Last Friday, at an hour early enough to still be relatively sober, designers and design junkies filed into the Autodesk Gallery at One Market Street for a panel discussion organized by Dwell magazine as part of their Conversations series. The topic: Objectified in America: Design, Consumerism and Sustainability in Our Changing Economy. It’s no coincidence that the panel shares part of its title with the recently released industrial design documentary Objectified. Objectified’s filmmaker Gary Hustwit sat on the impressive panel, accompanying Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO; Philip Wood, founder of local design group CITIZEN: Citizen; and Tom Dair, co-founder of Smart Design. Basically, these are the guys that know about stuff. The stuff we need. The stuff we want. The stuff we buy. Hell, most of the time these are the guys responsible for making us want/need/buy things.

Moderated by dangerously dapper Dwell editor Aaron Britt, the opening question cut right to the quick: can design get us out of this mess? “This mess” is of course used as a catch-all euphemism for all aspects of the declining global economy and inevitable End-Of-Days. It was also the only real question of the night. Every comment and follow-up just related back to this almost Platonic inquiry. Tom Dair led the charge by dipping his toe into the response pool, saying that it was likely that design helped create the problem, so design could and should play a role in solving it. But that means more than just building a better product. Designers, he said, need to apply design thinking to economic and business models because although people may buy sustainable objects all day, we need to work towards changing the core cultural idea that “more is more.” Bill Moggridge agreed, adding that we (i.e. they) need to design in a sustainable way. By now you might have already guessed that the answers throughout the night tended to stay in the generally safe realm of the non-specific.

But that’s not to say that some innovative ideas weren’t raised. Gary Hustwit suggested that consumers need to become more educated in design and sustainability. We need, he said, to develop an appreciation for objects that don’t wear out – they wear in. Alternatively, products that wear out in a somewhat sustainable way could be the wave of the future. Early adopters and high-end consumers replace (or would like to replace) their gadgets every year. So why not just design a phone or music player to last a year? Instead of making gadgets from metal and plastics, why not create a recyclable soy-polymer phone that will start falling apart around the time a newer model is released?

Repair and reduction were other recurring themes. Moderator Aaron Britt recalled a conversation with a shoeshiner who said that his business has never been better. No one can afford new shoes anymore! So people are buying less stuff – perhaps we’ll see a repair shop renaissance. Or maybe, suggested Tom Dair, biotechnology holds the answer. Maybe we can eventually science our way out of This Mess by reengineering not our products, but ourselves. Instead of redesigning a toothbrush, let’s redesign teeth. Drastic? Of course. But that’s the idea.

Although “The Cult of the Amateur” is a phrase often used in a derogatory manner, the panelists all celebrated our society’s increasing ability to make things. Bill Moggridge asserted that we are slowly moving from a consumer culture to a creator culture. What started with desktop publishing is today carrying through to desktop film-making, desktop recording, desktop boutique shopping, etc. ad infinitum. Etsy was cited as a great way for people to share their wares and create a community of people who actually have a personal connection to the products they buy; to the people who make those products. The possibilities are limitless. Philip Wood agreed, charmingly admonishing the audience to “just make the fucking stuff yourselves.” You want to change the world, he asked, then “change the fucking world.”

By the end of the night, everyone left with a complementary copy of Dwell’s “Beyond Green” issue and a lot to think about. And across the city, as people returned to the comforting glow of their macbooks, a dozen new Etsy shops were born.

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