19 July 2023

“A Radical Renaissance”: How the Climate Crisis is Changing the Role of Designers

The third edition of the To Think journal series urges designers to converge with “big business” to devise more effective solutions to the climate crisis.


“Seven once-in-a-thousand-year extreme weather occurrences happened in 2022 and this year will be even worse,” says A Plastic Planet and Plastic Free co-founder Siân Sutherland. It has already caused drought in Southern Europe, food supply chain issues, and put countries in the Global South at risk of floods, she adds.


According to Sutherland, “we’d been told this was going to happen”, so why didn’t we try to stop it? The short answer is that “we live in an era of fear” and confusion, she says, where “big business” is not moving fast enough to right the environmental wrongs of the past.


Sutherland’s career started in advertising and then hospitality as she set up a restaurant in Soho, London, before she started her own branding consultancy. After creating a successful pregnancy skincare brand through her agency, Sutherland says she was looking to leave the business, but then had “a plastic epiphany”.


This set her on track to “turn off the tap of plastic rather than dealing with waste” and start campaign group A Plastic Planet. Through governments and laws, the group aims to put pressure on businesses to make much needed changes, working with them to decipher climate-conscious solutions.




 “Inspiring design-led change”


Made Thought creative director Ben Parker first met Sutherland when she started A Plastic Planet and worked with her on the aesthetics and user experience for its material solution platform Plastic Free. After working together for six years, Parker invited Sutherland to co-edit the third edition of Made Thought’s To Think journal. The journal series urges designers and businesses to think deeper about solutions to the climate crisis and encourage optimism instead of fear.


The 2023 edition focusses on how we can “accelerate towards a new future”, comprises interviews from 12 experts working in different fields such as population, consumerism, energy, the ocean and materiality. The experts are “bound by their ability to think beyond the climate crisis and ask, “How are we going to live?”, looking at what the energy systems of tomorrow might be and how we can harness materials from infinite resources, says Parker.


Only one coloured image appears in the journal’s third edition, depicting golfers playing at the Beacon Rock Golf Course in Oregon, USA, as a wildfire blazes behind them. Parker thinks that this “perfectly captures the feeling we all have” about the climate crisis: being “powerless to impact it”. He stresses that the rest of the journal is “the antithesis of that feeling”, looking to dispel fear and inspire design-led change.




 Designers can give businesses confidence


Sutherland is a strong believer that “business is the tool of change” as it can make people “move on mass” whereas “little pockets of people who live sustainability are not moving the dial”. In light of this, most of the ideas presented in the journal apply to industries, however, Sutherland suggests that individuals can still make a difference on an industrial scale.


“When you go into work every day, that’s where you have the most power, whether you’re in the design community or any other industry. It not when you take a reusable bag to Tesco,” she says.


While businesses have “the tools and finances”, Parker believes they lack confidence, which is where designers come in. Sutherland adds that designers and creatives can be “the catalyst and the inspiration that give industries the belief that they can do it”.


Since “the worlds of business and design are converging”, Parker says that people’s understanding of what design can do needs to change. It should be less about the aesthetic outcome and more about design thinking, which he says To Think aims to reinforce.


Parker says that he sees “a radical renaissance” on the horizon for creative roles as they are reinvented with “a new responsibility” to “sell change” to businesses.


Equally, designers have to ensure they are informed about what the future might look like – another purpose of To Think – as a design company has to be aware of “how that change is going to happen” to be able to “service clients properly”, according to Parker. He says that leaders of design teams also need to make an effort to make their team believe that “every single project they do is starting to move the needle in a different direction”.



“Driven by outrage and optimism”


“The making of this journal isn’t what this is about, its what we do with it now”, says Sutherland.


She believes that a massive mental shift needs to take place across all industries in order to foster a better future. “There’s no such thing as the green economy, there’s just the economy”, Sutherland states. On a design industry level, she expresses frustration at how design awards have a sustainability category questioning, “why is that something we even have to delineate and put in a separate box?”


Parker considers the first interview in the journal with Population Matters director and environmental campaigner Robin Maynard, picking out a quote in which he says he is “driven by outrage and optimism”. He says “we need those two in equal measure” to make change.


“There are 160 million creatives on planet right now with the potential to change everything, from systems and materials to the way we think”, Parker adds. Realising that you are “not alone in this mix of outrage and optimism” is crucial to progress, says Sutherland, as “isolation is really disempowering”.


“We’re at a moment in time where if we don’t come together and creative a cohesive unified human network, we are not going to be able to move fast enough,” she adds.



Written by: Abbey Bamford

Source: Design Week