Old Objects, New Contexts, and Design-Centered Research for Sustainability
Anne Marchand, Stuart Walker | University of Calgary
The first part of this paper critiques the tendencies in design and politics to almost exclusively think about sustainability in terms of efficiency. In turn, it proposes an approach that includes the notion of sufficiency, in order to significantly contribute to a more socially and environmentally viable future. As a result of increasing the integration of the sufficiency principle or mindset in the development of design solutions, the physical and conceptual nature of objects as we know them is called into question. This issue is discussed and the challenges it raises as well as its implications for social and aesthetic conventions are examined. New visual and social ‘norms’ are seen as necessary to support paths towards substantive, meaningful change. The paper supports the idea that design has a significant contribution to make because it is a discipline skilled in envisioning and ‘materializing’ alternatives.
The second part of the paper addresses, in a design-centered manner, the issue of product disposability and design for sustainability. By re-perceiving unvalued objects via new contexts, and by reconciling old and new, diversity and homogeneity, the paper and its illustrative design examples provide an original reflection and contribution to the development of meaningful, enduring artifacts and design for sustainability.
The theoretical and practical research presented here looks at how design contributions can be applied to existing objects that have reached a stage where they are value-less and hence readily discarded. The research examines the concept of sustainable material- and visual-cultures and investigates, through design explorations, new ways of (re)designing objects and allowing them to evolve over time. 'Research through designing', a relatively recent approach to academic research that is being explored and is becoming well established at the authors' university, is briefly discussed. Tangible, experimental artifacts—and families of artifacts—that illustrate and explore the issues of sustainability, premature end-of-life, and elevation of objects, through building new connections between artifacts and contexts, are presented. The paper discusses these design strategies, and their conceptual meaning, which allow a transition from technologically and/or aesthetically obsolete products to useful objects that are of aesthetic interest and in line with the economic, social and environmental principles and priorities of sustainability. In this sense these explorations are attempts to connect beauty and bounty. This work builds on previous research and conceptual designs by one of the two authors that were recently described in Sustainable by Design: Explorations in Theory and Practice (Earthscan, 2006). The approach also relates to the work of designers such as the Droog group (Ramakers, 2004) in the Netherlands and the Boyms (Boym, 2002) in the United States, designers who challenge current way of thinking about objects and their conceptual and material nature over time, as well as the work of Thackera (2005), who discusses the need for designers to explore mechanisms for significant, distributed change.