Sustainable Strategies in Design

Can designers incorporate the values of the Slow Food movement? The question was probed last October at the first Slow + Design seminar held in Milan among the Italian cities where the Slow Food movement was originated over twenty years ago. The members of the group put an emphasis on local resources and distributed economies, more transparent production systems with less intermediation, and sustainable, quality products that offer satisfying sensory experiences.

The organizers of the event, Ezio Manzini and his colleagues in the design faculty of Politecnico di Milano, also Domus Academy, and Istituto Europeo di Design, in collaboration with Universita di Scienze Gastronomiche and Slow Food Italia, champion a more strategic approach that demands greater attention to every aspect of design, to product systems, and to more fundamental product experiences.

Manzini railed against the ‘spectacularisation’ of design in post-industrial society and the shallow view which values designers only as ‘communication operators’ brought in to create an image to sell. To him and the others in his group, design needs to [re]emerge as an integral part of social networks, as ‘co-design’ where the designer remains an expert, but one who sits amongst, not stands apart from people. The slow approach is rooted in what happens in local communities and organizations, but to succeed it needs to be international and to form global networks.

Such ideas have been championed by many design professionals for years – under the ‘sustainable’, ‘eco’ or ‘green’ design rubrics. But much of this activity has been in Western Europe or Australia, the continents that had the strongest representation at the Milan seminar. What about the United States – the ‘fast food nation’ with its vast and diverse population, its extensive landmass, and huge corporations? For Slow Design to have a real impact globally the U.S. needs to embrace it.

But we were not well-represented at the seminar. The only presentation was from Carolyn Strauss from slowLab, based in New York City, an emerging nonprofit organization with activities worldwide. Its mission is to promote ‘slowness’ as a positive catalyst for networks and collaborative projects as documented on its website. Slow Water by Cranbrook 3-D students and Project Alabama (now called Alabama Chanin ) by Natalie Chanin shows that there are effective slow approaches to design in the United States.

But in reality slow design may not emerge from the existing design professions, but from new and unforeseen networks of experts and non-experts. These may include concepts like ‘down shifting’ which has gained momentum over the last decade in Australia where people have been taking lower paid jobs, bicycling more, and ‘skip dipping’ (living on the waste dumped in skips at the back of shopping malls). While monolithic American corporations will find it much harder to turn around than smaller regional organizations, some have begun to acknowledge the grassroots. For instance, Wal-Mart’s emerging sustainable strategy is to offer corn-based ethanol at its gas stations throughout the U.S.

Slow + Design can be a new formula for the future. And as Manzini pointed out, it offers design an opportunity to resolve some of the problems it has helped to create.

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  • Courtesy slowLab
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  • Courtesy Sustainable Everyday Project
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