| by Dan Black
(This is a recent article I wrote for the latest edition of Designing, the design, and technology magazine for schools, colleges, and universities).
Designers hold some of the responsibility for the environmental crisis the world now faces. We helped fuel the consumer society we live in and created all the products that the market bought but didn’t really need and that too often have ended up in landfill. It is now our responsibility to make sure the products we create really are needed and justify being produced. As designers, we have the ability to shape, influence, and educate the market to be more discerning and this is our aim at Black+Blum.
Since our inception in 1998, we have designed and sold over 100 different unique products ranging from lighting, doorstops, fans, barbecues, and candelabras... to name just a few. But in 2018 we decided to focus purely on designing/selling products that help you take food and drink on-the-go… lunch boxes, water bottles, food thermoses, and all the accessories that go with them. This category has a naturally sustainable angle. Water bottles obviously help people stop buying bottled water, which is bad for the planet on so many levels (if in doubt, see The Story of Stuff amazing video). Lunch boxes can help people stop buying convenience take-out food which can save on food-waste and food-packaging-waste.
We can further increase the sustainable attributes of our designs by making them ‘products with soul’. These are items that you love using, your go-to product of choice, part of your ocd-ish daily routine everyday product comfort-blanket. It becomes this product when it is useful, functional, and ages well. Items you already own that might have these qualities could be anything from a cherished high-value leather wallet or belt, an antique fountain pen, or even a simple wooden kitchen spatula or spoon. They function perfectly and get better the more you use them, so you enjoy the individually worn surfaces and familiar feel. If, as designers, we have done our job properly, our products will become ‘products with soul’ and even stand the chance of being antiques of the future, where they still hold their value and even function in decades to come. Too many consumers are ‘magpies’ who get attracted to the shiny new short-term fashion-led product that won’t have a long-lasting true function and certainly won’t age well.
To illustrate how we have applied this ‘products with soul’ philosophy, our new stainless steel lunchboxes are a good example. Stainless steel has the ability to age well. It can dent, scratch, and lose its shine, but this will all add to the character of the product and make it personal to you. These lunchboxes were the first all-steel ones on the market that are 100% leakproof (vacuum sealed). They have a consciously retro aesthetic that helps give them an almost timeless, vintage appeal. We have kept colour to a minimum with only the fork holding silicone band offered in olive, ocean, or orange hues. Even the packaging in unbleached, easy to recycle cardboard has a vintage appeal. They cost more than your standard plastic food containers, but it will last the user a lifetime and hopefully, one day, become a cherished ‘product with soul’.
As designers, we need to really ask ourselves some fundamental questions. Does this product function well? Does this product deserve to exist? Will it age well? What impact will it have on the planet? Sometimes meeting all these requirements requires us to use more expensive quality materials or spend more time fine-tuning the product so it really is as good as it can possibly be. But even if this results in our products being slightly more expensive than others in the same category, we feel it is justified and more sustainable if we give the products the chance to have ‘soul’. We need to spread the word about our approach and get better at educating consumers about the benefit it gives. Sayings like ‘I’m not rich enough to buy cheap products’, ‘you get what you pay for’ or ‘buy once, buy well’ need to become the mantra for all consumers and the approach for more designers and producers.
This approach to sustainable design is obviously very personal to us and might not apply to all products or markets, but hopefully, it will provide food for thought to any design pupil or student considering the items they work on in the future.