Thanks to all who nominated questions for Valerie Casey, founder of the Designers Accord.

In 2007 Valerie wrote an article about changing "the way we think about design to better tackle the challenges of environmentalism." This call-to-action evolved into the Designers Accord.

With over 170,000 members worldwide committing to five key guidelines, the Designers Accord is a global coalition of designers, corporate leaders and educational institutions with shared goals for society and the environment. The Designers Accord unites organizations and individuals wanting to create positive results through their work.

Valerie Casey inspires us to hold ourselves responsible for our design practices and to create positive outcomes — it's no surprise that there were several things you wanted to ask her. We selected five questions – here is what she had to say:

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In terms of incorporating sustainable design education into a school curriculum, what do you think is most important that students learn?

I’ll start answering this question by explaining the picture above. I was asked to include an “action shot” of sorts in this piece – sitting at a desk isn’t very dynamic, but I think it’s relevant.

I recently participated in the Philip Johnson Glass House Conversations – a two-day salon at the Connecticut architectural masterpiece. In this photograph, I was looking through Johnson’s sketchbook, sitting at his desk in his studio. When the Johnson people sent me this image, I instantly thought of the quote by architect Eero Saarinen: “Always design a thing by considering its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” This is the most clear description of systems design I’ve ever read. I remember when sitting at that desk, I felt a surge of intimacy with Johnson as I ran my fingers over his handwriting and sketches. It was a moment of understanding that I had not experienced as I toured the Glass House property, or viewed Johnson’s amazing oversized art collection. The concept of Philip Johnson was so large and abstract, but through this experience in his studio I found a point of access. There was something about the manageable scale of that moment, and how it figured in the context of the other experiences, that became a cipher to Johnson’s work and life.

This is an outside-in way of saying that to me, understanding a system though its elemental parts is the most important aspect in sustainable design curriculum. The greatest challenge I see when young designers are trying to integrate sustainable thinking into their practice is that they focus on the artifact instead of the system in which the artifact resides. I believe successful designers of sustainable products and services are those who understand the greater systems to which they are contributing.

In the work the Designers Accord is doing on design education and sustainability (we are holding the first global summit on Design Education and Sustainability in October in SF), there are two focal points in addition to the systems thinking:

We support an integrated design curriculum, where sustainability is part of everything we teach and learn. While there may be opportunity for specialization / certification (like LEED) in the future, that should not be the focus now. Certification often ghettoizes a skill instead of mainstreams it, which is what we need currently. Design is a business; it’s artistic, but it’s not art. All designers need to understand the financial and strategic elements of their work, and with sustainability, this is especially important. The value of the integrated design education is that it trains designers to communicate complex ideas clearly, to problem solve in beautiful ways, and meet the triple bottom line.

We are a culture obsessed with consumption — it's no surprise that the design process itself has become quite inefficient (waste, pollution, obsolescence, etc.). As designers, how can the way we work have a positive impact on society's demand for more goods?

I started the Designers Accord to address this question exactly! When you are in the business of making things, isn’t sustainability antithetical to your professional purpose? Even if you design with the best materials and greatest consideration of product life-cycle, aren’t you still just creating “stuff”?

Designers are the drivers of consumption in many ways; we manufacture the behaviors and needs that drive consumers to marketplace frenzy. But I do believe that we have a chance to transform that.

It’s not the design process that is flawed – I actually believe the design process is one of the best ways to solve problems of all kinds, from the usability of a mobile app to global humanitarian crises. Our biggest challenge is the decisions made in the process of making things. In many ways, designers create their own limitations – we often conceive of our role too narrowly, and perceive the impact of our decisions to be less than it is. We are trained to be an expert in the elements that fall into our zone of control, but what we really need to consider is our zone of influence. I still don’t know what the answer is to the question of balancing our profession with consumerism, but there are two things I practice in my own work to mitigate it.

First, I actively focus on that essential, early part of the conversation with clients. As my is increasingly centered on innovation and sustainability, I find myself continuous reframing the client’s design brief, trying to uncover a richer kind of challenge. Through this process, a project that might have started as a mobile phone design might morph into a service concept, or a physical environment design might evolve into building a distributed global network. I try to lead the conversation to one that will increase to positive social and environmental impact.

Next, I force myself to actively consider and design for the end-of-life scenario. In all the instances where consumer electronics companies have instituted take back programs, either voluntarily or through regulation, it’s influenced their design decisions. Materials selected, manufacturing processes, distribution methods are all viewed in a different light, and the expense of disposing of “stuff” weighs heavily on what might have been considered a profitable bottom-line. While this is more about re-framing the current situation rather than completely re-concieving the CE portfolio, it’s a start.

How do you get authentic participation, interest, and collaboration as opposed to having people sign up for an initiative because of the PR appeal (or other indirect incentives)?

