This review is from an online newsletter on lifecycle design issues (covering LCA design tools and related teaching tools such as powerpoint slides) over at The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability.
Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable by Nathan Shedroff (Rosenfeld Media 2009)
There is much to like in Nathan Shedroff’s new book, Design is the Problem, which is a survey of sustainable design approaches that can be applied across the lifecycle of products. Shedroff also provides contextual and background information about sustainable design in a business context. The book succeeds at covering a wide range of concepts relevant to a designer or business person who wants to learn about sustainable design. In reviewing the book I noticed three main things about it:
– It’s a really useful survey of methods and approaches.
– The style of the book may affect how you can use it.
– Regarding activism, there’s an interesting tension running under the surface.
In this review I look at these three aspects more closely.
In looking at both approaches to sustainability generally (for example, what it is, how it’s measured) and at methods (such as design for efficiency, buying local, or design for disassembly) Shedroff usefully goes further than the norm. For example, he goes beyond environmental concerns to look at social and economic indicators for sustainability. From an activist standpoint, Shedroff includes a remarkably interesting list of criteria used in social investment screening, noting that all of the issues “become the focus of protest at some point.” Here is yet another angle on the value of activism to design!
Shedroff also goes beyond the “three Rs” (reduce, reuse and recycle) to consider “Restore” in which he discusses systems. He closes with a section on “Process” which also starts to weave together and support some of the previous, more check-listy sections, by looking at innovation, development, and corporate reporting of results. Another good aspect of the book is Shedroff’s frank, conversational tone, reminding readers that there are no easy answers to difficult challenges. His range of examples also covers many different kinds of products, such as tools, garments, electronics, vehicles, food, luggage and so forth.
Where he succeeds best is in encouraging readers to step back and see systems, bigger questions and contexts, while tying these ideas to relevant user/customer experiences.
screen captures from the PDF version of the book, Design is the Problem
The Style of the book
The book’s tone and content clearly make it the writing equivalent to “business casual” attire. Perhaps the author and publisher thought this stance would be compromised by detailed notes and references, but for whatever reason, sources for many of the book’s assertions are weak and potentially compromise the book’s usefulness. As an author myself I know how difficult it is to balance “notation” with the flow of reading, to decide which assertions require notation, and to manage and accurately credit sources. In the end it is always difficult to get the balance right and ultimately it depends on the readers.
A few examples illustrate this issue. Consider the section on usability, where the author presents a diagram on the levels of meaning and follows it with a list of the 15 core meaning attributes. No source for these is given. In discussing product take-back programs, Shedroff asserts, “the packaging redesign (and material savings) that was necessary under these conditions [in Germany] was duplicated in places even without the same taxes and laws.” But there is no source to indicate what “places” these might be. In the disassembly section there is a list of techniques but no sources for any of them or for the general topic of disassembly. A list of general resources at the end of the book, though useful, doesn’t correspond to chapters (such as “disassembly”) in a way that would help the reader further explore the topic.
For readers seeking general inspiration, the lack of notes and sources is not an issue. But the problem is that the book will serve most readers as a “reference.” If I’m a practicing designer and I want to investigate the packaging or disassembly further, I have to start from scratch. Yet surely Shedroff had sources that he used to develop these sections of the book. Why not share them? If there aren’t many sources (which I suspect is sometimes the case) then it’s also helpful for the reader to know. Similarly if I’m teaching or if I’m a student, I’d like to have more evidence with which to follow up the various claims and methods described in the book. As Shedroff himself acknowledges, there is still lot of debate around sustainability and that makes evidence more important.
The index is also weak for a book that is meant to serve as a reference. For example, although watches are mentioned, “watch” is not in the index. Similarly snap-fit and snap-on issues are mentioned, but “snap” is not in the index. The searchable, PDF version of the book solves the problem and is included with the purchase of the paperback…but you have to be at your computer to use it.
On the good side the book has short “chapters” presented in a clear, well-organized table of contents that make the methods and approaches themselves easy to find.
screen captures from the PDF version of the book, Design is the Problem
From an activist perspective, Shedroff’s book is perhaps most interesting for how it tries to navigate the tension between what businesses can do and what actually needs to be done. Businesses can be activists in the way they use design. But there is a gap where the capacity (and willingness?) of businesses to advocate or act on sustainability ends and the interests and mechanisms (democracy, social movements, etc.) of wider society are necessary.
This tension manifests itself in the book, particularly in the contrast between the beginning and ending, which are by turns alarmist and revolutionary, and the central core of the book. At the beginning we find community resiliency compared with terrorism and rhetorical questions about reducing the world’s population in any socially acceptable way. Yet the core of the book carries the message: “we must change–but not too much.” Shedroff comments that, “getting too far [ahead] of your customers or the market can be more disastrous than being too far behind.”
Case studies such as Cliff Bar and Apple Computer highlight how the companies undertake sustainability work, but covertly, to avoid “castigation from environmental groups.” In a BP case study Shedroff presents the lesson as “be ready to offer more information,” a recommendation quite far from the transparency that most public agencies and activists would prefer (consider the green chemistry movement).
The book also resists investigating lifestyle changes even when they are quite obvious–do without a certain material, don’t eat a certain food. In these cases Shedroff tries to stick with the science of the comparison rather than stepping back to the societal level. For example in a discussion of buying locally, he presents the case of lamb and the counterintuitive result that “lamb grown in New Zealand and shipped to England had a lower environmental footprint than lamb raised in England.” What about not eating lamb?
In laying out the scope of problems and the systems view, Shedroff seems to argue for transformation. He wants to see business, and designers within business, as central change agents, but the “stop short” nature of the book, which counsels reform, shows how limited businesses ultimately are. Emerging “social” elements (such as lifestyle changes, social enterprise, social innovation, and social movements) will probably ultimately drive transformation and outpace what business alone can do.
I like Shedroff’s book as a very useful collection of information in one place. I wish he had been bolder with respect to the business context and more thorough in his notation. But perhaps we can see the book as trying to meet people where they are and take them forward. That’s a good step.