Can green be beautiful? Logically, it would seem like green and beauty would go hand-in-hand, yet sustainable design is widely considered unattractive. Sustainable Brands 2012 emcee Lance Hosey, CEO of GreenBlue and author of The Shape of Green, argues that "if sustainable design is intended to act like nature, it should knock your socks off." But as a collective discipline, experts pan sustainable design as boring, drab and even inefficient.
Hosey quotes architect Peter Eisenman in his book as saying, "Some of the worst buildings I have seen are done by sustainable architects." And critic Aaron Betsky saying, "Sustainable architecture justifies itself by claiming to be pursuing a higher truth - in this case that of saving the planet. The goal justifies many design crimes, from the relatively minor ones of the production of phenomenally ugly buildings...to the creation of spaces and forms that are not particularly good for either the inhabitants or their surroundings."
But the lack of inherent beauty isn't restricted to sustainable architecture, but all manner of sustainable products.
If a product does good, does it necessarily have to look good?
As humans, we react to physical attractiveness and form connections with things we perceive as beautiful. The more time people spend outside in nature, looking at its beauty and appreciating it, the less likely they are to harm it, while the less time they spend with it, the opposite is true. We also react to beautiful products, or things we form a connection to and care about.
Hosey says, "If we don't like something, we won't use it. I'm not talking about sales here, but not actually using it once we buy it. And that's an environmental nightmare." If we care about something, we will keep it longer. And that's one of the most sustainable actions we can take.
Manufacturing a computer uses 80 percent of its total energy profile over its lifecycle. Using it only accounts for 20 percent, and, Hosey explained, those numbers are similar for many other electronic products on the market. "If we put all that energy into the making of something and then only use it briefly, that's incredibly wasteful. The longer we use it, the more we rationalize the consumption of the materials and resources used to make it in the first place. Continuing to use a computer instead of recycling it is 20 times more efficient."
Hosey asked, "How do we design products so people want to keep them and not discard them as soon as they are tired of them or something newer comes along?" What do we love? Studies show that certain forms, shapes and colors are pleasing, and graceful, interactive products that are easy to use are the most appealing. "The more attractive something is, the more functional we estimate it to be. We need to shift the focus from the making of things to the shaping of things."
Just make it pretty then?
After his SB12 presentation, it would be easy to leave with the idea that as long as sustainable designers make their products pretty, the problem is solved. I talked to Hosey afterward, and he expanded on his theory.
The first question Hosey asked about sustainable design nearly 20 years ago was, "What does it look like?" The reaction to his question made him feel like it was an irrelevant and naive question to ask. Now, Hosey says, "I believe that not only was it a relevant question, but perhaps the most important question there is."
In his book, Hosey says, "form affects performance, while image influences endurance." The perception of green design being ugly still persists, but many designers are trying to swing the pendulum back by making their products attractive. However, in most cases, "what makes them look good has nothing to do with what makes them green."
So that's the winning relationship?
Beauty and green must be intertwined, both contributing to the other's success.
Hosey believes that green products need to be designed with a holistic attitude and not be constrained by non-green designs. Hybrid cars with gas-powered counterparts don't need to look identical. Designers need to look at the hybrid as an entirely new design challenge based on its parts, which are unique. If the battery is lighter and smaller, why put it into the same size engine block as a gas-powered battery requires?
Hosey cites the Mission One motorcycle as just such an example. With the use of a lighter, smaller engine, the designers were able to curve the sides of the engine casing slightly, giving the cycle a sleeker look. This also allowed riders to hug the sides tighter, taking their legs out of the slipstream and increasing efficiency by lessening drag.
So making products beautiful increases consumer attraction and lengthens the lifespan of the product after the consumer develops a connection to it. Making a product green increases the scope to make it beautiful, and therefore more sustainable.
"Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern—it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet." The Shape of Green
Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and @anewell3p on Twitter.