“I want to get my hands dirty.” was the sentence echoing in the room. It was the first day of a design workshop I recently participated and we were having a roundtable introduction of ourselves. Most of us were coming from creative disciplines; professional artists, designers and students who traveled from all over the world hoping to work with their hands.

We were tired of working on computer, ‘designing things and experiences’ in front of a screen. We were living in big metropolitans, feeling disconnected from our natural being. We were looking for an occasion of doing ‘something meaningful’ that we can’t always find the chance to do during our daily jobs.

Even from the first day we met, I had the insight that there was a shared, hidden sense of guilt among us. We, designers, started to feel guilty about what we have created.

Major part of the environmental, social and cultural problems of today and tomorrow, no matter being physical or digital, are the consequences of bad design decisions, usually fostered by bad politics. We are paying the consequences of our reckless contribution in making this world a worse place.

But this is not a new argument of which designers have become aware only recently. Victor Papanek, in his book ‘Design for the New World’ (1985), had already mentioned how dangerous design can become if it lacks morals and ethics in decision making processes. The very first line of the book says:

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.”

Ironically, I learnt about this book while I was an industrial design student. Our teachers taught us to be a ‘good designer’, told us that design will solve problems of today and tomorrow.

With Papanek in mind, I wanted to have a greater positive impact in the world, so I chose to have a masters degree in service and systems design. I only recently realize that service design has become one of those more harmful professions.

Services have power to impact and manipulate greater number of people, nations and generations. All the recent scandals happening in the tech world (think Facebook manipulating the US elections, Volkswagen lying about diesel engine emissions, Google’s racist photo recognition algorithm) prove us that design could harm not only the planet but also our collective psychology, our values, and even cause discrimination.

So, for a while I have been looking for some ways out from impactful yet stressful (and unfortunately sometimes corrupted) service design consultancy life with the idea of creating a positive impact. I started to search for designers who work on challenging topics that threaten the future of the world.

That’s when I came across with the work of Fernando LaPosse, a London-based Mexican designer who makes his own design materials from plants that result as resistant as industrially produced materials, yet much more beautiful, promising a more sustainable future.

“Fernando’s work is preoccupied with sustainability, the loss of biodiversity, community disenfranchisement and the politics of food. In his projects, the final pieces are often accompanied by an element of informative narration about the historical context of the material that they are made of and its contemporary complications. He does so by documenting the problematics and announcing possible resolutions through the transformative power of design.”

Among many inspiring objects he designed with sisal and loofah, one particular project took my attention the most. Fernando calls it his corn project, officially named ‘Totomoxtle’. He made series of products transforming raw materials of endangered native Mexican corn. What I really liked about this project is not only the incredibly beautiful, natural aesthetics that colorful corn husks provide but also Fernando’s endeavors to preserve biodiversity and support indigenous communities in his motherland.

When I found out that Fernando was mentoring at a summer school organized by MADE LABS, I had no doubt that I had to be there, learn from his experiences, meet other inspiring people who are willing to make their hands dirty to create an alternative (hopefully better) future.

In his brief, Fernando was proposing to focus on two plants, the oppuntia (or prickly pear) and the agave both introduced from Mexico to Sicily in the XVII Century because of their profitable material potential. In such a short time these plants have become such a common sight in Southern Italy that many Italians consider them endemic to their land.

I was totally caught by the story of this transatlantic voyage of these plants and the promise of Fernando that was going to teach us mesoamerican techniques to make everything from textiles, varnishes, dyes, stucco and even food by using them.

So, I booked my tickets, dreaming of agave, the sea and the granita.

During the workshop, I rediscovered 3 main aspects of being a designer who wants to create positive impact.

1- No pain, no gain

Living in the cities, as a supermarket generation, we usually underestimate or simply don’t know the intensive labour required behind obtaining materials we use in everyday life. Like a person who buys vegetables from the market can’t understand the difficulties to grow food in a vegetable garden, a designer who buys materials from stores or orders on Amazon, can’t imagine how difficult it is to make the raw materials with which she will construct a model or a final design work.

The fact that we had to first obtain fibres from the agave plant then to transform them into materials that we were going to use for our design work, made me realize once more that we often take things for granted. When we visited the succulent nursery to get some agave plants, Fernando showed us how to cut them with the saw, underlining that we need to be very cautious in order not to hurt ourselves.

Agave plants have very pointy leaves with big thorns at the top. Considering that we had to dive into a field of agave, with saws in our hands, bending below to reach the bottom center of the plant to start cutting a leaf, we risked many times to get blinded by the big thorns all around us cut our legs and hands walking through this huge field of succulents. Experience speaking, it was a painful and bloody process.

What was surprising that we, the participants of the workshop, found ourselves identifying the leaves as ‘ours’. I was hearing people saying “Oh no, that leaf.. I was about to get it.” Everyone was worried to get the best leaves for themselves.

We realized without wasting much time that we had to collaborate and help each other to collect leaves in a simple and efficient way to bring a good quantity to work with. So, there formed, pointers of the good leaves, cutters, carriers and navigators who made sure that we were not getting lost in that giant nursery.

