(Accords, Declarations, Calls to Arms, Codes of Practice, Polemics)
If you need evidence that designers are struggling with the questions of activism and becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way the profession engages is social and environmental issues, you need look no further than a spate of recent manifestos, etc. Although some of them are discipline-specific, many are not, and they are not institutionally specific. That is, they speak to the broad population of their audience, whether across disciplines or within a discipline. Often adopting the language of politics–revolution, even– these texts urge designers to take more action for social and environmental good. Here are some examples, arranged in a timeline.
1964 original First Things First Manifesto
Written by Ken Garland in London, it was a challenge to graphic designers and visual communicators to put more emphasis on communication and less on persuasion (of the advertising variety), to embrace and act on the fact that political and social issues are appropriate and central to their work of graphic design. (See the émigré magazine article about it.)
1992 Hanover Principles: Design for Sustainability
The city of Hanover commissioned these principles from architect William McDonough on the issues of sustainable design:
1. Insist on rights of humanity and nature to co-exist
2. Recognize interdependence.
3. Respect relationships between spirit and matter.
4. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design.
5. Create safe objects of long-term value.
6. Eliminate the concept of waste.
7. Rely on natural energy flows.
8. Understand the limitations of design.
9. Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge.
2000 renewal of the First Things First Manifesto
Graphic and communication designers were prompted to renew the manifesto in 2000, noting, among other things, “Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.” See the full text of the manifesto in émigré magazine.
In good company? Karl Marx wrote
The Communist Manifesto
2001 The Case for a Green Aesthetic
originally printed in Metropolis Magazine, October 2001
Christopher Hawthorne’s polemic on how sustainable architectural design needs to compete on the terms of the star architecture system. He claims green design won’t get anywhere until it can compete in aesthetic performance with the “star” architects and their terms. Contrary to the notion of green buildings raising sustainability standards “in noble anonymity, ” we need green buildings that capture both the imagination of the public and the pages of glossy design magazines. We need an architectural language that “shamelessly hawks sustainability on irresistible aesthetic terms” to energize the movement. The problem is not that William McDonough is wantonly self-promoting, but that he and his work are not famous enough. Without more sustainable design “stars” we are confronted with architects such as Peter Eisenman who says, “To talk to me about sustainability is like talking to me about giving birth…Am I against giving birth? No. But would I like to spend my time doing it? Not really.”
2001 International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), Seoul Declaration
Although this declaration concerned a range of issues much broader than the typical professional designer’s code of ethics, it has all but disappeared from the digital world, foremost it has disappeared from the ICSID website. The declaration included the following:
- Benefit the Client
- Benefit the User
- Protect the Ecosystem
- Enrich Cultural Identity
- Benefit the Profession
But where has it gone? The Industrial Designer’s Society of Amercia has taken much of the Seoul Declaration to heart in its own code of professional practice.
2007 Designer’s call to arms: We’ve screwed up. Now it’s time to redesign our future.
Mike Lin suggests that his is not a political statement, but a moral one to “ensure a healthy and livable future.” Yet contrary to Christopher Hawthorne’s claim that this new design movement needs to speak out for itself, winning hearts and minds on aesthetic terms, Lin proposes the opposite: “imagine a culture whose aesthetic sensibility combines social justice and environmental elegance in such a way that they’re not even noticeable.” Download the article from ambidextrous magazine.
2007 The Designer’s Accord
This Accord is perhaps the most interesting because it asks designers to do some specific things. The Accord grew out of designer Valerie Casey’s original idea of a Kyoto Treaty for Design (akin to the Kyoto climate treaty). In the same vein as an international treaty, it asks designers of all disciplines to sign on and agree to do the following:
- Publicly declare participation in the Designers Accord.
- Bring up environmental impact and sustainable alternatives with each and every client.
- Educate staff about sustainability and sustainable design
- Measure their carbon/greenhouse gas footprint and pledge to reduce it
- Contribute to the communal knowledge base for sustainable design.
The notion is that if we do these things together (and so far the Accord has 15,000 adopters) it creates a more “level” playing field in which discussion of these issues is the norm, rather than the awkward, job-jeopardizing exception to the rule.
What does it all add up to?
On the one hand, these texts don’t add up. What’s interesting about them is their diversity, from problems of harmful public discourse and lost cultural identity to the problems of harmful materials, and from the problem of creating visible knowledge to the problem of invisible sustainability and capturing the public imagination. This diversity befits the complexity of sustainable design and the many ways activists can go about pursuing it.
Although I haven’t written my own manifesto, I have tried to line out what I see as five of the central debates of sustainable design:
- Who’s responsible?
- What pace of change do we need?
- How should it look?
- How should we balance local and global?
- What is the user’s operation role?
And we can see that the manifestos etc. mentioned above take up various sides of these debates.
On the other hand, these texts may add up to something when we look back on them. 2008 is the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Paris student uprisings, which some mark as the start of a new form of social movement. In the spirit of “anniversaries” the news media here in London are doing a fair amount of looking back at that tumultuous time.
How will the design profession look back on this period of 2007/2008? Perhaps, as with the “First Things First” manifesto, we will look back 30 years from now in 2038 and see failed accords — see that the problems related to sustainable design (or lack of it) are similar and in many ways worse than in 2008. I dare to hope not. Instead I’d like to predict that the recent round of design manifestos, etc., signals a new era for design activism.
There must be more. Know of any additional sustainable/social design manifestos, treaties or calls to arms to add to this list?