Don’t curb design enthusiasm

Originally published in the Guardian.

The idea of sustainable design is an oxymoron. Design is about exploring limits, not about imposing them.

Energetic design … Tom Dixon’s New Light installation for the London Design Festival in Trafalgar Square last week.

Last week’s London Design Festival showcased some great examples of contemporary design, with many exhibitions and events illustrating new styles, materials and techniques. A prominent theme this year, however, was sustainable design. For example, workshops organised by [Re]Design demonstrated the creativity of transforming waste into quality design products, while Liquid Projects by Designersblock illustrated what could be done with all our waste glass. Liberty, the London department store, hosted an event called Trash/Luxe, which brought together designers who “find beauty in humble materials or salvaging otherwise unwanted goods, which they use to create beautiful, luxurious pieces”. And design icon Terence Conran took part in the Deptford challenge, showing us how to make the most out of re-using stuff found in “flea-markets”.

Indeed, the issue of sustainable design seemed an almost irresistible force, with many questioning how consumerism can be sustainable and what role the designer can play in creating a globally sustainable society.

So does this mean we’ll get better design – or the design we deserve? And is celebrating design for its own sake now off limits? It seems that what is being put forward is a way of using design to point the finger at us all: from too much consumption to “irresponsible” behaviour. That needs challenging. The desire for sustainability has been reinterpreted as accepting limits and narrowing choices rather than expanding how we live, work, play. This kind of make-do-with-what-we-have ethos cannot be good for design and society.

Everywhere, it seems, there are calls to put the brakes on. From transportation to building new houses, any proposed new development invariably meets with some form of reluctance, reticence and even resentment. Increasingly society seems unable, or even unequipped, to argue for unfettered development. There is a deep-seated culture of pessimism that has permeated all levels of society. For designers, it is hard not to reflect, agree and even profit from that.

But there is a paradox at the heart of the issue. “Sustainable design” is an oxymoron. The very act of designing something causes us to use materials, resources and skills that produce byproducts, packaging and waste. For design to be effective, it cannot be sustainable. It is about taking something out and leaving us with something better.

Of course, that’s where the problem lies. If we don’t believe in the need to “better ourselves”, then we have to question what design good for. If we don’t believe in design’s ability to make the world a better place, we not only jeopardise the future, we could actually end up going backwards. Design is the conscious act of changing ourselves through manipulating the physical environment. It has given us everything we have today.

Imposing intellectual restrictions on creativity will bankrupt design. We are in danger of substituting the ability to objectively attempt to solve problems from any angle with a precautionary approach – where the impact of the solution must be considered before solving the problem. This will have a stultifying effect. Some problems will be out of bounds for fear of producing something that might either use materials, produce waste or have unexpected outcomes.

If we don’t continue to insist on creative freedom, when applied to everything from purposeful needs to satisfying our pleasure and enjoyment, it will mean the world will become a sad, grey place.

Let’s not suffocate creativity. Design, when unfettered, has transformed the world around us. Let it continue, and let’s not waste all our talent. At next year’s festival, let’s leave sustainable design in the bin – where it belongs.