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What is GOOD design?

What do you want to be when you grow up? A doctor, teacher, fireman used to be the standard responses, but as the world’s needs evolve, so does how we meet them. Last Thursday we heard four women speak who have carved their own niches in the dynamic field of sustainable design. Sustainability is the capacity to endure (via wikipedia). It is maintaining life on earth, which in turn means preserving the earth and using its natural resources responsibly. Sustainable design addresses how to do that. It applies to all walks of life and is a collective effort. Everyone benefits, but not everyone partakes. From reevaluating simple lifestyle choices to developing new sophisticated technologies, there is something that everyone can do to help.
The GOOD Design: Innovations in sustainability panel was hosted by The New York Women Social Entrepreneurs (NYWSE) and held at the Center for Architecture in NYC. The speakers included Deb Johnson, Founder and Director of the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable/Social Enterprise, Rita Saikali, Director of Outreach and Advocacy at Architecture for Humanity and a familiar face, Sheena Matheiken, Founder and Creative Director of the Uniform Project. That’s the abridged version of the intros delivered by moderator Emily Spivack, Director of Dowser and curator of Sentimental Value, a collection of stories about vintage clothing on eBay. Since sustainability is a growing concern across industries, newly devised ethical practices and planet friendly techniques are vetted everyday. There are certain things that penetrate and others that become obsolete. The speakers discussed specific cases and analyzed successes and failures from a smattering of real life examples. Below are a few highlights from the Q & A.
x. wasabipear
‘Take a bite’
Emily SpivackEmily Spivack, panel moderator.
Q. Describe the idea behind Pratt’s Design Incubator.
Deb: The Design Incubator at Pratt is how we prevent the brilliant ideas in students’ portfolios from evaporating in the real world. One of the examples of the kind of ideas fostered in the incubator is ‘Domestic Aesthetic’ – a designer who uses local industrial waste stream as a production resource. There are literally dumpsters full of mahogany sitting around in Brooklyn, who knew?
(Mental note: Take a field trip to Pratt’s library to learn about more of these untapped local resources).
Deb JohnsonDeb Johnson
Q. Give an example of sustainable design working.
Sheena: I discovered a great instance of grey-water recycling on my visit to Tokyo a few years ago – a brilliant example of design working to decrease water waste. The product was a sink-toilette combo that uses water from the sink to flush the toilette. The sink was supported on top of the flush, facing the opposite side of the toilette, so it doesn’t feel like the same object when in use– it’s both sleek and smart.
Sheena MatheikenSheena Matheiken
Q. Give an example of how sustainable design addresses a social issue.
Rita: Architecture for Humanity undertook the renovation of the Park Slope Women’s Shelter, a safe haven for homeless women. When we designed the kitchen, we found that women weren’t using the entire space or the tools, because they were not used to sharing communal spaces and possessions. To make the kitchen user-friendly, we created outlines on the walls indicating where the utensils would go, essentially turning the walls into instructional guides for the women.
Rita SaikaliRita Saikali
Q. On the topic of socially conscious design, what have you learnt about fundraising online through the Uniform Project?
Sheena : Bringing fun to philanthropy and triggering that genuinely good feeling you get when you create positive impact was one of the key motivations behind the U.P. We try to make that playfulness an essential part of our projects and a core component of our business model. This way the act of ‘helping’ isn’t impersonal or removed or guilt based. It’s not about contributing a portion of your profits, it’s about engaging on an intimate level and creating awareness in a way that allows people to really be a part of the change you are instigating. I’ve learnt that if you believe in the cause, keep the message simple and genuinely have fun with it, people will pay attention. During my 1 year dress challenge, we always tried to keep the dailies entertaining through regular tributes to cultural occurrences, punned titles, themed outfits etc. Some of our ideas even came from the community – like ‘LBD Fridays’ where U.P supporters around the world dressed up in Little Black Dresses to support our cause.
Q. Give an example of how sustainable design addresses a cultural issue.
Deb: The Design in Kind project developed a set of training tools for community health care workers in Uganda who were being trained to perform household visits. We designed illustrated cards for health care workers, to serve as cheat sheets that trigger their memory on the field. The nutritional cards, for example, were designed for different groups of the household, i.e., one for adult male, one for pregnant female, one for child, etc., each outlining the dietary needs of said group. We ended up having to redesign the cards, because we found that culturally, the men of the household always insisted that their own dietary needs would be the family norm in a food scarce society, making the other cards obsolete. Addressing these cultural and socio-economic design problems makes you examine your own global preconceptions.
Q. With so much noise around ‘green’ marketing these days, how can consumers decipher between what’s real and what’s actually good practice in sustainability?
