How do we tell time with a tree? Is it the subtle changes of green to gold? Or the manifestation of buds that become flowers? It is these differences, some as small as the first cardinal of spring, or is it those that hit us all at once when we notice the world shift from one season to next? These are perceptions of time in a subtle way, unhinged from the quantitative seconds we time our daily lives on. These, of course, were perhaps once the only way we told time, or at least long spans. Today though, it is both easy and terribly difficult to see the future. A future, which causes a generation that does “not dream, it hopes; it hopes that we will survive, that there will be water for all, that we will be able to feed everyone, that we will not destroy ourselves”(Dunne & Raby, pg. 9)
As designers, we feel a certain amount of responsibility to be proponents of change. Through our practices that have now focused themselves on longevity, responsibility, and trust, we act as the surface level of information and technology in people’s lives be it through an app design or an IOT (Internet of Things) device or an infovisualization in a magazine. Through critical design by those such as Victor Papanek in his book “Design For the Real World” we as designers have acknowledged the harm designers can do to the environment through their consumeristic goals. Yet, it is still difficult to be deciders of these changes when our surroundings still place designers in the role of convincing users of purchasing. Our seasons don’t change with the leaves, they change with the new release of an iPhone. We, as purchasers, can allow ourselves these infatuations with novelty because our society has worked to hide the consequences of our purchasing actions. Yes, there have been shifts towards visualizations of our energy usage and devices like the Nest that aim at a reduction in energy waste. We also are shown pictures of the garbage patch in the Pacific ocean that represent the collective build-up of our unconscious wasteful disposal of plastics. Yet these display two extremes, one, the representation of an individuals energy usage that is corrected for them (in some manner hiding their actions). The other, a representation of millions of tiny actions that in a way is overwhelming and difficult for anyone to fully conceive of due to the vastness of its scale. Together these present the dilemma we have with understanding our actions when we consume, how does action become magnified by a population? This concept, also known as the Tragedy of the Commons, is a social science term that an individual has the tendency to act in the desire of self-interest even when it is contrary to the common good of all users, which leads to strained resources.
There is also a misunderstanding in the way these resources function. When societies value one resource over another it undermines ideas of ecology. In response to this Arne Naess developed his philosophy of Deep Ecology which promotes the equal value of all resources regardless of their contribution to human society, as well as the push towards the radical reconstructing of society in light of these ideas. What ecology helps us to understand is that individuals are not quite really individuals at all, and it is important to remain humble and acceptive of our place in the ecology. Our dependence on it must be recognized when we have the ability to wipe out so many species and alter the geography of the world so greatly that some scientists are referring to the current geological age as the Anthropocene, as human activity is now the greatest influence of change on the planet.
Granted this is not a solution that can be fixed through design alone, but design is a form of communication. One that is often the manner in which we interact with technology. Therefore, it has the ability to facilitate agency for a user. Ethically then, we have to understand not just what is best for the user immediately, such as a sense of pleasure that can form into addictive habits with technology, but longevity. These theories of time and design come in to play in Carolyn F. Strauss and Alastair Fuad-Luke’sSlow Design Principles. One designer that fits this principle is Dutch Designer Simon Heijdens, who “believes that design should, like Nature, unleash a continuum of expressions over time”. In his work “Broken White” Heijdens creates ceramics that reveal patterns over time as they are used, developing more intricate patterns for cups that are favored. In this way, also revealing human activity and energy use rather than hiding it.
It is also important for designers to leverage social connections. It has been shown that social norms have a great weight on how we interact with our surroundings. We are more likely to recycle because of a sign that tells us everyone else is recycling, than one that aims at the “bad” person who didn’t recycle. Designers can leverage this social desire to help us become aware of the power of collective action. Especially when we become passive from the dismay of the damage to the planet. This disheartening can be alleviated through harnessing the emergence of social action.
This dismay and responsibility can also result in cognitive dissonance, the tension created when our beliefs are contradicted by new information. This issue is especially true for people who are skeptical about scientific research that challenges their way of life. Design can reframe this information, making tangible experiences of abstract information. It is, however, extremely important that design remains transparent, as it has the ability to disinform, especially when beauty is used as a signifier of truth. But if design does intend to move us towards positive behavior, it needs to be able to speculate a future that motivates the individual.
With all this in mind, I see three opportunity areas for design. First to create representations that make complex and invisible ecological systems less abstract and more comprehensible. Secondly, use both personal data as well as collective data in order to prompt reflection on one’s actions in the context of broader group impact. And lastly, design tools that leverage ritual, nostalgia, and other social connections to drive positive behavior change.
Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT, 2014.
Griskevicius, Vladas, Robert B. Cialdini, and Noah J. Goldstein. "Social norms: An underestimated and underemployed lever for managing climate change." In. 2008.
Næss, A., & Rothenberg, D. (2003). Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Selterman, Dylan. “Greed Vs. The Common Good.” National Geographic.
Stoknes, Per Espen. "Rethinking climate communications and the “psychological climate paradox”." Energy Research & Social Science 1 (2014): 161-170.