While much lip service has been paid to the term ‘thinking out of the box’, the box has dominated design for the past several decades. On the whole we live in boxes, we drive boxes, we watch boxes. Streets became rows of boxes, cars became boxes on four wheels and home entertainment systems became stacks of boxes. Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this societal obsession with boxes is the fact that the box is rarely the most efficient, practical or aesthetically pleasing shape for a building or product.
Great designers know their greatest enemy is an assumption, for the moment they assume that this solution is better than that solution their design capabilities become compromised. Innovation is not an exact science; its acquisition can be almost instantaneous or take several decades. There are no special formulas for its creation. However, there are some essential ingredients. The world’s most pioneering innovators are curious; they have more questions than answers. They are never know-it-alls. They are highly knowledgeable, for a side effect of their curiosity is the assembly of a great deal of information through observation, experimentation and conversation. They are purposeful and their modus operandi is troubleshooting.
A colleague of mine recently commented that there’s a general perception that sustainable product design is ’all Jesus sandals and beads’. His comment referred to the fact that many products dubbed as ‘eco’ or ‘green’ are crude both technically and aesthetically and fail to meet the minimum design standards of many non-eco products. Take for example the average eco bag, which has to be the lowest common denominator in the bag world; two fabric squares sewn together with a strap. Most eco bags have the aesthetic appeal of an ill-fitting toupee and the practicality of a bucket with a hole in it – neither waterproof nor secure, the bags will not protect their contents from the elements nor thieves. Another example is the CFL bulb, which is full of toxic substances, emits a shoddy quality of light that degrades over the lifetime of the product, can trigger migraines and epileptic fits, is a veritable nightmare to recycle and, let’s face it, is generally rather ugly.
While the eco bag and the CFL bulb could be called many things, ‘great’ is not one of them. Both, like many Generation 1.0 green products, are distinctly ‘average’. However average is not a word that can be said of many of the latest generation of sustainable products coming to market. Indeed a growing number of new sustainable products are worthy of terminology such as groundbreaking, pioneering, revolutionary and game-changing. There’s absolutely nothing ‘Jesus sandals’ about Parans’ solar fiber optic lighting, Aptera’s aerodynamic vehicles, Pavegen’s energy harvesting paving systems and Ross Lovegrove’s solar tree street lighting. These products, like many of the new wave of sustainability innovations are nothing short of iconic, meeting the very highest standards technically and aesthetically, as well as sustainability.
The phrase ‘thinking outside of the box’ was first coined in the 1960s and while it’s taken the better part of four decades, it looks like we’re finally starting to embrace its meaning. Our greatest innovators are exploring new design ideologies, new materials and new forms. They haven’t gone back to the drawing board, because most no longer use drawing boards, but they are starting, metaphorically speaking, from a blank sheet. The design rulebook is being re-written. Good riddance to yesterday’s assumptions. While the environmental and social challenges we face may be truly colossal, of one thing we can be absolutely certain; increasingly we are rising to those challenges and in doing so, we are entertaining into, what will almost certainly turn out to be, the most innovative period in our history. The time has come to celebrate the pioneers driving the Industrial [Re]volution; the Arkwrights, the Newcomens, the Chance Brothers, the Tulls and the Telfords of our time. You will not find their names in history books nor encyclopedias, but it’s only a matter of time.
Melissa Sterry, Founder of Societás and NEW FRONTIERS