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How Can Designers Make Changes in an Alternative-Fact Era?

02.27.2018 by Kadie Yale
By Kadie Yale

Editor’s Note: This piece is taken from Editor-in-chief Kadie Yale’s November 9, 2017, keynote speech at the Configura CET conference. The entirety of that presentation can be found here.

Design has the power to change lives and transform the shape of the world. That is not hyperbole or an exaggeration of design’s abilities. The Environmental Protection Agency stated as of July 28, 2017, Americans spend 93 percent of their time indoors and in cars. Except for the instances in which one may take a vacation into nature, the other 7 percent of people’s lives spent out of doors means that the built environment still surrounds them: urban design, signage, architecture, etc.

It’s easy to see how the built environment and its design has a significant impact on the public.

This goes beyond creating aesthetically appealing and comforting spaces. While the psychological importance of healthy, productive, and comforting interiors shouldn’t be disregarded, understanding the ways in which design can affect only the end user is a narrow way of viewing design’s impact.

Because design encompasses so much space in America, the choices that manufacturers make directly affect the choices of the client and end user.

For example: If every carpet manufacturer used mostly recycled materials, the client wouldn’t have a choice regarding whether they will partake in sustainable design. Every space that uses carpet would be participating in a more sustainable world.

The same goes for the choices designers and architects make. If an interior designer only used carpeting that comes from companies that utilize solar panels, every space they create will be promoting good, sustainable practices.

Is this realistic? Maybe not. The bottom line often comes down to dollars. But becoming aware of the immense impact the design community can have is the first step to a more sustainable world.

The Importance of Design in an Alternative-Fact Era

Focusing on the importance of design in an alternative-fact era doesn’t mean these problems are in any way unique. In fact, since the industrial revolution, designers have questioned the purpose of design and the impact on ecological and social factors. In the late 19th century, William Morris wrote and spoke at length about the ramifications of saturating the decorative arts with cheap goods, which he called “sham work,” and pushed for the Arts and Crafts movement. He believed that a society that promotes and invests in crafts rather than quickly produced goods would be more meaningful for the laborers, manufacturers, and end users, positively affecting society as a whole.

As they say, everything that can be done has already been done—and this includes the issues with which we are concerned.

Looking at historical records, it’s easy to see Morris’ words being used to discuss the fast-fashion industry, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s opinions on the blending of nature and architecture to highlight issues regarding deforestation for tract housing or the use of sustainable materials.

That being said, we do find ourselves in a particular moment in time in which technology and research have never been better. They are flawed, and we are only at the forefront of what will be possible, but what we have and know is much more advanced than ever before.

Many product manufacturers agree that climate change is real and the current state of global affairs has made a direct impact on CO2 emissions. We see solar panels used more frequently and programs such as the Living Building Challenge are being implemented. Andrea Cooper-Lazarczyk of The Living Future Institute said there has been an increased interest from companies seeking Declare labels for their products.

Moving forward and making strides to change can only be done if interior designers have the right research and the right data at their disposal, as well as the means to carry it out. At this moment, we as a society have the best research, data, and technology in human history.

The problem that we face, however, is of our own doing: The current social and political climate we live in—that of “alternative facts”—is one that disapproves and distrusts data and research that are catalysts for change.

Because of this disapproval and distrust, as well as the growing idea that any information that goes against what people would like to be true can be dubbed “fake news,” the industry needs to ask what stance design takes.

The Importance of Working Well Over Looking Good

“What works is better than what looks good. The looks can change, but what works, works.”—Ray Eames

Obviously, aesthetics change—anyone who has looked back on their high school photos will probably agree. Of course, at the time, fitting in through how we looked was of the utmost importance; for some, it may have been more important than what was being taught in class.

No matter how much we were aesthetically able to fit into our peer groups, what photos we have of ourselves at that time can potentially make one cringe at the styles. What we learned in class, however, created the foundation for what we know and upon which we were able to build knowledge.

Even if looks are fleeting, we want our designs to look good. But too often aesthetics and cost are what the client is most interested in instead of the longer-lasting foundational properties: things like durability and sustainability. And the last thing that needs to be added to an already difficult process is to convince a client that the changes suggested are true rather than fake news.

What Can Designers Do?

It’s not every designer who can take a stance on what they think design should be and then only provide their clients with products that fit a certain mold. However, the cause isn’t useless; the right steps can be taken once we use research, data, and facts to educate ourselves and clients.

One way to do this is to be confident in the sources used to gather information. One of the leading problems of the alternative-facts era is “fake news.”

In a time when news relies on being the first to publish and stories can be shared without having to read articles in their entirety, misinformation can be passed like never before. This isn’t to say that news isn’t trustworthy, but the media has certainly taken a black eye from the spread of misinformation.

It is up to designers to learn more about topics from a variety of well-researched sources. Bringing facts to the table during discussions with clients is necessary in informing them of the best approaches to take.

Secondly, it’s important that designers think outside the box. One-size-fits-all doesn’t work and when met with budget constraints, it can be beneficial to work outside the typical solutions. Oftentimes, creating atypical solutions comes with a healthy side of helping the client change their methods—whether it be to convince an office manager to implement a habit of getting their employees up to walk around the office every couple of hours or to invest in materials that may be more costly but will save money in the long run.

Again, here’s where having the data and facts in hand will benefit both designers and clients. It’s hard to argue for the status-quo when the latest data tells us employees are happier and healthier with frequent moments to get up and walk away from their desks or that slightly higher up-front cost will save big bucks years down the line.

Keeping in mind Ray Eames' words that “what works well is better than what looks good,” designers can have a massive impact on their clients and built spaces. Plus, with technology as advanced as it is today and the fact that many manufacturers are using it to their benefit, being a designer in an alternative-fact era often means what works well doesn’t have to be divorced from aesthetics.