"Design has to be emotionally durable"

5th May, 2014 by Guest writer

Jon Turney asks how we can move away from a disposable culture to one in which people really care about 'stuff'.

Any hilltop is enhanced by a wind turbine. The symmetry of the turning blades is as pleasing as knowing they are capturing energy and making it useable. So it seems to me, anyhow. But any discussion of wind power reminds you that plenty of folk find every wind farm a blot on the landscape.

This sharp difference of opinion is a reminder that aesthetics is a powerful influence on what we make, where we put it, and whether we like the results. Knowing that, how can we use aesthetics to enhance the appeal of sustainable design? It is a complicated challenge, because aesthetics is complex: a mix of visceral responses, culture and values that makes something look or feel ‘right’. Our consumer culture seems in thrall to the ephemeral, the disposable and the cute. Qualities like efficiency, durability and fitness for purpose appeal when we buy stuff, at least in theory, but it is easy to be seduced by novelty or surface sheen.

Even when a design is ‘green’, it may not be apparent. You can’t tell that a super-efficient hybrid car has miraculously low fossil fuel consumption by looking at it: it’s still a car. Reduced material or energy during manufacture is difficult to perceive. And in the past, environmentally friendly design that wore its heart on its sleeve has given some of it a reputation for aesthetic self-denial: not hair shirts for all, but close.

As Lance Hosey, author of the recent book The Shape of Green, which explores aesthetics and ecology, puts it, “many consider great design and green design to be separate pursuits”. He cites the celebrated buildings designed by Frank Gehry as an illustration. Their organic curves are undoubtedly beautiful, but they demand a lot more steel for construction than more conventional designs would.

It’s harder to appreciate the benefit of some environmentally worthy goods because they don’t win a lasting place in our affections. Jonathan Chapman, Professor of Sustainable Design at the University of Brighton, argues that we must make things that are “emotionally durable”. As he puts it, “Why are some things important to us, and not others? That’s a question any designer should be interested in, whether they care about the environment or not.” If we have possessions that we love, then there is sense in making them from long-lasting materials, easy to fix, and upgradeable. If they don’t have that appeal, then such efforts are wasted, because we toss them out as soon as they show signs of use.

One possibility here is to design products that develop in a way people might like as they age – such as that pair of boots so comfortable you take them to be re-soled year after year. A little imagination can extend this principle. One of the students on the Brighton course, Bethan Laura Wood, designed teacups whose inside glaze is treated so they stain in a geometric pattern with repeated use. The more tea you drink, the clearer the new decoration gets.

Rich Gilbert of The Agency of Design company makes a similar point, drawing on its extensive work exploring materials use, waste and recycling. He cites the design of a toaster made from sand-cast aluminium. It is a rough finish by contemporary standards. On the other hand, he reckons it will look much the same after 100 years use as after one or two. “Some materials age gracefully, gaining a patina, and we can celebrate that.”

He also makes it clear, though, that the aesthetic employed must depend on what you want to achieve. The company worked up two other toaster designs, one modular, and one designed for easy disassembly and recycling of the mainly plastic parts. Each might be a different route to eliminating waste from the product cycle. The household kettle, he says, demands the same treatment: he’s working on it.

The kitchen is often a focus for contemporary design. This can raise aesthetic barriers to doing one’s environmental duty. A detailed study of how people think about at-home recycling, ‘Unpacking the Household’, carried out by Exeter University’s Stewart Barr for Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), found that recycling routines are strongly influenced by each domestic set-up. Since most houses pre-date regular recycling, a key question is where to collect and sort different types of waste. As the research summary puts it, “participants argued that more space is often needed … they aren’t prepared to compromise the aesthetics of their home to make room for a recycling bin”.

So while manufacturers – and CCE is one – are making their product packaging recyclable, the benefits can remain elusive when the bottles and cans reach the home.

The good news is that knowing this highlights the scope for improvement. Recycling bins are ugly, but they don’t have to be. “We neglect aesthetics at our peril”, says Dr Barr: “We’re not being very clever about how we design these things.” They exist in a culture where their contents are still seen as waste for disposal, and something we want to keep separate from our living (or cooking) space. “We want to move to where they are seen as ways of storing material which is on its way to re-use.”

Revising the designs would benefit from cocreation with users: what would we prefer our recycling bins to look like? And it needs to take account of the preferences of different household members. Kids are often the household recycling advocates, so child-friendly designs for the bins would probably help.

Away from household design, major building projects can allow architects to explore an aesthetic that expresses the value of a larger project. A current example is the proposal for the Offshore Visitor Centre for the £800 million Tidal Lagoon renewable energy scheme soon to be installed in Swansea Bay, South Wales. Paul Newman of Juice Architects explains that the building will be “a beacon for what sustainability represents”. A series of overlapping shells, inspired by the local oysterfishing tradition, will create an eye-catching structure which resists the weather. As the building will be three kilometres from the shore, the shells will have to be made of concrete, but the forms will blend with the surroundings while drawing in a hoped-for 80 to 100,000 visitors a year who will learn about the massive engineering project below the water. The curves of the shells recall some of Gehry’s work, or the Sydney Opera House, but they have been simplified to allow a more straightforward concrete construction.

The rest of the building’s systems will embody the project objectives, too. “We’ve tried to make it self-sufficient”, says Newman. Lighting, ventilation and temperature control are all configured with that in mind, and as well as recycling waste energy from the adjoining turbine plant there will be solar panels on the roof and walls of the turbine gallery. The result should be a gallery space that incorporates a sustainable aesthetic in its own structure in a way that is as inspiring to visitors as the tidal power project it is designed to show off.

Cape Farewell [see Tear down the silos between art and science for a creative explosion] is also commissioning a major sculpture to be sited in or near the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon. The artwork, it specifies, should interact with the ambitions and significance of the lagoon.

Such unity of aesthetics and values generates a kind of coherence that product designers and manufacturers need to strive for. Jon Turney is a science writer and author of The Rough Guide to the Future.

Photo credit: Courtesy Juice Architects

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