Can Responsible Design Also Be Desirable?

Can Responsible Design Also Be Desirable?

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Cambria Bold
Aug 8, 2011

Philippe Starck's Zartan chair. Responsibly designed, yes. But desirable?

What does it really mean to have an "environmentally responsible" design? While most designers would probably confess that, yes, design should be environmentally conscious, you're likely to get a whole host of answers on what that actually means in practice. The New York Times explored this issue further by examining three groups of designs they deemed 1) environmentally responsible but not desirable, 2) desirable but not environmentally conscious, and 3) both desirable and environmentally-conscious. Here's what they discovered:

Responsible but not desirable.

Phones and chairs are the two design groups that often fall under this category. Products like Samsung's Replenish phone score lots of green points (made from materials that are 82 percent recyclable, including a case composed of 35 percent recycled plastic; fully recyclable packaging printed with soy ink), but the overall look is "clumsily shaped in garish colors with tacky typography." Chairs don't fare much better; while "the furniture industry has been disappointingly slow to embrace its environmental responsibilities," Italian furniture maker Magis and French designer Philippe Starck are working on Zartan, a chair whose seats and frame will be made from a specially formulated recyclable and biodegradable organic material. But like the Replenish phone, so far the reviews on its looks are far less than stellar.

Desirable but not responsible.

The number one desirable but not responsible product? Incadescent light bulbs. As The New York Times writes, only 15 percent of the energy incandescent bulbs generate is used to produce light. The rest is heat—which makes it woefully inefficient. Yet despite the huge sums invested in the development of energy efficient light sources, "so far none of them has matched the incandescent's warm, soulful light." (Hopefully we'll find some good alternatives in our Lightbulb Wars series.)

Responsible and desirable.

Because many of us already own more than we need, designers are moving away from developing more stuff and more towards ideas to help us use what we have more efficiently. A great example of this, according to the Times, is UK-based WhipCar, an online car club through which you can rent your car to other people at times when you do not need it, or hire someone else's car. (We couldn't agree with this idea more! Click here for our A-Z guide to sharing, swapping, and selling almost anything.)

But the design trophy for responsible yet desirable goes to Italian designer Martino Gamper for his line of recycled furniture scoured from the streets and flea markets of Turin.

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What do you think about this idea? Why is there such a disconnect? Can you think of examples that fit into one of these three categories? What about the idea of a design that lasts, a piece that isn't necessarily made with sustainable materials but that you'll have forever? Should that be a consideration as well?

Read More: Good-Looking and Responsible Design at The New York Times

(Image: Modern Chair Design)

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