At 19, I had no idea that going to design school would lead to a brain altering, worldview shattering moment which would make me quit. But that this moment would also lead me to an entirely fulfilling and challenging career, championing sustainability through design.

I went to design school because I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and frankly, creatively solving problems sounded like a less boring career path than most of my other options. Designing ‘stuff’ appealed to me because things were so present in my life, and the idea of potentially creating versions of these everyday things that would be part of other people’s lives was appealing.

Let’s all admit the fact that there are many misconceptions about what ‘design’ is and how it operates in the world. Design is one of the most influential elements of modern life, with nearly everything we encounter having been designed with conscious intent by someone, or a team of somebodies. From high tech electronics and even yes, soft-furnishings, to the bureaucratic systems that seem intent on frustrating us all – design is ever-present, insidiously scripting our behaviors and having tremendous impacts on the planet.

This was not the design school revelation that changed my life, this knowledge came much later. In fact, at 19 I had no concept of the systems that provide life on earth, and the associated ways in which human choices effect and construct these systems. Everything at that time appeared to operate in isolation, including me.

Take for example, the humble refrigerator. I bet you would assume that its biggest environmental impact is the fact that it constantly sucks electricity? And you would be right in one respect, oversized fridges gobble up energy and inefficient ones waste resources. However when the wider system implications of a fridge are taken into consideration, another environmental disaster is lurking inside. Take note of the plastic containers located at the bottom of your fridge, the so-called ‘crisper’ drawers. They rarely do their job properly, and due to their design often result in soggy, limp and sad looking vegetables. The UN reports that over a third of all food produced globally is wasted, and a large percentage of that waste comes from our homes

Your fridge is part of the problem with its design flaw of a non-sealed crisper drawer your lettuce is doomed to end up soggy and trashed (you can read here several hacks I have for solving this.) For example, a simple solution of airtight crispers could potentially save thousands of tons of food from the trash and all of the ecological impacts that go along with it. A fridges sole function is to preserve food, but what happens when its design is contributing to the problem it is trying to fix? This is a product/system failure and the designed world is full of them, presenting huge opportunities for design interventions for positive change.

So there I was in design school, learning about material properties for manufacturing and how to use cause-based marketing to get people to consume more, when one day, my engineering lecturer mentioned that everything in nature was interconnected and that as designers we would be making decisions regarding materials, and processes that would have major impacts on people and the planet. He casually added that it was likely we would never know the level nor degree of the impact – positive or negative – that our choices would have. Without a second thought, he then went on to outline several ways in which natural systems sustained life on earth and how the demands of design and consumption impacted on them.

In that single moment my entire perspective of the world, how it worked and what the hell I was going to do in it changed. Everything was interconnected, I was part of the problem and the solution and there was so much more I needed to know if I was going to be a responsible, conscious designer, let alone human being! I marched myself out of design school and right into a social science degree in environmental sustainability. My objective from that day was to find ways of using design as a tool for positive social change.

I would later come to understand all of this and more, through an investigation and immersion in life cycle and systems thinking, and I now understand, as more and more designers are starting to, that there is a hierarchy of systems that make up the world; from the social systems constructed by humans to facilitate society through to the industrial systems to support the economy – both of which rely entirely on the services provided by the ecosystem – the most important yet unfortunately least understood or respected of all systems.

Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for my design training and proud to be a designer. I love design and the inspirational thinkers and doers who work across all aspects of the field. I also love what I learnt in design school and now teach the power of design, about how it’s not simply about forming materials into more ‘stuff’ or manipulating desire, but is intrinsically about creating positive change in the world, intervening in systems and disrupting the status quo. Although we must be willing to see the bad alongside the marvelous… and let’s all be honest there is some appalling design in the world.

Unfortunately, a lot of design simply facilitates modern consumer culture and the status quo which we all participate in through consumption. We create the world we live in just as much as the world has created each of us. We are all formed from the same minerals and materials that make the consumer goods that fill our lives – nature is inside us all, not something ‘out there’ that we can opt in or out of saving, it is the central element of the systems that make this world possible, and thus one of the most critical assets, in need of our respect, acknowledgment and value. The exciting thing about this situation is that just as we are all consumers, we are also all empowered with an opportunity for challenging and changing the dominant ideals of what is important, real, and relevant, needed and yes, ultimately sustainable in the designed world.

Read more in Leyla’s new handbook MAKE CHANGE: a handbook for creative rebels and change agents available from her website.

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Learn more about Disrupt Design  /  Un-Schools
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From the Editor
At Conscious, we are inspired by stories that cause us to think differently and think big-picture and so we set out to tell stories with the help of leaders and influencers in the social good community. You can read more stories like this when you Sign-up for the Weekly and Subscribe to Conscious Magazine.