‘Modern Life is Rubbish’, Blueprint, (Article – Jonathan Chapman 2006)
In today’s unsustainable world of goods, where products are desired, Jonathan Chapman was invited to write a feature article in Blueprint (April, 2006) discussing his own particular take on sustainable design. The article asks why people throw things away that still work? Jonathan then describes new and provocative creative strategies for what he calls 'emotionally durable design'. The article received very positive feedback and comments from Blueprint readers worldwide.
The rampant consumption and waste of natural resources so prevalent in the developed world is a legacy of modern times, born largely from the inappropriate marriage of excessive material durability with fleeting product life spans. The UK alone condemns a massive 1.25 million tonnes of waste to landfill per year; waste consisting of fully-functioning toasters, refrigerators, mobile phones, vacuum cleaners and a whole host of other domestic must-haves; each year it is estimated that around 5 million TVs find their way into this underground club for discarded and unwanted products.
Waste of this nature proliferates the developed world, and in many cases can be seen as nothing more than a symptom of a failed relationship between the subject and the object. A key origin to the ecological crisis we currently face therefore, may be said to lurk deep within this single yet profoundly universal anomaly – the emotional needs of consumers relentlessly grow and flex, whilst the objects deployed to satisfy those needs remain relatively frozen in time. The mountain of waste this single inconsistency generates is apocalyptic, coming at increasing cost to legislation-swamped manufacturers and the Natural World.
Since Vance Packard coined the term ‘planned obsolescence’ in the late-1950s, interest in the lifespans of manufactured objects has become a central constituent of contemporary Design discourse. Yet thus far, the creative methodologies addressing design for durability have attended almost exclusively to the cosmetic, material survival of manufactured objects. In these scenarios durability is distinguished simply by a product’s physical endurance, whether cherished or discarded. Lab-coated engineers triumphantly exchange high-fives as fully operational hairdryers emerge from a 5-year landfill hiatus. Is this durable product design, or simply the designing of durable waste? Landfills are packed with stratum upon stratum of ‘durable’ goods that slowly compact and surrender working order beneath a substantial volume of likeminded scrap. It therefore appears clear that there is little point designing physical durability into consumer goods, if consumers lack the desire to keep them.
Perhaps due to the normalcy of innovation, the made-world has adopted an expendable and sacrificial persona, rendering its offspring fleeting, transient and replaceable orphans of circumstance. In reactance to this emergent trend, strategies for emotionally durable objects must be developed, which engage users on deeper and more profound levels, delivering intense and sophisticated experiences that slowly penetrate the user psyche over longer and more rewarding periods of time – new, alternative genres of objects that reduce the consumption and waste of resources by increasing the durability of relationships established between users and products, people and things.
Through this, consumers are empowered to transcend the temporal urgency of contemporary material culture, and engage deeply with their possessions, over greater periods of time and on a diversity of emotional and experiential levels. In an age of looming ecological crisis, mounting legislation and limited Sustainable Design progress, these new creative directions provide the cornerstones to positive social, economic and environmental progress. Indeed, new and engaging approaches to Sustainable Design are greatly needed, that engage a broader segment of the creative population; it is not enough to simply target the ethically conscious minority, who are already interested in the first place – that’s just preaching to the converted.
Education clearly has a key role to play in effectively introducing these new and engaging design ideologies, where issues of sustainability are everyday, commonplace considerations that sit comfortably alongside ergonomics, visual research, materials exploration, costing and other more established design considerations. UK graduate designers are already beginning to emerge from academic programs, fully equipped with the experience, knowledge and attitude required to effectively deliver award-winning work boasting this new and exciting vision of ‘Good Design’. The BA (Hons) in 3D Design at the University of Brighton is one such program, where students engage critically with sustainability through a fully integrated range of studio projects that deliver the more established foundations of Sustainable Design, whilst proceeding to engage with more provocative and pioneering approaches to object creation, which go beyond recycling, disassembly and energy efficiency to address sustainability in a deeper, more emotive and philosophical context.
The work of Kieran Jones for example, engages users in the process of creation by introducing formulas that enable the re-appropriation of IKEA products into new forms and structures; John Hoskins’ exploration of redundant technologies and our connection to objects includes a technique for making old furniture photosensitive, enabling it to capture images and histories from its immediate environment; Anna Clarke’s work explores the loss implied by televisions abandoned in the street, asking, what replaces it, and what do you point your furniture at once it is gone? Finally, Mark Owen’s silicon light resembles an abdomen of translucent polymer flesh that you slash with the scalpel provided, then stitch it back up to evolve and customize both the object, and the quality of light that it emits – what initially appears macabre becomes beautiful and endearing through time. The recently introduced European Union Waste and Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive further reinforces the commercial argument for product life extension; calling on members of the EU to implement the legal framework for producers to take responsibility for their electric and electronic products at end of life. The industry response to the WEEE Directive is gathering momentum with the likes of Nokia, Bosch Siemans and Canon funding major new initiatives that address the costly take-back and recovery of end of life products. By December 2006, all producers of electronic products must aim to set up recycling systems – either on a collective or individual basis – that provide for the effective recovery of WEEE.
For Nokia’s UK market where handsets are currently replaced on average once every 18-months, the costs brought by ‘end of life’ legislation are of particular relevance. Fortunately, their products are sufficiently portable that they may be dropped-off at the nearest high street store. Manufacturers of bulkier goods on the other hand, such as washing machines and refrigerators are not so fortunate. As Europe’s leading household appliance manufacturer, Bosch Siemans recently forecasted annual costs running to some 60 million euros, just to remain in compliance with the WEEE Directive. According to Uwe Hennack, CEO of Bosch Siemans Homes Appliances, ‘the challenge is to design products that last longer, are lower cost to recycle, affordable to the consumer, use less waste energy and are produced in an environment that is environmentally friendly.’
Amidst the frantic scramble to comply with forthcoming environmental legislation such as WEEE, the root causes of the ecological crisis we face are frequently overlooked; meanwhile the inefficient consumer machine surges wastefully forth, but now it does so with recycled materials instead of virgin ones. It therefore must be said that in their current guise, Sustainable Design methodologies lack genuine depth (recyclable ‘waste’, biodegradable ‘waste’, disassemble-able ‘waste’ etc.) and as such, adopt a symptom-focussed approach comparable in ethos to Western Medicine; in consequence, deeper strategic possibilities are overlooked. By failing to understand the motivational drivers underpinning the human consumption and waste of goods, Design resigns itself to a peripheral and somewhat subservient activity, rather than the central pioneer of positive social, economic and environmental change that it potentially could be.
Even today in the brave new age of environmental awareness and ‘Sustainable’ Design, a sense of instability continues to surround contemporary material culture, nurtured by continual change to render its offspring fleeting, transient and replaceable orphans of circumstance. Tonight, a flat screen Trinitron TV lies face down, discarded like a spent cigarette in the wet space between pavement and road; an abandoned Dyson stands outcast in a dark suburban alleyway, while an Apple Macintosh from the beige era garnishes a skip filled with construction rubble.