Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Lost in Translation?

Lost in Translation?
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Rodrigo Teixeira recently got in touch with me from Brazil. He had just started a new blog and wanted to ask a few questions. I tried my best to respond succinctly, but (once again) got carried away. He has since translated this interview into Portuguese, but I wanted to share it here as well, for interested English speaking parties.

How did you become a designer? What’s your background and design education?

I think I’ve always been a designer—it just took me a while to figure that out. As a child I drew logos and created amateurish magazines and comics with a pencil and paper. When I finished public school I chose to study painting at Emily Carr University in Vancouver.

Upon completing my schooling there (with only one class in design) I spent several years working as a painter. This involved painting all day, and working in production at a newspaper throughout the evening. This was an interesting time, in which I had the opportunity to work on my paintings and also learn the ins-and-outs of design software, prepress, and printing procedures.

After five years of this, however, I decided that I wanted to do one thing well instead of straddling two very different pursuits. That’s when I started talking to my friend (and now business partner) Eric Shelkie about how exciting the web was, and the possibility of starting a studio concentrated on the web. Shortly thereafter we were on our way, and that’s when our real educations began.

When did you start working on issues related to sustainability? At what point did this subject became a real concern for you?

Sustainability was something I had always been cognizant of, but for a long time lacked the wherewithal to do much about. I find that my moods and thinking can be quite paradoxical; while I’m an optimist about a great many things, I also become cynical and fearful at times. The latter has certainly been the case when it comes to consumption. Even when I was young I would look at how much we consume (and waste) and wonder how long we could keep behaving in such a fashion.

In 2006 my wife and I were awaiting the birth of our first child. (We knew that once he arrived we’d have fewer opportunities to see movies in theaters, so, we were taking in as many as we could.) One of them was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and it had a huge impact on me. In my mind, Gore did something with that film that few had done before.

It wasn’t as though what he was saying something that hadn’t been said before. The brilliance of his film was largely in how he did it. First of all, it wasn’t made for the “greens,” but instead the general populace. Meanwhile, the choice of format was pivotal. By starting with a film and then getting into more depth with a book, he was able to make the subject matter palatable for anyone to engage in. More than that, though, he shone a light on things we all need to be aware of, while starting to suggest what we can do to change things for the better. It’s one thing to talk about how fucked we are, and quite another to find hope and empower people to act.

My only problem with the film was that he hardly said a thing about design. This was likely due to the general nature of the audience, but it seemed as though he had missed something huge that he perhaps shouldn’t have.

Explain the concept behind the Design Can Change project.

Around the time that we saw that film, we had been looking for resources on sustainable graphic design. Aside from Eric Benson’s Re-nourish and the Design by Nature effort heralding from Australia, there was painfully little information available. If memory serves we weren’t even able to find a book in print that dealt with this specific topic. (I should note that this is no longer the case.) So, our first priority became to create a site that could serve as a starting point for designers interested in employing more sustainable practices in their work.

The idea had a few facets to it. One, as noted, was simply to start a discussion, and get designers to think about the impact they could have. Another was to facilitate connections between buyers of design services and designers who were making a commitment to more sustainable practices. The other was to showcase sustainable design projects. Unfortunately, we have, for the most part, “dropped the ball” on that last point.

Nowadays, it seems that everybody is claiming to be “green.” But when we dig deeper we often find that most of these changes are little than marketing. How can we convince our clients to make real change? And how can we separate one thing from another?

This is a huge and very complicated issue. Part of it relates to intention. Some organizations are simply unaware of the issue and what they can do. Others are concerned, but inadvertently greenwash, in spite of best intentions, because they don’t understand the implications of what they are doing and saying. And then there are those organizations who simply don’t care. They fully understand that they are doing damage to the ecosystem, but willingly greenwash in order to protect their brands.

All of these groups—aside from the last—can be worked with. Their challenge is largely one of ignorance. I want to be clear here: I don’t mean stupidity, I mean that they simply don’t have the required information to act in a more effective and fruitful fashion. So, to answer your question, it’s our job as communicators to learn as much as we can on this topic, and then share this information with our clients both directly (one-on-one discussions) and indirectly (thought leadership). In doing so, we enable them to make real change.

