Collaboration with RCA Book Test Unit

Since January 2018, as part of our TM20 celebrations, we’ve been working with the RCA Book Test Unit made up of MRes Communication Design and Visual Communication MA students and Pureprint, a print company concerned with lessening the environmental impact of printing. The Book Test Unit is an ongoing experimental platform that explores the critical perspectives on the future of the book and publishing. This year’s Book Test Unit focuses on questions surrounding the concept of sustainability: What does sustainability actually mean, and what can it mean today? And how do large global challenges around sustainability link with those around the sustainability of the book, the reader and the library?

The following Q&A are part of our response to this project, the private view is next Monday 23 April 2018. Get in touch with us if you’d like to come along.

  • What would it take for the design industry as a whole to start thinking about sustainability as a core element of their practice?

The cynic in us would say an awards event – there’s nothing like a gold gong to drive the creative spirit. However, the reality is that a reward style approach won’t really deliver the landslide change that we need. Designers need to believe in their power to enable change at all points of the design process. Seeing sustainability in terms of effectiveness, intellectual rigour, creative discipline or material efficiency could help designers re-evaluate their value as decision makers – their role in the design process means they are perfectly placed to drive change. Education is key to this – preparing designers to think in a rounded way about the impact of their work is essential. That is why we’re using our 20th year anniversary to focus the minds of students and those in education on this issue – 80% of a product’s environmental impact is locked in at design stage and all designers need to feel empowered to question the brief and understand the consequences of their design decisions.

  • As a designer how do you strike a balance between design and sustainability given that one can’t completely get rid of materials that may be considered “unsustainable”?

First it is essential to understand the context of the project and what sustainability looks like in this context. Then employ creativity and pragmatism to deliver the most sustainable output for the project, problem solve out ‘unsustainable’ materials – and use them sparingly where essential. It is important to understand the idea of sustainability in broader terms than simply material – the impact of the project on wellbeing, environment, community can all enhance a sustainable outcome. If the goal is a 100% sustainable design solution, work towards it and look at the most sustainable solution that is achievable within the brief and budget. Design for flexibility, re-use and durability can be a solution when ‘unsustainable’ materials have to be used.

  • In Design, educators are increasingly promoting sustainable design in their curriculum to allow students to start thinking about environmental issues such as global warming and hopefully encourage them to be more sustainable in their practice. Could you tell us your views on how sustainability can be taught?

‘The Environment’ is already taught as a topic in schools but in reality, sustainability is not a single-issue subject. Creative education already teaches students how to link together diverse ideas and to problem solve in lateral ways and sustainability should naturally sit one of these strands. It would help to embed thinking if assessment across the board contained criteria around sustainability to mark against, but really teaching responsibility for output is a cultural shift that needs to happen in classrooms, studios, seminars and lectures across the education sector.

  • Is there another way to translate the importance of creating sustainable work other than through education?

Leading by example has been one of the key ways we have communicated the importance of sustainability, through raising awareness of our work in the industry and sharing one to one with clients on projects we have continually banged the drum for sustainability in design from our very conception as a studio. Thomas.Matthews has been key to industry initiatives such as Greengaged with the Design Council and The Great Recovery at the RSA, these sorts of projects can really help disrupt the day to day practice of designers. Designers also need to experience and connect more with the beauty of the natural world. Get it the countryside, and enjoy moments in nature to value its importance. Film can also help with this as seen through David Attenborough’s recent Blue Planet II.

Campaigning is also key to raising awareness generally, being involved and active personally and publicly.

  • How do you deal with clients in cases where you both have different objectives, where you are thinking about sustainability at its core and they are not?

Often clients come to TM for our Sustainability knowledge and experience and sometimes we bring that to clients as a bonus. Any designer worth their salt should be guiding the client through a process of change and considering sustainability of their outcome should really just be a natural part of that process. However, sometimes we’ve had to say no to working with clients whose values don’t align with ours.


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