Coming to the countryside from big city life, we remembered immediately the value of sharing and helping out. And those leaves were, well, everybody’s.

Another thing that made me appreciated was the plant itself as a living being which had a defence mechanism in itself. When we had to smash the leaves to start breaking the thick outer surface and get rid of the pulp, all the participants who had contact with its liquid started to have irritating reactions on their skin. It was so itchy that we couldn’t continue working without covering ourselves. The result was a group of designers who looked like fake astronauts sat on a piece of wood, smashing huge leaves of agave with hammers, sweating like hell under 40°C of a summer sky.

As we were expecting and indeed wanting to make our hands get dirty, we had blood, sweat and tears all over the place. Because we wanted to get our fibres.

2- Make it before you talk it

I see designers as the communicators of imagination. When we pitch about what we have in our minds, who are listening to us might visualize different things based on their cultural and professional background. This can lead to misunderstandings, losing time and frustration.

The superpower of designers is to be able to translate what is intangible into something tangible. When we are pitching any kind of idea, showing a visual example, such as a sketch, a 3D model, a prototype, is very powerful to make what we imagined understood by everyone and more importantly, to be credible as designers that our idea make sense.

While Fernando was sharing his design process of creating corn based material, he told us that he had wait for 3 years before publishing even a single image of his work. This created a Wow effect among the group since we are so used to share our daily lives on social media in a way that causes fast consumption, without understanding in detail the reason why and the context of it.

Fernando made me understand once again the importance of producing high quality tangible design work. He had a vision. He had ideas that he was working on. He had built a network of different actors who could contribute to make his idea happen. But only until he could create something impressive and beautiful, he dared to share some images related to his work. Because he knew that he could manage to take attention and start creating a conversation around the issues he was struggling for only when he had a working system/model supported by the quality design work.

By having made something aesthetically pleasant and technically feasible, he did reduce the possibility of doubt from the scenario because he showed that it is, indeed, possible.

3- Create an alternative economic model

Last but not least, I believe that to put any design proposal into action, designers should be able to demonstrate how the design solution integrates itself into a system, or create a new system within.

Design and art is beautiful. We as designers want to bring up more sustainable, human and planet friendly solutions. However, unless we are able to design an alternative economic model, the ideas we propose are mostly destined to fade away.

If we want to create positive impact in this world and fight with modern age’s daily and future challenges, we need to learn how to think systematically and collaborate with other disciplines that can help us to design alternative business models. In the end, everyone has a rent to pay, has a family to take care of, has other needs that require a financial support. Unless we offer a financial base to our collaborators, they will not change what’s existing with what we offer, only because it saves the world.

For example Fernando, with his corn project, supports the Mexican indigenous corn farmers. Thanks to alternative salary coming from design products, farmers can go back to cultivating colorful corn and eventually support the biodiversity of their land. Fernando achieved to build an economic model that substitutes the one of the existing corn farming industry in Mexico struggling to compete with the US.

Lucy, a local with her native corn harvest — © Fernando Laposse

He told us that a company who wanted to start producing the corn material in higher volumes wanted to decrease the costs of its production. This could be possible the most easiest, and capitalist way as we are used to, by decreasing the costs of the labour. Fernando gently rejected to collaborate with them because he didn’t want to compromise from the wellbeing of the corn farmers and his vision as a designer.

I think we, designers need to take Fernando’s example when we relation ourselves with producers and other actors in the game trying not to compromise from our vision. We should stand for making ethical decisions throughout the design process which includes also the production, distribution, use and possible reuse of design products.

When we are proposing a design solution, we are responsible to think systematically in it all extent. Because design is not about making things look pretty, design is a political act.

My continuous search for using my design skills for a better world, made me come across with many inspiring designers, architects, entrepreneurs. Examples are infinite: People who are making materials trying to replace plastics, who are trying to introduce circular thinking in big companies, who are fighting with the lifelessness of mass production by collaborating with local artisans, using local materials, who are thinking about inclusive community projects to welcome immigrants.

I saw many examples of design work and design research that introduce a new way of thinking about design. There are big waves of problems coming towards us. Brave and curious designers are willing to surf with them by thinking on responsible, harmless, ethical design solutions that support local producers, use of natural materials with a common vision in mind: Building a more planet friendly future for all.

I want to conclude with this quote that I took from the introduction text of The Pavilion of Finlandia that I visited in ‘The Broken Nature’ exhibition in Triennale di Milano:

“Design cannot understand or solve complex problems on its own. New forms of collaboration are needed. In order to achieve societal change, it must join forces with the natural sciences, social sciences, technology, craft, policy-making and activism.”

This is what I call ‘The New Wave of Design’. Are you willing to surf with it?

I am.

Wig design made of agave fibers — © Fernando Laposse

Willing to know more about the ‘A Succulent Voyage’ workshop? Here is an interview of Fernando published on Frame Magazine.

More thoughts on the new wave of design and how business tools help scale creative potential, suggested reading by Giuliana Mazzetta: Mosaic Makers of The Future.

Service Designer in life. Artist in heart. Loves writing, traveling, dancing, making art and love.

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