Sheena: Consumers must recognize that they have more leverage than they think to demand the information they need regarding a product. To quote designer Katharine Hamnett, ‘Industries need to produce, but consumers don’t need to buy’. If consumers start demanding more transparency from all their favorite brands and products and insist on manufacturing details down to the root of the supply chain, then companies will be forced to become more ethical and transparent. If you are not sure about what you are reading on a content label, question it. Email them. Call them up. If you don’t get a timely and clear response, don’t buy the product. The more people pay attention, the more companies will learn that green-washing without backing it up with substance will ruin their brand and their business.
Good Panel
Links and Resources
Pratt Design Incubator >
Architecture for Humanity >
Sentimental Value >
Dowser >
Cradle To Cradle : Remaking the way we make things >
Design in Kind >


Alleviating poverty ~ through the eyes of designers « F R A N G I A says:
[...] Inspiration: The Uniform Project [...]
2010-09-18 04:05:20
beth says:
A really thought provoking seminar. You might also be interested in this inspiring interview with eco fashion entrepreneur Kresse Wesling who makes stunning high end accessories out of old fire hose: http://aspecialjourneyofmyown.blogspot.com/2010/06/waste-not-want-not-creative-business.html Beth
2010-06-19 12:20:19
Radhika Ganorkar says:
As a student of design and having studied the History of design for so many years, I think that the concept of GOOD design is relative. It evolves and changes with time and in a sense is purely contextual. When the icons and great designers of yesterday designed stuff, they didn't not deliberate over if it was good design. Mostly all designs and innovations were based on a certain need and if your design did more good than harm then it was good design. If it fulfilled its function first and if it looked good doing that, then its good design. And for me, that still holds true. Infact I wrote about the very same issue in this post on my blog. http://rgar8687.wordpress.com/2010/01/31/of-good-design/
2010-06-08 16:05:25
Morieka Johnson says:
Good design inspires. Sheena and the UP team delivered an eye-popping assortment of fashion statements — all based on one timeless little black dress. I responded like a typical American consumer by saying, “I want that dress, and I want it now!!” Fortunately (or unfortunately) the UP dress was sold out and I was left to my own devices, remixing items in my wardrobe to accent a little black sheath dress I had worn for years. The urge to consume will not end anytime soon. But I appreciate the ways that GOOD design challenges us to take a moment and find ways do more with what is already here. I was truly inspired when designers joined the movement, donating items for the worthy cause. I also loved watching as fans of all ages proudly flaunted their remixes of the little black dress. Good design is timeless. Just like Coco Chanel's original LBD, good design can kick-start a movement. I can't wait to see what's next from the Uniform Project.
2010-06-08 14:14:40
Melanie Redman says:
I can't tell you how wonderful it is to hear so many ideas around what constitutes "good" design. I have a health and disability policy background, and first encountered The Principles of Universal Design in that field - long before the buzz words on the street were "sustainable design." Universal design refers to broad-spectrum solutions that produce buildings, products and environments that are usable and effective for everyone, not just people with disabilities. Good design happens "with" people, and not "for" people. I'm inspired by the inclusive nature of the concepts and projects described in this post. Kudos.
2010-06-08 11:16:41
llv says:
I also moved to a VERY new location not too long ago. I moved from Georgia to Germany. BIG difference. I went from SUV loving country to bikes, buses, and trains. I had never lived this life before, but quickly saw the benefits. I had started a new job six months into my stay where I met a colleague (now friend) of mine who is a German National. He has never been to the States and he asked me about our transit system in the States. When I explained to him that people don't travel from state to state, or even city to city via bus or train, he was shocked. I was embarrassed. He then asked me about the markets in the States. Markets over here are a dime a dozen. Every city has several markets where the locals go to buy vegetables, fruits, and flowers. And even though I am aware of markets in the States, they are few and far between. He was confused as to where we were getting our fruits and veggies. I was confused as to why we prefer the chemically enhanced versions. Somehow that conversation ended in a deep discussion about the American toilet. Something he could not even begin to understand. The German toilets over here do not have standing water in the bowl and also have what I lovingly refer to as the poop shelf. Their flushing mechanism is one of brillance. The flush button is two buttons side by side, one of them being large and the other one being small. And by using context clues I am sure you can figure out which button you use once you are done. This was amazing to me. No water. Little button for little business. Big button for big business. But it got even better. There is a "stop" mechanism as well. That's right, when all is gone and where it needs to be, you simply press stop. After reading about Sheenas experience overseas I thought, wow, their people should see my people, and we could come up with an amazing system that would benefit everyone. So what is GOOD design? Good design to me is going back to the basics. Not over abusing our natural resources for the selfish comfort that so many desire. Not pumping harmful products into what nature has given us just to extend a shelf life while reducing our own.
