Social Vitality

To be considered sustainable and just, many designers require products to have a positive

impact on the society they are serving (as well as those who helped create them). Product planning must embrace the concept of stake­holder involvement and incorporate social responsibility. Most people in the West are appalled and embarrassed when they find that products they’ve purchased were made with child or slave labor. Certainly, these aren’t values they promote in their own communities. However, most never bother to inquire wheth­er these conditions exist for the goods they buy and merely wait for the media to inform them of what does or doesn’t reflect their social val­ues. Consumers often rely on assumptions that companies they trust—especially, large, known companies—wouldn’t sell such goods, but this assumption is often a mistake.

For example, it’s not acceptable to most people for a disposable diaper to be considered sus­tainable if it’s dangerous or detrimental to the environment. However, it’s also not accept­able, for many, if that product is dangerous to the people who use it. To still more, it can’t be sustainable if those making it are at risk. Still

others question whether the product itself truly fulfills a sustainable role in society.

… all communities and individuals have different social values.

To complicate this further, all communities and individuals have different social values. It’s impossible for a company to offer solutions that satisfy everyone. So they often don’t bother satisfying anything but the law. Smaller com­panies will sometimes specialize in offerings for customers with specific social values (such as religious restrictions), and our governments (at all levels) will often legislate certain standards that a majority can agree upon, but this is often not enough. We’ll see in the next chapter the myriad social issues in this space, and you’ll understand the difficulty organizations have trying to satisfy customers’ social concerns.

Social concerns are issues for sustainable de- signers—and there are a lot of them. Some af­fect corporate policy—either for our own firms or our clients. Others operate at the product,

service, or event level and govern the design of such solutions. All require careful cooperation with a variety of experts in other roles, includ­ing executives, engineers, marketers, and man­agers of all types (hiring, operations, finance, sales, etc.).

These are also issues of vision and mission for a company—whether a design firm, a client, or the design department within a larger corpora­tion. This is where designers must learn to be strategic and communicate to business leaders in business language. Designers are often dis – empowered—frequently by their own doing. When designers fail to understand the issues, vocabulary, and concerns of business leaders, they’re not equipped to participate in strategic discussions that decide the organization’s mis­sion, vision, goals, or offerings. They must be content dealing with the results of these deci­sions at the implementation (or tactical) level and design the best solution they can that fits the already-specified parameters. Instead, designers should seek to involve themselves in the strategic discussions that determine not

only what the offerings’ parameters are but what to offer the market in the first place. This is where designers can have the most impact. (More discussion of this is in Chapter 16, “In­novating Solutions.”)