Designer x Activist = A Better World?

“Who speaks for the earth?” Douglas Burnham said to an audience of activists not long ago. “Who speaks for the planet? Who speaks for people who don’t have power, who aren’t at the table? We designers are in that position.”
The Founding Partner of Envelope: Architecture + Design, Douglas was one of the panelists at Metropolis Magazine’s Think Tank at O+A in December. As an architect with an acute sense of his profession’s social and cultural responsibilities, he embodied in real practice a theme that others in the room probably considered aspirational: Designer x Activist.

The theme was Verda’s, sparked by soul-searching during her Food for Thought Truck project and a general anxiety over where the world seemed headed.

“Originally I thought oh this is my midlife crisis or my burnout or whatever,” she told the panel, “but as I was doing the truck project I realized it’s really a response to O+A and other design firms designing for the corporate one percent . These beautiful workplaces and all these amenities continuing this culture of ease, and I kept thinking there’s got to be more we can do.”

When Metropolis Editor-in-Chief Avinash Rajagopal called about O+A hosting the magazine’s final Think Tank of the year, Verda knew what she wanted to talk about. “This is the only thing that matters right now.”

The “this” is design that takes into account the inequities of 21st century economics and the cascade of crises approaching with climate change and seeks in tangible ways to mitigate them.  It’s the idea of designers and architects using their influence in an industry that eventually touches all the other industries (because everyone works in a workplace and lives in a dwelling that has to be at some level “designed”) to take a leading role in… well, speaking for the earth. 

So it was an audience of already-primed-for-action designers, students and concerned citizens that gathered at O+A to engage in a discussion on what the community can do to nudge their clients toward more socially responsible planning and earth-friendly building. Rounding out the panel with Verda, Avi and Douglas, JD Beltran, Director of CCA’s Center for Impact, emphasized how big changes come from individual choices. “I think the only way that we can address these issues is through starting with our own personal actions. A lot of that power actually resides in the fact that we are all consumers.”  And how we consume, she continued, drives the market for what we consume. What we consume and what we throw away:

“At The Center for Impact we have this weekly Trash Talk,” JD said. “We meet around lunchtime and our facilities staff literally teaches students proper recycling when they throw away their lunches. We give them a cookie if they make the right choices.”

“I’m not ashamed to admit I need a Trash Talk,” Avi said. 

Douglas added, “It’s surprising. People don’t know. Every time I look at the trash bins in the office, I think how can people with advanced degrees…?” A crash of laughter drowned out the rest.

Everyone agreed individual effort had to be the foundation of change, but Verda pressed the panel for a broader definition of engagement. “I think activism goes beyond that and maybe it’s because of the times we’re in. It’s like there’s a moral and ethical dimension to it now. I don’t want to be an activist in that way, but I feel like I don’t have a choice.” Her question was how could designers use their profession as a base for leadership on the issue?

One answer: talk bottom line. “Working a spreadsheet is a super powerful thing that designers can do,” Douglas said. “A lot of my employees are like, ‘Spreadsheets, ugh!’ and I’m like, no. Spreadsheets are so powerful because they are the tools of business. Business people, people making decisions, powerful decisions about whether a project happens or doesn’t happen, really it lives and dies in a spreadsheet.”

So one form designer activism can take is to explain to clients the cost benefits, long term, of doing the right thing. It’s a point made more and more frequently in design negotiations—the cost of specifying sustainable materials may be higher up front, but amortize it over an extended life cycle, factor in the impact on employee well-being and the favorable impression you make on your customers and it becomes not just the right, but the smart thing to do. 

“We have a saying here,” Primo spoke up from the audience. “Everything you do is your brand. We should always think about sustainability; we should always think about the public good. That’s part of our power as designers. It’s an important thing to our practice at O+A. It should be important to the people who hire us.”

Here perhaps is a path to the widest possible impact. With awareness growing of the pickle the planet is in even giant corporations want to be seen as good citizens. Make your design firm synonymous with responsible practice, sustainable specifications and advocacy for good, and the very act of hiring an O+A or an Envelope: Architecture + Design will itself become a way of speaking for the earth.