Design has a long history of commitment to addressing social environmental issues. This includes: design movements of the 19th century that sought to improve working conditions for craftspeople; designers critical of consumerist society in the 1970s and 80s who proposed alternative solutions to real world issues; the market-led approaches that emerged in the 1980s and 90s, such as ecodesign ; and recent programmes, such as Design Against Crime funded by the UK Home Office, Design Council and Department of Trade and Industry . These different approaches demonstrate the range of issues that have been impacted on by the design movement.
Triggered by social unrest in the 1960s, the ecological movement in the United States drew attention to environmental damage, high levels of pollution and the potential depletion of the world’s resources. Fuelled by the oil crisis, this was initially a radical movement. Designers were urged to consider wider implications of their actions in terms of quality of life and the future of society. Increased consumer and business interest in green issues gave rise to ‘green design’ and ecodesign in the 1980s Whiteley, 1993. While ‘green design’ largely deals with single environmental issues—typically recycling, energy efficiency or design for durability—ecodesign adopts a lifecycle approach. Consequently, environmental impact is considered across the product’s life, from material extraction through to eventual disposal . Ecodesign has now matured to embrace all environment-oriented design activities . In addition, ‘sustainable design’ is attempting to link environmental issues with the social and economic factors related to quality of life.
Ecodesign projects have developed environmentally friendly packaging, re-designed textile ranges, changed manufacturing processes and created the ecodesign ‘Kitchen of the Future’ as part of a competition organised by the Austrian Design Institute . To support the sustainability agenda, architects have developed “green buildings” that maximise use of natural daylight, enhance air quality, support water recycling, re-use existing buildings, exploit existing transport systems , reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses, utilise renewable energy sources and introduce alternative technologies . Landscape architects have created planted spaces and incorporated greenery into design schemes, as a means of reducing environmental impact and humanising the environment .
Design has also addressed a range of issues related to the financing, manufacture and trade of goods, both nationally and internationally. In “Design for the real world,” Papanek (1985) introduced the notion of design for the ‘Third World’, where basic tools for people struggling for survival were produced. Examples of responsible designs included geodesic domes, disaster shelters and muscle-powered vehicles for use in the developing world. Originating from Schumacher’s seminal work ‘Small is Beautiful’, ‘Appropriate Technologies’ (AT) for the developing world was also introduced. Appropriate Technologies aimed to achieve low capital costs, use local labour and materials and create jobs, as well as be controlled by local people and be appropriate to their needs .
“Design for the Real World” proved difficult to implement as it depended on local knowledge and support. New approaches emerged, such as Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), which enabled consumers of financial products to engage with global issues . SRI is a way for people to invest money, without compromising their morals, values or belief systems. Ethnical investors exclude companies that are involved in activities considered harmful, such as the arms trade, tobacco manufacture and goods tested on animals, and are offered a range of ethical investment options suited to their particular beliefs. Social investors invest in activities that actively promote a better society by, for example, promoting fair trade. SRI originated from the desire of investors to avoid supporting the Vietnam War, and came to the fore in the 1980s .
Papanek (1985; 1995) also introduced design for disabled people, design for older people and the design of hospitals and medical products and equipment . These issues are currently addressed under the umbrella of Universal Design. Universal Design, as it is known in the US, or Inclusive Design in the UK, aims to create products and environments that are usable by all people—without the need for adaptation or specialised design. One of the leading exponents of Inclusive Design in the UK—The Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Research Centre—attracts support from the UK Design Council and leading industrialists.
Feminists in the 1970s and 80s pointed out that minorities and larger groups without sufficient purchasing power could not have their needs met or contribute to design policy. This was because architecture, products and technologies were largely produced by white, middle-class men from the Western World for consumers who could afford to buy. Feminists aimed to increase the representation of women within the design profession, and were involved in specific user-led and resident-led projects . In the UK, feminism failed to radically alter the design of products, environments and communications. In Germany and Austria, however, women’s rights were integrated into the practices of local authorities and governments, resulting in the design of housing and public spaces to meet the needs of women and family-friendly policies .
The SRD movement contained individuals who felt that problems stem from our capitalist or consumerist society and that radical action, rather than market-oriented, mainstream approaches, are needed to change society. In ‘Design for the Real World’, Papanek (1985) launched a damning attack on the design profession and its role in the creation of consumer society:
"There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them...Today, industrial design has put mass murder on a mass production basis."
To Papanek, designers were the “handmaiden’s of capitalism”. Designers were urged to abandon design for profit, and apply their skills to addressing societal problems. He advocated a problem-solving, compassionate and anti-consumerist approach.
Margolin and Margolin (2002) present a “Social Model” of design that shows how product design may be used to satisfy human needs and improve the physical and social environment. This does not preclude designers from producing products for sale, the “Social Model” and “Market Model” are simply two poles on a continuum. Margolin and Margolin do not pit designers against others, but recognise that they are likely to find allies in professions such as health, education, crime prevention and social work.