The Perfect Product

I watch the polar ice caps melt on TV and on the Web. Edged in black, these majestic mountains of snow and ice are dropping into the ocean ominously, relentlessly, catastrophically. The black part is the soot (carbon) produced by industrial societies for generations; that same soot captures the sun’s heat, which turns ice into water and makes the oceans swell. As I observe this massive meltdown, I wonder if those who design products for mass production get the same sinking feeling I get. And if they do, what are they doing about it?

Philip White is doing something significant. His e-mail arrives just as we begin to work on applying sustainable thinking to product design. An industrial designer and assistant professor in the School of Sustainability and Industrial Design at Arizona State University, Philip sends in “Okala: Learning Ecological Design,” a comprehensive industrial-design course guide developed with Steve Belletire and Louise St. Pierre, released in time for schools this fall. The guide tells us that okala is a Hopi word that means “life-sustaining energy,” which in turn implies connectivity with past generations’ knowledge and a hope that our time-tested ingenuity can take us through dangerous tides and raging climate change.

This detailed research and analysis of industrial-design education is required reading for anyone who teaches the subject, as well as all who design, manufacture, sell, distribute, or recycle a product (it’s posted on the IDSA’s Web site). It urges them to recognize that their products are made for technologically savvy creatures of nature. A simple graphic, the Ecodesign Strategy Wheel, breaks down the complex problem of supplying a newly sensitized marketplace. It also helped us structure our section on green product design (see 7 Steps in the Life of a Green Product).

This issue marks a moment in time when it’s possible to start measuring the relative greenness of products. The manufacturers have the empirical data, and they’re willing to make it public. As you read through our seven stops on the Okala wheel, think of your attitudes and processes. Better yet, think of how you may redefine the words useful and beautiful, for neither of them makes sense in a toxic world. A lot of hard work has already been done to reflect our new values. Will these efforts make the soot disappear from the ice caps? Not by anyone’s calculations. But it’s a good beginning.

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