Change by Design (or by Disaster)


Company: econcept, Agentur für nachhaltiges Design (Sustainable design agency)
Design and innovation for sustainable products, services and systems
Cologne, Germany

Our world is changing in a way that can only make humanists cringe. Causal investigation is being done – big data and mass manipulation through psychologically sophisticated, customised social media communication has been found to be a cause. Anyone who regards this to be a conspiracy should read Mikael Krogerus and Hannes Grassegger’s article on the psychologist Michal Kosinski [1].

But we are in desperate need for completely different changes towards ecological and social sustainability. Education must be improved so that populists and propagandists have a harder time shaping public opinion. We need more grassroots movements that show those in power that they can’t just do whatever they want. And we need more binding international agreements with specific targets, such as the climate protection agreement. Ultimately, we have to bid adieu to the absurd ideology of growth. There cannot be infinite grown on a finite planet with finite space. This is something that must be taught in schools (of economy), and economic and political systems need to observe this. We should be less fearful of each other and see diversity and multiculturalism as a bonus instead of a threat. People have been migrating since the beginning of time. The global community has to finally understand that we are all in the same boat and that we will get nowhere if we keep putting an emphasis on our own nation state – in some cases even up against the rest of the world – and we have to do something about climate change. Otherwise change will only happen by disaster. When economy and politics no longer serve the people and people are only supposed to function in order to maintain this big system that actually only serves a minority of privileged people, then of course the majority is going to become unhappy and indignant, providing the perfect breeding grounds for radical ideologies; a phenomenon we are currently witnessing.

But can design even play a role here? What can we designers accomplish? Well, we have been accomplishing a lot:

Traditionally, product designers or communication designers/advertisers have lent their services to the above mentioned system whose only goal it is to make the rich richer and to keep cheap labour and willing consumers in their hamster wheel.

One by one, we designers can just stop doing that. Even if many designers still think they don’t have a choice, that they are stuck in the system and are just vicarious agents of the industry, they do have alternatives.

Design takes place where production and consumption intersect. Designers usually work for a company, but they design things for the company’s customers and consumers/users. The decisions that are made in the product development phase have a great influence on what really happens in the production and pre-production, on how the users use the product and what happens with the product when it is no longer used. So if informed designers create ecologically and socially meaningful products with sustainably planned lives, if the conception of the product’s use is sustainable, then there is a high probability that the product will also have that effect – even within the existing system. Of course designers have to make an income and the companies they work for have to make a profit – but not at any cost. Which is why it is extremely exciting for designers to work together with companies on new business models for sustainable goods, such as selling service systems instead of products, for example, or closing product/material cycles. But designers have to learn the right skills in order to be a consultant.

Ursula Tischner, econcept: Rent-O-Box
The Rent-O-Box is a mobile, self-sufficient flexible office unit that produces its own power and water, it can be rented by modern office nomads on a temporary basis. A sustainable product and service concept. Design: econcept, Agentur für nachhaltiges Design

The sphere of a designer’s influence depends on the context they work in. Product or communication designers/advertisers who work for big companies usually have a lot of guidelines they have to work by and have little room to manoeuvre. If the company isn’t very interested in sustainability, then the designer has less of chance to do something. But even in this type of context, the designer can still bring up topics, point out newly passed legislature, make suggestions and use the environmental awareness of the clients as an argument, for example. In smaller owner-run businesses you would have to get the management on board, which usually opens up the possibility to make suggestions for more radical changes. Freelance designers who develop their own projects have much greater opportunities. Luckily there is an increasing number of socio-preneurs, freelancers and start-ups that are developing business concepts that give them the chance to make a living while at the same time doing something for the good of society and the environment.