2010-06-06 09:22:47
Rachael says:
What a fascinating talk this must have been. The question of what exactly is good design is a timely, frustrating, and necessary one to ask. Design, in the purest form of the word, should represent the world's need and ability to press onward towards increased innovation and efficiency in all forms. To put it simply, good design should be making things better than they are presently. I consider myself an aspiring designer in the area of fashion, so this idea is one that I ponder each day. Ever the optimist, I strongly believe sustainability is possible in the fashion industry. However, so, so much needs to change in order for that to actually happen. Looking at the up-cycling and indie movements, I believe this change has already started to occur. It's still important for each of us, as designers and/or consumers, to continue asking ourselves-- "Is what I am purchasing and creating of value and quality?" "Does it actually mean anything?" Let's rid ourselves of our disposable mentalities and reconnect with all the "stuff" in our lives. A similar shift has already begun with many Americans' relationships with food; hopefully such changing perspectives can be translated into other areas of life. Design can be a wonderful thing--brilliant minds,inspiring ideas, and creativity in general are essentially what have make life worth living here on Earth. The need to create must be within our very DNA. What is GOOD design? I can't say I have the exact formula; but from what I've observed so far, it starts with quality, value, efficiency, inspiration, and maybe most importantly, with heart.
2010-06-05 22:22:38
mjs says:
I agree to some extent with mm's comment about looking at systemic causes and the need for systemic change. As someone who moved from Calif. to NYC a few years ago, nowhere is it more evident to me than in housing and transportation. In Calif., especially the rural area where I lived most recently, it was essential to have a car. Such a waste of resources (not to mention money). And living in a rural area, we had a home that was, by Calif. standards, not large -- 1450 square feet -- but was really more than we needed. Fast forward to NYC: we no longer have a car and use mass transit daily, we live in 600 square feet (co-op apt), and everything's just fine. Yes, it was an adjustment, but we adjusted. All this to say, it is a mindset that needs to be shifted systemically so that people recognize they can live well using fewer resources. However, changing the system may mean one person at a time making these kinds of lifestyle shifts. So for me, good design includes anything that benefits the most people while using the fewest resources (e.g., public transportation and urban-style housing). It's a tall order, though, in a country like the U.S., where the independent mindset thrives and the idea of anything communal is suspect.
2010-06-05 14:07:35
mm says:
i was also at the talk and also enjoyed the wealth of info on people trying to do smart innovative things via smart innovative design. but it did definitely bring up those issues of real need vs. hypocritical rationalizing, when it comes to making more "stuff". it's always a dilemma and something that I've find myself struggling with more and more, in direct proportion to the more and more i learn about these issues. it also made me think about this scene in the film "no impact man" (wow, i'm sounding like a serious green nerd right now). it was a scene i found extremely important, where the no impact man is talking to this seasoned 60s radical/farmer hippy who has his city garden literally down the street from the place where the talk happened. anyway, the hippy tells the no impact man that while he thinks it's great that no impact man is doing the challenge, he's also a little bit concerned that it lets the real systemic causes off the hook by making it all about individual agency (the naive idea that if we all do our part we can change the problem, when in fact it's going to take systemic changes to address all the socio-economic reasons we're in the mess in the first place). so i guess what i'm getting at is that we can all beat ourselves up about making more "stuff" or buying more "stuff", but ultimately, if we're going to be serious, it's just as important to be questioning our economic system and it's thoroughly ingrained detrimental practices if we really want to solve these environmental problems. something to think about.
2010-06-03 20:41:35
Rajini says:
I agree completely with Tara. Sheena also addressed one particular issue dealing with Bamboo, I never realized how consuming sustainable products can bring about a negative impact on the environment. We need to eliminate profit materialization & the corporate domination on these products.
2010-06-03 17:02:24
Tara says:
I was lucky enough to attend this panel discussion and Sheena made a very interesting point about sustainable fashion being an oxy moron, it can't really exist AND be sustainable since it requires the creation (and manufactures false needs) for new product. As a self-proclaimed sustainable designer I struggle with this every day. Why make new product when we can reinvent old items, buy vintage or just do without? An ethos I try to practice in my personal life. However, as a designer, I feel the need to create - albeit as sustainably as possible - new product. And I admire and covet others' new ideas. So where is the middle ground? What is acceptable and what is not when it comes to sustainable design?
2010-06-03 14:04:09