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Design Responsibility

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

By Francesca Zampollo Ph.D.

The core message of this article is the well known sentence “from great powers comes great responsibilities”. This sentence to me talks about design, because designers, in the broadest sense of the word and therefore regardless of what it is designed, have a great power, the power of creating what was not there previously. Therefore, designers have great responsibility.


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In order to unpack the concept of responsibility I will be looking at a second well known sentence: “buy less, buy local, and buy better”. When I read this what I actually see is a shift of responsibility, because what I read is “design less, design local, design better”. When we talk about buying we focus on consumers, people, the responsibility is on them. When instead we talk about designing less, local and better, on the other hand, we are, of course, focusing on designers. I believe consumers, users, people, do not hold the biggest responsibility for the state of the planet and its improvement. After all they can only choose between what is available. I believe it is designers who hold the biggest responsibility for the state of the planet and its improvement, because we are the ones giving consumers the options to choose from. Recycling, or buying only compostable materials, for example, can not be a priority for consumers. While it can be part of the important decisions they take every day, they will do their best, and we can’t ask more of them. For us designers on the other hand, designing is our priority, creating options for consumers is what our life revolves around. Designing only with compostable materials for example, but also designing for regeneration, preservation, and conservation, designing so that consumers can only choose between options that all are good for the environment and for society should be the designers’ priority. This is the shift in responsibility on which I want to bring our attention.

Let’s consider design less.

Simply put there’s too much stuff everywhere. Look around you, and you’ll see there is a lot of everything. Maybe too much of everything. What’s the amount of waste created each year? 300 million tons of municipal solid waste is created each year. But what’s the number of products designed and produced each year? Nobody knows. Isn’t it interesting that so many statistics are made on waste and nothing is made on production? Because guess what: everything that is thrown away was once designed! This is an example of us needing a shift in perspective. Shifting the responsibility from the consumer, to the designers, because we designers are those who create new stuff, wether it’s products or services, something wasn’t there, we arrive, and it’s there, we created it.

Let’s consider design local.

Here it’s pretty simple. It’s thee story of the avocado that has to travel 9,048 km to get to Spain, for example, and end up deliciously in my salad or toast. There’s no way around it. This makes no sense, regardless of how much we LOVE avocados. Let’s find some other fruit or vegetable that we grow here in Europe and let’s make it become the new avocado, let’s make it as trendy as avocados. And who knows, maybe in the process we also stop contributing to deforestation, the destruction of ecosystems, climate change, and funding drug cartels.

Or we could design alternative avocados like for example ECOVADO (prototype by by Arina Shokouhi) made with plant based ingredients and it allows us to have an avocado-like-experience while stopping the demand for avocados grown on the other side of the planet. Avocado are just an example thousands of ingredients that everyday travel around the world from one side to the other.

Designing local is about designing using what you have around. Again, it’s not just about buying local, consumers making zero miles choices, but it’s about us designers choosing to design local and - here is the difficult part for companies to accept - sell local! This would mean selling to our community, city, maybe country, and choosing not to sell beyond that because the impact on the environment is too much.

It’s like I can hear the muscle tightening of the readers… Would we be able to give up profit and growth? Well, maybe if we are not after wealth. Possibly if we are happy with prosperity. I want to talk about the difference between wealth and prosperity. Prosperity is an entirely different phenomenon from wealth. To prosper, all a human being needs is a little more than enough, whereas to be wealthy means to have a lot more than enough. Wealth by this definition is formed out of the need for security, which - if you think about it - is an illusion because it’s rooted in fear of scarcity, and scarcity is an illusion because planet Earth is all about abundance. Look around, there’s more than enough for everyone, if we use well what there is.

From a business perspective - where design the way we here intend it mostly operates - wealth is connected to the urgency that companies seem to have towards designing for growth.Financial growth specifically. More and more growth. More and more Money. This thirst to achieve more and more, to obtain more and more. I’m sure this is the fuel that has advanced our civilisation, but today it’s called greed, and it refers to the desire to accumulate more material.

Prosperity on the other hand is about having just more than enough. Enough will be different for everybody, it will be different in every country, and it can be different for the same person in different moments of her/his live. Each person knows what enough is for herself or himself. Prosperity is having everything you need, and a bit more for comfort. That’s it. Because what else do you need?

Everything more than that, you put back into the system, you make circulate again. So we can talk about circularity (circular economy rings any bell?) not just of materials, but of money too!

Prosperity seems to me to be a pretty good concept to put in our vocabulary. Maybe, if we - designers, business owners, inventors, visionaries - start thinking about our work and future in terms of prosperity, having a bit more than enough, and let circulate the rest, maybe we would create our own path for a better life, a more fulfilled life. And one fulfilled life is contagious like a smile. Others pick up on it, and change propagates.

When we think about designing less we could consider Liberty Kitchen, a food service provider (food stall, a restaurant, and a catering business) that employs prisoners and ex prisoners. This business came from the connection with the prison in that city, the personal relationship with people, and therefore its location is what gives it strength.

The real junk food project is another example of designing locally, because here we have: 1) seeing the problem of food waste in daily life, 2) the immediate connection with a few supermarkets around, 3) and getting in touch with them by creating this connection with the new business.

I also want to make the example of Namlyeh. This company is in Jordan and the ingredients of their products are local from Jordan. But the designers and business owners Aya and Manal also travel the country up and down and they meet their suppliers and people they work with in various projects, building friendships with people. This connection to the land and the people in it are the reason why the company is successful.

Good design, as we saw in these examples, happens because real empathy is given the space to surface. To me real empathy is not what most design theorists tell us, it’s not just about learning what other people feel and think and therefore need. To me good design happens when I - the designer - am personally invested in the outcome. Real empathy is about me not only feeling what people feel and think, but when I am the user, when I design for things I need or believe in.

This is the way I look at design local. I think we should start from us. Let’s look around our lives and let’s design for the needs we have and for the principles we believe in.

And finally we arrive at design better.

In my opinion, the number one goal or strategy to design better is cohesiveness: cohesiveness between message and language. Every product, service, or anything we design has a message - something to say - and a language - how it is said. In Design, the language of a proposition (i.e. anything we design) is how it looks like, sounds like, smells like, feels like to the touch, and tastes like. The language of a product, for example, is that products materials, shapes, dimensions, textures, colours, etc. which determined who the product is experienced. The message of a proposition is that proposition’s meaning, the story it tells, and the values and emotions it triggers. The message is what designers try to convey through a certain language and it also determines how the product is experienced. Designing for cohesiveness between message and language means designing the proposition is a specific way as to bring one specific message. Cohesiveness in this sense means that every aspect of the proposition’s language conveys the same message. Or, in other words, given a certain message we want to bring to the world, we’re going to design every aspect of the proposition’s language so that it tells that message. Cohesiveness between message and language can and should be applied to any type of proposition: products, services, events, and systems.

Now the question becomes, how do I design for cohesiveness? Through the design process you use, which should be a process that helps the designer check for cohesiveness throughout the different stages of research and idea development.

I have personally created a design process like this for the Food Design discipline. The design process I have created is called Food Design Thinking. Learn more about Food Design Thinking.

Happy Food Design



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