A journalist recently asked me about "greenwashing" and the Designers Accord.* I had just explained to him that while the philosophy of the Accord is in many ways counter to the traditionally competitive nature of the creative community (the Guidelines ask that firms share resources and best practices), I believe peer pressure has played a role in the quick uptake of the movement. It’s likely that some firms saw that their competitors or friends were adopting the Designers Accord, and followed their lead. There is certainly a PR appeal too – for little more than a statement of intention, a firm can benefit from the Accord’s halo effect.

What I believe has sustained the authenticity of this movement though has been the natural self-policing of the creative community. As firms are required to contribute their thinking and case studies to the commons, there is a naturally occurring engagement in the content from all parties. Without exception, all the people I have been in contact with are genuinely interested in building a legion of designers prepared to take on higher order challenges, those involving sustainability.

While an adopter may have embraced the Designers Accord for a different reason, now the marketplace is driving their behavior. A recent University of Dallas report indicates that 94% of the Fortune 500 have sustainability as part of their strategic plans. (“Research on Sustainability Practices by the FORTUNE 500”, Paul O. Pederson.) That’s a massive increase from even two years ago, when addressing this issue was considered niche. Now, sustainability has become a major competitive business proposition, and all indications are that it will continue to increase. Designers need to address this competitive challenge by integrating the principles of sustainability into their practices; the best way to do that is through collaboration and knowledge sharing, and that’s what the Designers Accord is all about.

  • To enable greater Accountability within the Designers Accord, we have decided to put a system into place where there are two tiers of membership for Designers Accord adopters. We are celebrating adopters who are on record as in compliance of the Guidelines in two ways. Those “super-adopters" will have measured and taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint, and will have contributed to the common knowledge base with at least one case study, event, activity, methodology. The familiar Designers Accord logo will remain the marker of adopters who are working through the Guidelines; the adopters who have reached the elevated status will be indicated with a gold badge.

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Are there any strategies that you have learned that others could benefit from in terms of organizing groups similar to the Designers Accord (i.e. with the focus on positive interaction and contributing to the world)?

This question dovetails nicely from the previous one about maintaining integrity over time and scale. Based on my experience with the Designers Accord, these are the top ten recommendations I would give activists who want to organize similar movements:

  1. Make sure you are not duplicating someone else’s efforts. We don’t need more ideas, we need better ways to put those ideas into practice.

  2. Be agile. Create goals, not a road map. It’s impossible to keep to a strict plan, but your North Star should remain steady.

  3. This I learned from Bob Sutton: “Learn how to fight as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong. It helps you develop strong opinions that are weakly held.” (http://bobsutton.typepad.com/)

  4. Respond to people in a timely manner. (This is still a huge challenge of mine, but I’m working on it.)

  5. Be visual. Everybody wants to see pictures. Document everything.

  6. Have solid, trusted advisors around you. They help you reach further, organize your thinking, and work through the criticism that inevitably will be directed towards you.

  7. Other people have great ideas. Listen to them, build on them, but don’t feel you have to integrate all of them.

  8. Write your ideas down. That’s the litmus test of a good idea. (Everything sounds brilliant when it’s rolling around in your mind, doesn’t it?)

  9. Prototype new ideas, quickly. This is related to #3.

  10. Accept failure. You will failure more than you succeed. The test of your vision is how quickly you recover and try again.

Have you seen people's design habits and choices shift due to them becoming an adopter of the Designers Accord?

I am astounded by the heightened awareness designers have about social and environmental issues now, compared to two years ago when I started the Designers Accord. There are many factors that have contributed to this, but I do think that the Designers Accord has been a strong, positive influence. The Designers Accord is the mostly broadly known organization to help designers funnel their energy and structure their interests in sustainability.

The most profound change I’ve witnessed has been the new willingness to share information, best practices, and case studies. On a daily basis, I get emails from adopters all around the world with questions and or stories about their experiences. I regularly pair them up with other like-minded designers, or direct them to resources where they can contribute or access information.

We are also helping to accelerate that sharing in a few ways. Online, we have a weekly case study in sustainability from the Designers Accord community featured in Fast Company. We also have groups on Linkedin and Facebook, and a solid following on twitter (@designersaccord). I have found that people are more likely to change their habits and practices when they physically connect with other adopters. We encourage adopters to hold Town Halls where the local creative community can convene to socialize and problem-solve. We take the big thoughts from each of those events and publish them out the design community at large through our partner, Core77.

I’ve talked about the Designers Accord as a platform where people have permission to ask. So often in the consulting world, people are too known or too senior to admit they don’t have the answer to a particular challenge. Within the Designers Accord, we have pledged to help each other learn our way forward. Before the Designers Accord, I feel like I never heard about projects where a plan went awry, a design fell flat, or the research was flawed. Now, adopters share those cases for educational purposes – there is still some protectiveness, certainly of IP, and also of ego – but the conversations are happening, cross-discipline, cross-geography. We have a responsibility to use our creativity and optimism to address the critical issue of climate change. Two years ago, when encouraged to collaborate and share information, designers asked “why?” Now they say “why not?”

Up next: What would you ask Chad Rea, founder of ecopop? Nominate your questions by August 5.

Posted August 03, 2009