Sustainability Takes from Product Design, A Conversation with Jo Barnard
While both product design and digital design involve creating visual content, they differ in terms of the medium and context in which that content is used. Product design is concerned with creating physical environments and objects that can be seen and interacted with in the real world, while digital design focuses on creating visual content that exists in digital environments.
Although different areas of design require different tools and considerations, there is a vast common ground to exchange knowledge in between. Sustainability practices in product design offer valuable lessons for digital design. This week, we are speaking to Jo Barnard, designer and the founder of the design and innovation consultancy Morrama.
I'd love to start with an introduction about yourself, your experience, and your background for our readers to get to know you more.
My name is Jo. I run a design and innovation studio called Morrama. I studied product design at university. I started Morrama when I was 24, not long after graduation. I had worked as an intern in another agency, and something about the way that the team worked just did not feel connected with me. People came into the office, sat at their desks, they looked at their computers all day. The working environment felt quite disconnected.
For me, design has always been about collaborating and working in teams. So, instead of trying to find the right team, I decided to build that team myself. It is amazing what you can do when you're young and naive and have nothing to pay except 500 pounds worth of rent every month.
Our main focus is designing products, mostly physical items for startups and some established companies. Our work process is end-to-end work. So we are involved in the early stage storytelling and conception, strategy all the way through to getting that product through to manufacture and out the door. We keep ourselves in check, and we are constantly aware that we're making things. Knowing that there are resources, materials, and energy involved in both manufacturing and distribution.
You have mentioned previously that you work on helping startups with creativity, storytelling, and sustainability, could you tell us more about your approach to doing so?
When it comes to sustainability, our approach is that we integrate it into the process in the very early stages. Firstly, we know from working with startup clients that they don't usually have a portfolio of products, so we can initially embed great values into their work from the beginning. The major advantage at the moment that makes our job flow nicely is that consumers demand sustainability and they want transparency.
Consumers want to understand where an item comes from, and where it was made. So, we work on building that transparency into the storytelling right from the beginning. We can embed it into every aspect of that product.
I think as designers we thrive off boundaries. If we are given a big space with no restrictions, it's indeed difficult to work with whereas if you build a box, then we get to push the boundaries of that box, in this case, we are pushing our boundaries to make sustainability part of this space. The entire process is built on intention and often you come across points where the tension and excitement come in pushing those boundaries that the sustainability discourse provides.
What can you tell us about the Sustainable Design Handbook you have created?
That was a labour of love that came to fruition about last year- maybe a little further. Initially, I started with rewriting Dieter Rams' 10 design principles, which are taught to design students, especially industrial design for the last 40 years. However, the world has drastically changed in that time. Together with my team, we aimed to rewrite these principles from our worldview.
They were quite well received. And off the back of that, I dived into the journey of understanding the aspect of sustainability in design. To start with, we had to answer the question: what is sustainability? Here, different thoughts started emerging followed by plenty of learnings. It made sense to put them somewhere that the team can take advantage of and learn from them in an easily accessible and usable, but then also that other people could use as well.
Making it open source was a simple decision. There's no point in us all going through this effort to find all this information out individually, we might as well do it together.
What do you think can be improved in terms of collaboration among different initiatives in sustainable design?
People are, mostly working on sustainability based on voluntary initiatives. Considerably, the lack of funds is one barrier. Collaboration in a way should make that easier because you're sharing the load. But, the reality is that we have got such busy schedules and trying to fit everything else can be a challenge sometimes. We often collaborate with small numbers of people who are passionate about making an impact, and we managed to make it work, this was the case when we started Design Declares. We divide the work based on each collaborator’s expertise between digital, storytelling, strategy, and managerial tasks, everyone participates with the skills they master best.
I think it is effective if we try to break everything down into small work packages, and responsibilities, and then delegate each one. Through this, we have then been able to bring more people in but give them clear tasks and time allocations. People can use their skills in branding, storytelling, design and their craft to contribute to the process using what they do best.
Then off the back of that, the bigger conversations naturally happen. You get more inspired to potentially work towards those bigger visions. But in order to collaborate, you have to onboard super specific tasks and responsibilities.
What would you hope to see in the industry overall in terms of shifting practices and advancing conversations about, you know, environmentally positive practices?
A requirement to calculate the carbon emissions on our projects. That's going to happen sooner or later and what would like to see happen this year is more preparations towards that.
Perhaps the digital could lead the way. There are already digital design agencies out there that put carbon emission disclosure on all of their websites. And, I think having that level of disclosure is important.
I believe that in the future we will have tax associated with the sustainable value of the carbon embedded into that product. And therefore if we have to say that about everything from a coffee cup to a mobile phone imagine how that would shift the decision we take in creation. I want us to start to seriously talk about that and think about how we will do it.
The last question, as a designer tapping into this discourse, where can you get engaged in the sustainability and conscious design conversation in 2023?
I get a lot of my information and I have a lot of very stimulating conversations on LinkedIn. There has been quite a different number of voices, but a certain level of respect for other people with differences of opinion. I think that's a good place to connect with people who are in that space. Even if you are just listening and watching what other people are saying for a while.
You have to take an active role in trying to seek, and think about what it is that is interesting to you or what is related to your project and try to nerd out on it. Perhaps, the best way is to get involved in the conversations and you never know where it leads you.
Change becomes possible when designers from various backgrounds, industries, and levels come together and take a stance towards producing work with a positive impact on the planet. If you are with us on our mission to advance sustainability in the world of digital design, whether deep in the discipline or just a little curious, reach out to us at SDD.
We’d love to hear your views, answer your questions - and ask some of our own - and learn from what you’ve learned over the years at email@example.com.