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Transparency: can we make sustainability visible?

A key problem we often address through sustainable design is transparency. For example, we’d like to make it more transparent how the materials in your products connect to the natural environment (both as raw materials and as waste). We’d like to make it possible for people to see and understand buildings and products in new ways.

Maybe seeing inside enables you to repair and maintain these things for longer. Maybe seeing inside shows you what can be salvaged if something breaks or gets outdated. Transparency, we hope, adds new layers of meaning that ultimately change behavior.

transparent speaker by People People

So why not run an exercise with students asking how they can apply the idea of transparency to a current design problem. In a literal example, Swedish company People People’s transparent speaker shows that a transparent casing can have aesthetic as well as environmental benefits.

Ask students to think about where else this literal transparency is beneficial, but also how design decisions add transparency. An example might be the decision for a designer to seek a certain label or rating, such as a building rating, or a system that lets end users track materials and processes that went into production.

In the Designers Atlas of Sustainability there’s a section on the many ways that materials are invisible, for example through the sheer scale of material use that we don’t see, and through the lack of knowledge we have about what materials are made of. Thinking about invisibility can also help guide students on where we need more transparency.

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