On Saturday, I attended the Compostmodern conference on sustainable design. Sustainability is a fancy buzzword used by big corporations so that they can feel socially responsible. File it away with previous contenders such as Synergy and Trickle-down, and don’t ever use it. But beyond the ill-advised terminology lies an really important concept; which is that as we design, we have responsibilities that go beyond the client’s brief and balance sheet. Sure, those should always be the primary considerations—but we also have a responsibility to our environment and society. Sustainability is at the intersection of consideration for the environment, society and economy.
In order to get the most out of the concepts from the conference, though, design must be defined as more than any or all of the professions suffixed with the word design. (Industrial, Graphic, Web, Interior, Interaction… you name it!) Design is—or should be—everything a company does. Every interaction anyone ever has with a company, good or bad, becomes part of its brand. One of the first concepts introduced by several of the speakers was that of 360° Design. With 360° Design, the challenge is to design a product or brand across all aspects of its presence, whether web, print, physical, or even the experience of using it. The concepts of sustainable design, though, apply to more than design. You can draw from it in entrepreneurship, leadership, or even as a way of life.
For me, two nuggets of wisdom stood out from the various talks. The first one pertains to getting a message effectively across through what speaker Jonah Sachs calls the Myth Gap. A successful myth is the combination of explanation, meaning and story. Explanation serves the rational mind, while meaning serves the emotional. The last element, the story, is what engages the consumer. A successful story can be further divided up in three basic elements: freaks, cheats and familiars. Freaks are human characters that are extraordinary in some way. Cheats are those don’t follow the status quo. This includes both criminals (whom the viewer is against), or rebels (whom the viewer roots for). The last element is familiars: things which viewers can relate to. It is by combining all of these elements that most of the successful stories caught traction.
Secondly, Lisa Gansky introduced attendees to the concept of the mesh. The mesh is about the sharing of experiences and physical things among people. The new wave of popular services provide access to experiences, rather than ownership of things. Netflix, for example, lets people experience movies without having to buy and own them. Zipcar, similarly, allows for on-demand access to a car without having to own a car. Airbnb provides peer-to-peer access to other members’ proprieties without having to rent a hotel room.
The overarching theme of the conference, though, was sustainability. The common perception of sustainability is that of radical green-activism such as Greenpeace. Many, including myself, find this kind of activism off-putting. Not only does it alienate me with its holier-than-thou attitude, but it often does much less good than what can be achieved through friendlier means. The key to getting people involved in a project that benefits the greater good is to incentivize the better option. Give them an alternative that does not compromise their experience of the product.
Green is not absolute. The goal should not be to have a green product, but rather a greener version of what people currently have and want. Sure, the warm feeling one gets when doing something good can be an incentive; but don’t kid yourself, people will always put their quality of lift first, and rightly so. After all, that is the whole basis of the american dream and the founding of this very nation—the pursuit of happiness. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Rephrasing his quote, I will boldly claim that those who sacrifice the pursuit of happiness for the hope of a better future deserve neither.