Can Designers Save the World Without Creating More Stuff?

How to redesign the plastic bag without using any materials at all… and other lessons about the power of design.


It’s not till you’re older that you realize kids are repositories for half-truths. They’re told the most extraordinary things. You could be president some day. You could compete in the Olympics. Grown-ups dispense these fantasies with earnest hope, knowing that the chances of their child fulfilling such a goal are very slim.

“Designers can save the world,” was a common phrase I heard upon entering design school. It was the ultimate half-truth, one that resulted in class critiques filled with eco-inspired projects: billboards lined with solar panels, cell phones made of birdseed, wind-powered villages. Though the sentiment was admirable, these solutions were designed by students with no understanding of real-world economics and politics. Little did we know that to attach even one solar panel onto a billboard can take years of lobbying. That’s the problem with designing for a better planet—most solutions require too much time and result in adding more physical stuff to an already bursting planet.


In his book, By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons, Ralph Caplan advises us not to underestimate the power of situation design, or “the concept of moving from the design of things to the design of the circumstance in which things are used.” He asserts, “The most elegant design solution of the fifties was not the molded plywood chair or the Olivetti Lettera 22 or the chapel at Ronchamp. It was the sit-in.” Finally, a definition of design that emphasizes the economy of time, an understanding of resource availability, and most importantly, using what’s at hand rather than producing more goods to solve a problem.

Had I been armed with Caplan’s definition of situation design, what would I have done differently? If given the chance at a do-over, how would I save the world as a design student? The answer came to me over a carton of orange juice at my neighborhood bodega. In the few seconds it took to dig through my change purse, the cashier had already placed the orange juice in a plastic bag, thrusting it toward me over the counter. As a small-town southerner who had not yet grown past her mild manners, I sheepishly took the plastic sack, despite the empty canvas tote hanging from my shoulder. Now that I’ve grown accustomed to fast-paced urban transactions, I approach the register and blurt out, “No bag please,” with all the practiced anxiety of a Woody Allen film. My shopping neurosis led me to contemplate the thousands of transactions that take place across the world.

That’s when I realized how design could really save the world. Rather than design and market another cute, reusable tote, I would create a campaign to redesign the shopping transaction, a project in which the only product is a question asked by the cashier: “Would you like a bag?” Though this seems like the most minuscule of project goals, giving buyers an option is the first step toward breaking a habit.

It's not like companies aren't trying—they occasionally print encouraging phrases on the bottom of each bag. "Be good to the environment," many plastic bags implore. "Reuse this bag as a garbage can liner." But in the past decade, as plastic bags have come under fire, it seems the only change at the cash register has been an additional rack containing 99-cent reusable tote bags. While we wait for cities, states, and countries to enact plastic bag bans that may take years, one thing is certain: a behavioral change is needed.

We're not alone in this. Earlier this year when reviewing the results of the Design for Change School Contest, an initiative that encourages children in India to target and address an environmental problem in their community, the vast majority of the entries pinpointed plastic bag pollution. Children photographed hundreds of plastic bags clogging drainage systems and waterways. Fortunately, the kids did something about it — they gathered recycled materials and stitched together reusable bags that were subsequently distributed to shoppers in surrounding towns.

So in a case such as this, can designers save the world, or will it continue to be a half-truth? I’m not sure. But the sooner we realize that the simple (and local) answer is sometimes the right answer, we’ll be closer to understanding the true capabilities of designers. Erecting wind turbines in the desert would be nice, but designing a system that encourages kids in the neighborhood to stop littering can result in immediate, meaningful change. Further, if we could mobilize our design schools to act as sentinels that deploy situation design to address problems within local communities, imagine what we could accomplish. It would go far beyond plastic bags.

For designers, it is important to look at the problems and resources at hand without getting lost in fantasies of global healing powers. It is this sort of humility that Caplan emphasizes: “...I have claimed that design solves problems. It often does. But when we call designers problem solvers, the connotations are very grand…It helps to remember that, to a person hungry for scrambled eggs, a short-order cook is a problem solver.”

photo (cc) by Flickr user mastermaq


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