problem solving

Sustainability baffle gab

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Every system is, by definition, self referring and every organism self perpetuating.
Personalized Results 1 – 10 of about 2,020,000 Dutch and English pages for sustainability [definition]. (0.16 seconds)

I’ve spent the last few weeks surfing the “sustainability web” and with some uneasiness have discovered the word “sustainability” has not lost it’s meaning, but rather means something different to everyone who uses it. The word is greatly bandied about in design circles of every orbit and it is perhaps naive of me to assume that the world wide conversation on this topic was focused on the sustainability of life here on the only planet known to have any and by every measure of value ever devised or conceived of, the most valuable thing in the universe. So, when I discovered the focus of many sustainability conversations was in fact on self sustainability of various non living systems, organizations and porfessional relationships I began, with a slightly vague feeling of despair, to look for the missing descriptors in the conversation.

Chris Messina,” while writing on a different topic, put his finger on the very words I was looking for: “fish tailing” and “razor sharp focus”

“5. Be clear about the problem you’re solving. Nothing spells disaster for a design process more than fishtailing. If you don’t know what problems you’re trying to solve and you don’t have razor-sharp focus on it, chances are you’ll be open to whatever feedback you can get your hands on, grasping for some notion of what the hell you should be working on. This is not design, this is horseshoes and hand grenades.”

Well, after spending much time being green washed with my bullshit meter in the red zone, I came across this little gem of fish tailing and focus blurring over at The David Report,Issue 8/2007: The Sustainable Wheel. “Our interview …with Jennifer Leonard” ( Massive Change – Designboost)
Though there were several ( too many ) slippery wordings that irked me in this interview, I only have time now for one, and this one is it:

DR – “Design has a double role when it is both a driving force for “conspicuous consumption” at the same time as it can make life better for the lots of people. What role has the designer in this situation?”

JL – “The role of the designer is critical. No longer is it good design if the output is all about good looks. If the output (be it a product or a process; a system or a service) sustains over time, then consuming it is a win-win purchase. It destroys what’s known as “conspicuous consumption” and brings to life “conscious consumption.” Designers have the power to take this to the next level and make all things associated with it desirable.”

The first and last lines in this pitch are all about self sustaining designers. Fine, all organisms are self sustaining, but Jennifer’s “next level” is what designers have always done; make all things desirable. Desire is after all, a solvent for that “last inch” between the rational human and the unneeded product.

Her second line, I have interpreted to mean product stylists are no longer sustainable and I’m not sure if that’s what she meant so, I’ll just leave it alone.

I don’t know Jennifer and don’t want to single her out in any way because, this same sort of slippery wording pervades nearly all of the sustainability conversation, across the professions these days. Everyone has a solution that involves them doing what they always do. Never the less, the third and fourth lines in her response are as slippery and blurry as a jelly fish and perfectly underscore my irk on the sustainability front.


“If the output (be it a product or a process; a system or a service) sustains over time, then consuming it is a win-win purchase.”

Every product, process, system, or service sustains over time and every organism sustains over time, for however long it can. Here, we need some razor sharp distinctions: life is reproductive and self sustaining; productive output, processes, systems and services are stone dead.
Correct me if I’m wrong here, but as I understand it the sustainability issue is centered on a fundamental imbalance between productive output, processes, systems and services that consume and poison life, and life’s ability to sustain it’s self. life is the valuable thing here. More valuable in the past, now and for any conceivable future than any system of governance, philosophy, religion, nation, state, city, system of debts and most certainly more valuable than any factory out put of merely non living products. It’s not something we can squander without destroying ourselves and this is unavoidably clear now. Selling unneeded products to the gullible misses the mark by miles. I don’t need a redesigned bike. My old ten speed was just fine until it was stolen and the cheap bike I have now seems to work well enough. It has a rear fender. I for sure, wouldn’t be caught dead on a bike that looked like a designers conspicuous hand job.

Here’s the spin.

“It destroys what’s known as “conspicuous consumption” and brings to life “conscious consumption.”

The conspicuous consumer is a very conscious one. We can sum this sentence up by removing these two words.

Pure baffle gab. http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~jsa3/hum355/readings/ellul.htm
If it can be stylized life probably doesn’t need it.

Well, of course designers must re-stylize things, just as factories must produce more goods; the choice is “cake or death.” Cake is the unnecessary consuming of unneeded products and death is designing, producing, processing and systematizing nothing at all. The factory must produce something for the people who already have everything or die and so, the factory owner turns to the designer to give the old stuff, everyone who can pay already has, a new green look. The designer is only to happy to comply, as without this unnecessary consumption the designer / re-styler is also dead. Most organisms get a bit wiggly and begin to “fishtail” franticly when faced with death.

The new cake has blurry green icing and will hopefully sustain the factory and designer for a little while longer.


Written by aedh

January 5, 2008 at 7:01 pm

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