And for those who greenwash with more nefarious intentions, we need another tactic. Ultimately, they are the enemy, and we must attack them as such. We can do this through both information and action. By asking the populace to think critically about the messages they are confronted with, we can better weed out those messages that are more dubious in nature. I sincerely believe that most people do care about this issue and will make good decisions once the path is made clear. Knowing which organizations are doing ill can enable consumers to boycott those brands and demand more sustainable options.

After you make this subject so public, did you notice a increase, or decrease in the amount of work in your studio?

Aside from some associated publicity with this effort, Design Can Change has had very little impact on our core business—be it for the better or for the worse. I think this effort has been a nice “bonus” for a couple of groups who have enlisted our services, but I feel that for most, the two are seen as independent (and largely unrelated) pursuits.

This is, in part, a deliberate decision. At the time we felt it would seem self-serving if we coupled smashLAB and Design Can Change too closely. Our concern was that if we weren’t careful, viewers might see the effort as a ploy to bring work into our studio. While we likely didn’t need to worry in this way, we also didn’t want to run the risk of compromising the message in any way.

I should, however, note that we’ve been loosening up about this a little as of late. In the future I would like to talk more deliberately about our thoughts on this topic, and tie them to the expertise we can tap in our agency to make a difference. It would be nice to partner with organizations that want to make sustainability a core concern in their operations.

Now that you see this changes happening from inside, are you a optimist or a pessimist about climate change?

My emotions on this point vacillate widely. The difficulty for me is that although I feel a responsibility to act on this topic, I lack much of the pertinent knowledge to speak on the issue from a suitably educated standpoint. I am not a scientist, nor am I a climate expert, therefore, all I have to go by is what I read.

Lately I have been making my way through some books that paint a very dark picture for the upcoming century. While they do point out some potential large scale solutions, my fear is that the collective will still doesn’t exist. This is an anecdotal observation; it’s just that as I listen to the discussions most are having, and the limited change we’re really ready to make, I fear that we’re not taking this issue seriously enough.

We’re an amazingly innovative species and seem to be able to adapt quite readily when challenges present themselves. Technologies are being developed, smart people are talking, and change is happening… but it seems to be happening quite slowly. Again, what we need is for there to be the will to accelerate these efforts.

I think it’s going to have to get really bad before most people are ready to do much, and by then it may be (if it isn’t already) too late. My guess is that we will then act, and find ways to carry on. Tragically, in the process some of the more vulnerable populations may face devastating consequences.

What advice would you provide to designers that want to be more effective in sustainability issues? Where should they begin?

My first suggestion is to start reading. Grab one or two books on climate change and start to dig into what all of this means. The fact of the matter is that many designers think the topic is limited to selecting recycled papers and using vegetable-based inks, when it is actually a massive, systemic challenge. In my experience, the more I learn, the more I want to… and the more sophisticated my thinking surrounding sustainability becomes. It’s a fascinating topic, and perhaps the most interesting challenge we’ve ever faced as a species.

My second suggestion is for designers to ask what side of the battle they want to be on. Do they want to play a part in the survival of the human race? Or, are they in it for themselves and nothing else? For a very long time, our industry has been locked in the latter role. We’ve made pretty pictures to help sell more stuff that few of us even need. Sure, this is a little oversimplified, but not altogether untrue, I think you’ll agree.

Billions of dollars are spent in advertising every year, to continue to fuel consumption. Most of this serves the sole purpose of helping a limited few amass atrocious wealth. In spite of what some may be led to believe, there is a very real cost to this. And perversely, this price is largely paid by almost everyone else—most often the poor—none-to-mention all the other life forms on this planet.

We need to be the generation that rises to the challenge, and for designers, what better opportunity to create a legacy for future generations? Perhaps, for a moment, we can all put aside our work selling soda, sneakers, and the “latest and greatest” gadget, and instead work on the most important communications campaign of all time: the education and mobilization of the earth’s inhabitants to extend our stay on this (rather remarkable) planet.

Do you know much about Brazil, or any designers from here? What’s your perspective on what’s going on here?

I have never had the privilege of visiting Brazil, and am embarrassed to say that I know very little about what designers are doing there. So, now I will turn the tables. With your new blog, perhaps you can write some posts on what is happening there, so that people like me can become better educated on the state of sustainable design in Brazil. What do you think?

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

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