned. For its part, the Royal College of Art is currently hosting the "Vehicle Design Sessions". There have been two so far, and both have touched on the areas I'm discussing. As Drew Smith's write-up chronicles, the panelists at the first - sustainability focused - debate, were unanimous in their view that vehicle design students should now look outside of the established industry if they were truly intent on using their design skills to have real impact in the world. Perhaps not what you'd expect from an event held at one of the world's leading vehicle design courses.
For those students of design interested in more than just the design of the next sports car, all of this raises a dilemma. How do you balance the necessity to find employment and money, without simply tramping up a well-trodden path, or falling into big-industry - pandering to whims and being emasculated from affecting meaningful change?
I doubt many will find that quandary any simpler after reading Carl Acampado's piece, but it's a necessary read nonetheless. Entitled "The product designer's dilemma", it is bound to strike a chord with many of its readers. Acampado touches on the conflicts that the average designer - and indeed typical consumer - today faces in balancing personal desires, ambition and personal success, with the best way not to fuck up the planet. It's an impassioned piece, and just like your author here, Acampado has no real silver bullet solution to many of these problems. Yet his "dog for life/do it with love" message resonates loudly, and without wanting to sound all soppy, could be an interesting mantra to apply both as a consumer and in whatever area of design you practice. Please read the piece to see for yourself what I mean, if you haven't already. It echoes the voice of many of those I have mentioned above, and contrasts starkly with the PR-spun froth that consumers are (hopefully) growing increasingly sick off, yet which nonethelesss still dominates media 'opinion' that we are bombarded with every day. Stuff that I might add, is now the domain of much online green media, not just the likes of auto.
A final point. "Drive less. Save more" proclaims the title of the most recent email to land in my inbox, which is from the Energy Saving Trust - a UK Government sustainability body. In terms of missing the point completely, yet perfectly representing a very particular 'old way' of thinking that I'm taking issue with, I can't help thinking that it sums things up rather neatly. New approaches are needed. Thoughts on a postcard please... or alternately in the comments box below.
Image credit: "Consumption reflected" - Zohar Manor-Abel on flickrPosted by Joseph Simpson on 29th April 2009. Full disclosure: Joseph Simpson is a visiting lecturer in Vehicle Design at The Royal College of Art. The thoughts expressed here are his own, and in no way necessarily reflect the views of the Vehicle Design Department or the wider College.