On Sustainability: A Design Manifesto

by Jen Baker Brown, Baker+Brown Co


The best adventures are the ones that you follow not knowing where you will end up. A few years ago I created a small product line, something I had never done before and definitely a learning experience. Idealistically, I wanted to know where and how my products were being made and I wanted to make that information transparent to the consumer. Little did I know, transparency is not an easy task. I had started down the rabbit hole of ethical production, sustainability and all the spirited debate that comes with it.

The Baker+Brown Co. product line that I developed was niche, consisting of screen printed bags, shirts and paper products. Generally, I defaulted to finding companies that were producing the goods I needed in America, simply because it was easier for me to understand the supply chain. Finding every piece of sourcing information that I wanted to know from every supplier was a much larger task than I could have imagined.

To be utterly transparent (one of my goals right!) I haven’t done much to expand the product line—or even sell the product that I have. The more I learned, the more I became stranded in the quagmire, unable to determine the validity of that which I was creating or a positive way to move forward.

“An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth – in short, materialism – does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.

E.F. SchumacherSmall is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973)

Fast forward three years—as part of this journey to better understand sustainability and production in a broader context I attended the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (NYC) Summer Institute on Sustainability in Fashion and Textiles. The institute serendipitously coincided with the beginning of a 12,000+ mile road trip. We are meandering the US, connecting with thought leaders across a broad spectrum of domains – brands, agencies, entrepreneurs, investors, artisans, associations, universities, and more – to learn their vision of the future of work (and play). Along the way we’ll be researching, interviewing, seeking insights, and writing a series of journalistic articles for a couple of publications.

I left the institute with a head full of ideas, a multitude of possibilities for the future of sustainability and closed loop solutions for those products we consume. The stories from entrepreneurs and inventors who are creating alternate paths — more ethical paths — from those we currently tread were compelling. I left with a manifesto of sorts, for myself as a consumer but more specifically as a designer.


My Sustainable Design Manifesto

I am responsible.

It is compelling to see FIT and other universities recognize that designers of all disciplines are capable of influencing and creating systemic change. Fashion, industrial and graphic designers make decisions everyday that create ripple effects across massive international supply chains.

Cutting though the hairball of production, finance and timelines within a large corporation can be trying. But when large companies make even the smallest changes the effects can be massive. Paul Dillinger, head of Global Product Innovation for Levi Strauss & Co. made note at the institute of Levi’s® Water<Less™ finishing process that since its inception in 2011 has saved more than 1 billion liters of water in the lifecycle of their products. Simple changes on a large scale can have great impact. Conversely, our populations of freelancers and design entrepreneurs are growing rapidly, propelling the growth of triple bottom line small businesses, some of which will become industry leaders–paving the way for the next generation.

I have the option to ignore the issues of sustainability, climate change, pollution and ethics. But I also have the option to educate myself on these topics, learn some of the solutions that may be relevant to my industry and make suggestions or changes in our production methods when possible. I am responsible for that which I create and the legacy that it leaves behind in both message and footprint.

“There are always some things which we do for their own sakes, and there are other things which we do for some other purpose. One of the most important tasks for any society is to distinguish between ends and means-to-ends, and to have some sort of cohesive view and argument about this.

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973)


I have influence.

In her presentation at the institute, Professor Becky Earley asked “How can we as designers stop feeding the machine of consumption?”

Design is a voice; as a designer this is my mode of communication. The solutions that we design (from systems to products) influence the human experience. Whether it’s the uncountable media impressions we are exposed to daily or the jeans that we pull out of our closet, design influences the moments of our lives. Daily, we interact with elements that have been designed for human consumption; and we form positive and negative emotional opinions of our experiences.

The solutions that I create leave my conscience and flow into someone else’s life. If I am creating a product, there is a supply chain of manufacturers that are influenced by the production of my product. If I create a digital solution, the user has a direct experience that I am responsible for guiding them through—I become a digital sherpa.

Whether you believe that art reflects culture or culture reflects art, the design solutions that we create affect and influence humanity daily. I have the option to speak in a design voice that is respectful of humanity, mindful of our planet and influences those who interact with my solution to be mindful as well. I have the opportunity to design solutions that curb consumption and tell stories that develop a more informed society. We have the option to use our influence to stop feeding the machine of consumption.


I must embrace constraint.

Often, I find myself yearning for more “creative freedom” in a project. Convinced that the parameters that have been defined for me (time, cost, materials) are a buzz kill. I seek an exit strategy— “If I could only work for myself, I would…”

The truth of the matter is, constraints are not what hinder us, but drive our ideas. Innovation consultant Nick Skillicorn points out that scientifically speaking when it comes to idea generation, our brain functions via connections seeking out a known piece of intelligence and then connecting it with other pieces of intelligence to form a new idea. When we have no constraint, our brain searches for a place to start but finds no triggers.

If I am to innovate, to move beyond the traditional and accepted, I must embrace the constraints of sustainability as a jumping off point, not a barrier.

Additionally, Skillicorn defines our brain’s process of idea creation and creativity. We start with our memories and then move into ideas that are a simple step up from our memories coined the ordinary or obvious ideas. It is not until we move beyond these obvious ideas that we begin to move into category of thought he terms “special” ideas. These are ideas which have not been tested, they can produce unknown results but are ultimately where we find innovation.

Constraint stretches our creativity, forcing us into a state where we think beyond the obvious solutions. As we continually embrace the constraints of producing ethical, sustainable solutions we move into a place of innovation.

The institute presented us with numerous innovators, those who have embraced the constraints of sustainability for the passion of a greater cause. Companies like Loomstate have taken the plunge into creating their own constraints, establishing a set of ethical and environmental standards that have moved them beyond the traditional design and sourcing processes into investing in the communities that are a part of their supply chain. If I am to innovate, to move beyond the traditional and accepted, I must embrace the constraints of sustainability as a jumping off point, not a barrier.


“Everywhere people ask: “What can I actually do?” The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973)

Perhaps it is pie in the sky idealistic theory, but this is my manifesto. What is your design manifesto? How do you envision the future of design? I believe that we can continue to create products that are needed and beautiful but that are mindful of mankind and our environment. I believe the future looks bright for a generation of designers to rise up and take us into a sustainable future.

Neil-JenBaker-Brown-1About Us

Neil & Jen Baker Brown are design futurists, navigating the adventure that is life for the last 12 years in marriage and partnership across a variety of entrepreneurial endeavors and experiments. They have collaborated with others on projects ranging from an arts and event space in Manhattan, to a grassroots film festival; they have taught leadership development in Vietnam, coached young entrepreneurs, and built an agency to partner with early stage companies. You can consistently find them on the road and online. www.bakerbrownco.com @bakerbrownco

Fully illustrated and packed with case studies of green design implementation, Green Graphic Design more than inspires; a “sustainability scorecard” and a complete glossary of key terms and resources ensure that anyone in the design field can implement practical green solutions. This reference guide is an indispensable resource for graphic designers ready to look to the future of their business and the environment.