Book Review: The Designer's Atlas of Sustainability

It's hard to review an atlas, defined as a "collection of maps, charts, or visual plates that systematically illustrate a subject." An atlas doesn't tell you how to get from A to B, but shows you all the routes. You can hold an atlas at a distance and get an overview, or take an ocular and zoom in on a coastline or shoal.

That is how one treats Ann Thorpe's Designer's Atlas of Sustainability; one can cruise the definitions and the graphics, delve more deeply into the "landscape features" or really get into the "traveller's notes." The author divides the book "into three main parts using the categories of ecology, economy and culture as a way of exploring the landscape." (synopsis here)

All design and development should be sustainable, defined as "development that cultivates environmental and social conditions that will support human well-being indefinitely." This book is an essential, clear and comprehensible reference for any kind of designer. ::The Designer's Atlas of Sustainability found at ::Ballenford BooksFrom the author ten ways to work in sustainable design

1. Cultivate the good company
Corporate attention to money above all else, combined with the power and freedom of global finance, makes it difficult to capture the wide range of social and ecological values of sustainability in private sector design—but it is happening, so when you see it, nurture it.

2. Go outside the private sector
Designers who work on sustainability issues are frequently asked to do low cost or pro bono work because, "it's for a good cause." And so it is; a nonprofit structure allows you to make doing-things-for-a-good-cause your bottom line.

3. Be an active citizen
We tend to take the market (and the larger economy) as a given or not see it at all. But as both economic actors and citizens, designers can contribute to redesigning the economy for a better balance of human and ecological values against monetary ones.

4. Understand the ecosphere
The four layers of earth are the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere. They're the origin and depository for all materials. Unfortunately design's role is typically to redistribute materials unconstructively from one layer to another (eg carbon from lithosphere to atmosphere = global warming). Know your spheres.

5. See materials
We need to see what is typically invisible: the content and origin of materials, the large percentage of waste in production, the large stockpiles of materials already around us (e.g. heavy metal, PVC), and the invisible ways that materials escape back into the environment.

6. Use nature's book
Nature conserves (always the right conditions for life) and innovates (conditions may vary). The fast parts innovate while the slow parts maintain stability. These are but two important lessons we can take from nature's design.

7. Awaken the senses
The visual emphasis of design reduces truly sensual experiences and thus diminishes human experience; remember sound, smell, touch and taste.

8. Take up time
Speed disconnects us--from reflection, from investments, from community, even from our identities (for example, as global speed erases diverse languages). Designers need both fast and slow knowledge.

9. Consider change
The triangle of change has three points. Where is the balance between changing technology, changing behavior and changing policy/pricing. Designers need to consider all three.

10. Ditch the saint/sinner mindset
Don't feel disqualified from practicing sustainable design even if you don't live a faultlessly sustainable lifestyle. You are not alone, since the system precludes that lifestyle. But making some effort will help you address sustainability in a productive way.

These tips are adapted from the book, The Designer's Atlas of Sustainability: Charting the Conceptual Landscape through Economy, Ecology and Culture by Ann Thorpe. Published by Island Press 2007.

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