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The central debates of sustainable design

As the spring season approaches in colleges, conferences, and exhibitions, sustainable design will be higher on the agenda than ever before. While attending the exhibits and lectures, keep in mind the five central debates of sustainable design: 1 responsibility; 2 pace; 3 appearance; 4 geography; and 5 operability.

Who is responsible?

Although designers, clients, governments and consumers all have responsibility for sustainable design, each wants the other to take the lead. Yet the client is uninformed and doesn’t ask. The designer, if knowledgeable, doesn’t want to jeopardize contracts by bringing it up with an uninterested client. Uninformed designers typically can’t afford the time to find out. Governments could legislate higher standards, but only with the support of citizens and corporations. Many citizens, daunted by complex sustainability, hope watchdog organizations will keep governments and corporations in line, making sure nothing “too bad” happens. Each group has responsibility for sustainable design. The question is what kind of responsibility can you take, from where you are now?


What pace of change do we need?

Can we achieve sustainability through incremental improvements, such as energy efficiency and recyclable materials? Or do we need radical, systemic re-invention? Whether you advocate rapid, radical innovation or slow, stable incrementalism, it is important to recognize the value of those traveling at other speeds. A fundamental principle of nature’s sustainability is the ability to conserve (maintain stability through slow-moving parts) while also being able to innovate (through fast moving parts). Sustainability requires some fast and some slow components.

How should it look?

Throughout time, concepts of nature have been captured by the ‘creative industries’ in imagery and representation (paintings, ceremonial objects, tools, architecture, advertising, etc.). These representations served to constrain society’s effect on the environment. For example, viewing earth as a sacred being results in different behavior than viewing earth as a functional mechanism. But sustainability is a complex concept that is difficult to represent. Should design express a cultural concept of sustainability? Should sustainable design look a certain way?

How should we balance local and global?

Sustainability stems from the principle of natural adaptation to local conditions (materials, climate, etc.). But we now have a global economy. Can global companies respond to local needs without destroying local diversity? Designers have a world of materials, production facilities and consumers available to them—is it realistic for them to limit themselves to local economies? Local currencies and cooperative structures may make it possible for “micro” businesses to meet mass market demands without compromising local diversity. Where does the balance lie?

What is the user’s operational role?

Research suggests that developing and using skills is central to human well being, that users need an “operable” world that involves them more, not less (eg operable windows instead of air conditioning, repairable appliances instead of disposable ones). Yet the pressure to save time while attaining maximum efficiencies points towards “smart” technologies that do the thinking and acting for us. How and when should users “operate” sustainable design?

Ann Thorpe is the author of The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability (Island Press 2007). This article is adapted from the book, which presents a full colour, illustrated conceptual overview of the three main landscapes for sustainability—ecology, economy and culture—and how designers can navigate them ( She also publishes a blog at
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