Design can also be manipulative. To put it positively, that means influencing consumer behaviour toward more sustainability. Product and communication design always have an influence on consumers/users. This is especially clear in the case of advertising, even if some experts claim that classic advertising no longer works because consumers are flooded with information, which is why there are social media campaigns. In the field of product design, we talk about “product language” or “product semantics” which have different functions. Which means that the way a product looks and feels and how obvious its functions are or not are all things that influence the decision to buy a product when the potential buyer/user picks it up, looks at it and tries it out. Influencing user behaviour towards sustainability works well through “nudging” and other strategies. On the one hand, we try to make the connection between consumer behaviour and ecological and social aspects more obvious to the users. On the other hand, we try to challenge them a little bit or to give them a direction, maybe with a bit of humour or fun elements in order for them to change their normal behaviour, to get them to try something new. Then of course there is the option of just making environmentally unfriendly behaviour impossible with product design, which is rather authoritarian and can be found, for example, in automated processes in the smart-eco-home.

There can only be a societal transformation towards sustainability if we change ourselves, if people change in their personal life and their professional life. You can call on institutions, politics and companies, but who is the politician, who is the business person? They are all people. That means that we have to search for personal transformation and have to ask ourselves how we can change our own behaviour. For this will change the company and then maybe policy will follow suit. But we feel safe in our routines, we don’t even have to think about it, they are practical in a behavioural-economical way. About 80% of our daily behaviour is routine. We take the same roads to work, buy the same groceries at the supermarket, always go to the same restaurants etc. Changing learnt and routine behaviour initially means making more of an effort and the results are unknown. For example, we don’t know if the food in a new restaurant is as good as the food in our normal restaurant. The same goes for new and unfamiliar products that demand different behaviour. Even if Francis Picabia said that our heads are round so that our thoughts can change directions, we are still creatures of habit.

There is a theory or social learning that encompasses 4 elements:

(1) The awareness that there is a problem

(2) People have an intrinsic or extrinsic motivation to change their behaviour

(3) People have the opportunity to try out new behaviour and finally

(4) Positive Reinforcement. I need positive reinforcement when having tried out a new behaviour. Maybe I can save money by doing something or I can gain some sort of satisfaction from it, or the people around me think it’s great that I am doing it etc.

This is how I integrate positive behavioural patterns into my life.

Designers can help out this social-learning-cycle: We can communicate better and more adequately for specific target audiences (e.g. through story telling or edutainment) in order to raise more awareness about issues of sustainability and to show the connection between these issues and our personal behaviour. Then we can try to strengthen extrinsic or intrinsic motivation by showing them positive role models and examples or by making abstract issues of sustainability more emotional, showing what is happening in other countries and what sustainability can look like, that it can be fun etc. We as designers can make a big difference within the realm of possibilities, that is our job as product designers. We design infrastructures, products, services, social innovations – and these are the ways we can make people act more sustainably. After all, we have to make sure that the new behaviour is a positive experience. We can organise positive feedback, for example through communities, peer groups or by saving money or just by the fact that you feel better or you have a better conscience etc.

The following image shows our “A2D2C Model” (Awareness, Despair, Design, Change, Celebrate) that illustrates what I have explained above.

Ursula Tischner
A2D2C Model, Design: Ursula Tischner

And last but not least, I want to point out that, besides being used by negative propagandists, social media can also be used as an enabling platform, which has the great potential to help start positive transformations. We launched a public design and innovation platform for sustainability which is the result of a European research project. innonatives is a participatory design and innovation platform where individuals as well as institutions such as NGOs, businesses, politicians, scientists, teachers and students can initiate and/or take part in innovations and design projects that are relevant for sustainability. It also offers a crowd-funding module so that the realisation of projects can be financed by the general public. It also helps the implementation of good sustainable solutions, for example through online shops and an international network of experts. The platform brings together crowd-sourcing, crowd-voting, crowd-funding and other open source approaches and supports global sustainable development.

That way, the platform innonatives offers many people the opportunity to shape their future together with like-minded people, and hopefully this future will be enjoyable and sustainable.

[1] “I only pointed out that there was a bomb”, psychologist Michal Kosinski developed a method to meticulously analyse people according to their behaviour on facebook. And with that he helped Donald Trump win the presidential election. In: Das Magazin N°48 – 3 December 2016

Ministerium NRW



Ursula Tischner: Portrait

Ursula Tischner

Ursula Tischner studied architecture, art and industrial design and specialised in sustainable design with her agency econcept. Over the last 25 years, she has realised numerous sustainable design projects, consulting and research and has had many teaching contracts in Germany and abroad.

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