On Traditions — Climate Designers

This is an entry that was written and published by me in the Field Guide to Climate Design (a writing project by ClimateDesigners.org) in December. I’m sharing it here in hopes that a wider audience might see it and the Field Guide and take a look.

Let’s talk traditions. It was last month’s theme here at Climate Designers and November (and December) are a great time to think about them. I’m in America and in November we have one of our biggest traditions, Thanksgiving. It’s a time to look back, be thankful for who and what we have around us, and celebrate with family and friends. It has certainly been co-opted by capitalism—Thanksgiving is, after all, Black Friday Eve here in the states—and the family may be split into those who watch football and those that don’t, but the core ideal stands strong and, like many American ideals, not quite achieved yet.

Traditions can be a tricky subject to talk about in the context of climate change though. After all, traditions are centered in stasis or in a yearning for the past, while climate change necessitates looking to the future and to a planet transformed ecologically, if not politically. There is a tension in holding the two up for examination, but a tension that we-our species-have to address in order to move on. There is some tension as well in that it is tradition that landed us in this situation; some of us-the Global North-will have to abandon some of those traditional mindsets and ways of doing things if we want to have a safe and livable planet. Yet, there are traditions that we in the Global North have eschewed long ago when we displaced Indigenous peoples as we colonized the world that are now being looked at as the very ideas that we need if we are going to keep global temperatures below 1.5°C. They are traditions of renewal, regeneration, and respect for our ecosystems.

It is this tension that may be at the heart of inaction; in order to stave off extinction events in the future, we will have to let some of our traditions go extinct. Our traditions go a long way toward defining our culture and letting go of our traditional ways of doing things is a painful experience, one that can cognitively even feel like extinction. This cognitive pain is what drives the nationalist policies that hinder our progress toward a better future. It is this fear of little extinctions that distract us from the bigger problem of the climate crisis.

At this point, you may be reading this and thinking, “what does this have to do with design?” A lot, actually. You see, tradition is a driver of culture, but designers drive it as well. Our advertisements create demand, our product designs communicate things like: value, luxury, quality, strength, and convenience and these things drive desire. Our logos and signs and typography direct us to where we can get these things we demand. A well-designed user experience determines loyalty. Demand. Desire. Direction. Determination. Designers do that every day. We design within and perpetuate trends just as often as we are hired to make a client stick out from the crowd and declare a new or better way of doing things.

Writing in the 70s, Victor Papanek wrote that “the designer bears a responsibility for the way the products [they design] are received at the marketplace. …The designer’s responsibility must go far beyond these considerations. [Their] social and moral judgment must be brought into play long before [they begin] to design, since [they have] to make a judgment, an a priori judgment at that, as to whether the products [they are] asked to design or redesign merit…attention at all.” We are curators of culture; so how can we design in ways that cultivate a better future for us all? Is there anything that we can do on an individual level?

I haven’t been super specific in this entry on purpose; I want to spark ideas and discussion, but I want us to determine how to continue. I am very aware that my own perspective is much too small and far too privileged to really guide us on the type of path we need to be on. But this community is global, it is diverse, it is intelligent and creative and determined. So, what are some traditions or practices you’d like to see come back in our cultures? Which ones are you (or maybe someone you know) afraid to lose? How do you as a designer move with or buck tradition? Is there a way to incorporate the knowledge that many of us fear losing our identity into the products and projects that we design? I’d like to challenge us to head over to our Mighty Networks site (you can sign up here) to comment on this and to not be afraid to engage with other people’s comments as well. Recommend some books, podcasts, movies, people to follow on social media, etc.

Remember that while many of us hold traditions sacred, every tradition has a genesis somewhere. Traditions become traditions not because they are just intrinsically worth doing again and again, but because some group of people, somewhere, were determined enough to preserve something for the future. And isn’t that what climate action is all about: preserving something-our planet-for the future? So really, we’re in the process of making this action a tradition right now. Let’s brainstorm some ideas for how we—as designers—can get or stay involved; I’ll see you in the comments.

Originally published at https://www.climatedesigners.org on December 17, 2022.

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Graphic/Web Designer | Portland, Maine. Writing about ethics in design and working on a book about the intersection between design activism & the climate crisis

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Matt McGillvray

Matt McGillvray

Graphic/Web Designer | Portland, Maine. Writing about ethics in design and working on a book about the intersection between design activism & the climate crisis

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