Beautiful Monsters: Why on earth does this matter?

It used to be that everybody talked about the weather, but nobody did anything about it. Not anymore. Through the magic of technology, I am empowered to make better decisions about where not to breathe. That’s because the good people at WunderMap have devised a smoke map. For a few days there, the smoke from local wildfires were absorbed by our (formerly) infinitely capacious atmosphere. So I didn’t think I’d need the smoke map. But then temperatures hit new epochal records, humidity took a dive, and the wind began fanning the flames again.

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Should our misfortunes expand to include plagues of frogs, boils, and gnats, I know WunderMap will have my back.

In other news last week, the U.S. continued to emit vivid plumes of interactive graphics displaying our industrial might, which nobody can deny … it’s just that my emissions are necessary, while yours are not. World leaders at the G8 Summit in Japan, meanwhile, decided to postpone serious action on climate change for another few decades. Tomorrow’s always the best day to begin a diet.

Why on earth should such things matter to interaction designers? Put another way, why does earth matter to interaction designers? Turns out that if we fail to practice design in an ecologically aware manner, we will inadvertently diminish our business prospects, as well as threaten the social and environmental ecologies on which we depend. Over the past few decades, why did the designers at General Motors (and the unions and the politicians) enable the company to ignore these inter-locking ecologies? Last week the CEO had to publicize plans for ditching gas-guzzling brands and laying off tens of thousands of workers. (Dinosaur industries dependent upon dinosaur fuels? “You are what you eat,” says Doug LeMoine.)

Where is design in all this?

Many paths towards an Ecosystem Centered Design are possible, and several of our sister disciplines have already made progress down this road, including architecture, branding professionals, interior design, landscape architecture, urban planning, industrial design, IT management, and packaging design, to name just a few.

The recently launched Designers Accord represents one of the brightest signs of life to date. Still in its infancy, DA boasts 100,000 members of the creative community signing up to work together to make positive environmental and social impacts. Cooper is a member, and we’re in the process of adopting some business practices valued by DA members.

But while DA has tremendous potential, interaction design is only a small part of the discussion so far. Also, given that DA is an all-volunteer affair with a broad focus, its success depends upon the active participation of many people committed to developing sustainable design practices in each discipline.

By comparison, I’m afraid that interaction design is late out of the blocks. With some exceptions. Prof. Eli Blevis at the Indiana University School of Informatics has been thinking about sustainability in interaction design. His work won a best paper award at ACM-CHI 2007, and provides some principles for sustainable interaction design. Designers at Adaptive Path have commented on this subject, and Alexa Andrzejewski’s words struck me as particularly clear-eyed. While her focus has been user experience design, there are several ideas, and related comments, relevant to interaction design. Similarly, the workshop on Ubiquitous Sustainability held last year in Austria led to the publication of several papers, some of which bear on sustainable interaction design ideas. Shilpa Shulka’s blog also shows insight, and an unflinching view of the challenges we face.

(I’ll be speaking about Beautiful Monsters at the Pecha Kucha-SF gathering this coming Wednesday, July 23. Originated in Tokyo, Pecha Kucha provides a venue for designers of every ilk to share ideas in a lay-back environment.)

But while these voices in the interaction design community are strong and clear, they are few. I believe this is owing to the relative novelty of the discipline of interaction design itself. (We’re still finding our feet, after all… and, anyway, we just design stuff that people point and click at, right?)

The inertia may also relate to the intellectual habits and interests of software makers with whom we collaborate. (Is there something about the focus required to write software code that makes one disinclined toward looking out the window at the lack of bees buzzing about out there?) Then there’s the nature of our principal medium, software, and its deceptively immaterial nature. (What do bytes have to do with business models, bugs, bunnies, and breathable air?)

The point is this: despite our delayed start, we’re in luck. Owing to the particular talents, methods, processes, and general dispositions of interaction designers, we can make fast progress.

Beautiful Monsters is an ongoing series intended to serve as an ongoing conversation about how interaction designers can move the industry toward an Ecosystem Centered Design to improve our fortunes, our relationships, and the health of our planet. Get caught up on the first entry, and take part in the conversation below.

1 Comment

Bala Chennupati
Prof. Eli Blevis at the Indiana University School of Informatics has been thinking about sustainability in interaction design. His work won a best paper award at ACM-CHI 2007 http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=1240624.1240705, and provides some principles for sustainable interaction design.

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