Doing good with good design: products that championed sustainability and activism

Best of 2022: STIR revisits objects that rallied for activism and sustainability this year, from furniture made of upcycled plastic waste to assistive desktop robots for the ageing.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Dec 28, 2022

It is not enough to just create objects of beauty and function, of permanence or impermanence. Creative practitioners, especially industrial, fashion, and product designers are obligated to employ their talents for good, inspiring, and educating designs that address pertinent issues of society, leading by example, enabling conversations and creating platforms for those whose voices often go unheard or disregarded. It is up to us, who belong to the global design circuit, to decide and shape our role as creators, to define the kind of impact our creative professions are capable of. Can we help repair and better the world, one design at a time? As graphic designer David Berman said once, “We have the opportunity to decide whether we will simply do good design or we will do good with design.”

This is where democratic design and design activism comes in, where pieces of furniture or sculptural lighting essay a double role of being functional objects, and creating social impact in their being, in theory, or in deed. Regardless of scale, this year designers—young and experienced—proved that doing good with good design is possible. With 2022 coming to an end, STIR revisits some of the most innovative and sustainability-led objects that empowered and addressed social and environmental issues, from necklace designs questioning gender equity to furniture pieces created from upcycled plastic waste.

1. London's Brunel University students propose wearable designs for women safety

Chloe McCourt’s design of Tiffany Apprise detects the tone of voice and physiological changes and warns a preparator that they are causing distress | Best of 2022: Doing good with good design | STIRworld
Chloe McCourt’s design of Tiffany Apprise detects the tone of voice and physiological changes and warns a preparator that they are causing distress Image: Chloe McCourt

While society at large argues that the world is now a safer place and that opportunities are diverse and plump for all genders, as per the WHO statistics, one in three women experiences some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. In the process of addressing social issues such as gender equality and gender-based violence, the design industry is undertaking more responsibility in this realm (as it should).

In one such intentional attempt, the students from Brunel University London designed products that help tackle the most common and threatening women’s harassment situations. The project proposed novel innovation strategies for the future, based on technological advances within the next 10-15 years. Contextualising the rise in the number of women experiencing physical and sexual violence at least once in their lifetime, the students put forth the question: “How can Tiffany & Co. protect and empower women, allowing them to safely go about their lives and support their wellbeing?” The collection comprises five product designs, ranging from a cup that detects spiked drinks to a necklace that senses the tone of voice, physiological changes and warns the preparator that they are causing distress.

2. Creating gender equity awareness through design: 50 Queens by BIG and Georg Jensen

BIG’s 50 Queens installation in Copenhagen (R) that inspired the form of the one-off necklace design by Georg Jensen (L) | Best of 2022: Doing good with good design | STIRworld
BIG’s 50 Queens installation in Copenhagen (R) that inspired the form of the one-off necklace design by Georg Jensen (L) Image: Courtesy of Georg Jensen (L); Laurent de Carniere (R)

How have creative disciplines of architecture and design debated pertinent issues, and accorded to society's evolution, in step with reigning monarchies and their systems?

A collaboration between Danish architectural giants BIG, and acclaimed jewellery design company Georg Jensen commemorated the Danish monarchy, through a partnership bringing together public spacelandscape design and a stunning piece of hand-crafted jewellery. The Bjarke Ingels Group unveiled a sculptural installation in Copenhagen titled 50 Queens, in honour of the 50th Jubilee of Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II, which also inspired the form of the 'architectural necklace' designed by Georg Jensen, as a modern ornament fit for the Queen. The necklace design as well as the temporary architectural installation highlights 50 inspiring and 'fearless' Danish women of cultural and historical significance to the Scandinavian country.

3. Elvie Curve is a compact silicone breast pump designed for women on the move

Elvie Curve | Best of 2022: Doing good with good design | STIRworld
Elvie Curve Image: Courtesy of Elvie

The perception of products available for women’s health and recovery during postpartum and breastfeeding are largely gimmicky, from pelvic floor trainers and breast pumps, the gadgets are too clumsy in their mechanisms, and largely inhibit women's confidence when using them in public. Determined to change the narrative, Boler, who has degrees from both Oxford and the Stanford University and a PhD in Sexual Reproductive Health, founded Elvie in 2013.

The first social design from the British health and lifestyle brand was Elvie Trainer (2015) that addressed the urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse that women often experience post childbirth. From pelvic health, the focus shifted to breastfeeding, and led to the launch of a series of innovations—beginning with the ‘Elvie Pump', an ultra-quiet wearable design offering mothers the ultimate pumping performance and discretion, and their latest design innovation—the 'Elvie Curve'. A smart and hassle-free technology, the industrial design is a silicone breast pump that can be worn inside any nursing bra for a seamless milk expression. The discreet, hands-free device requires no cords, batteries, or motor, and it follows a simple mechanism. Once positioned on one breast, you can press the contours of the flexible silicone cup to trigger a natural suction that pumps milk. The beauty of the wearable technology is that one could simultaneously engage one breast to express milk from the pump and feed the child from the other. The product, as per the Elvie team, "is the ultimate tool for 'mom-tasking'— even when she is on-the-move."

4. Snøhetta and Studio Plastique recycle e-waste to make 'Common Sands: Forite Tiles'

Common Sands: Forite architectural tiles design prototype developed by Snøhetta and Studio Plastique | Best of 2022: Doing good with good design | STIRworld
Common Sands: Forite architectural tiles design prototype developed by Snøhetta and Studio Plastiquee Image: Bjørnar Øvrebl

Great efforts are made to extract, transport, refine, and process sand into complex electronic components; yet, little is done to recycle them when these electronic devices reach the end of their lives. Not many know that glass features material properties excellent for recycling, but EU directives on effectively processing it from electronic waste (e-waste) do not currently exist. Sand remains a finite resource, and as the volume of e-waste rapidly increases on a global level, there is a stringent need to put strategies and solutions in place.

With an aim to explore and derive potential applications from recycling e-waste glass, Common Sands–Forite tiles emerged as a collaborative project between Norwegian design and architectural studio Snøhetta and Belgian designer duo, Studio Plastique, built on a powerful, existing material research by the latter. The resultant product design was articulated as translucent architectural tiles displaying terrazzo-like motley of recycled glass pieces, featuring specks of green, black and gold, each unique and depending on the base material’s complexity. Henry Stephens, an architect at Snøhetta, and Archibald Godts and Theresa Bastek, founders of Studio Plastique, spoke to STIR about the sustainable design, and its potential to close cycles, sharing that e-waste glass is an untapped resource that can and should be recycled, as it employs less energy than producing new glass and because silicate scarcity is an emerging global issue.

5. ElliQ is an emotionally intelligent, intuitive robot sidekick for the ageing

ElliQ by fuseproject for Intuition Robotics is an emotionally intelligent companion for the ageing | Best of 2022: Doing good with good design | STIRworld
ElliQ by fuseproject for Intuition Robotics is an emotionally intelligent companion for the ageing Image: Courtesy of fuseproject and Intuition Robotics

Amid the Alexas and Siris of the world, ‘ElliQ’ caters uniquely to its target group of older adults, acting to alleviate their growing alienation from modern technology—especially at a time when staying connected via digital means remains tantamount to meeting people physically. However, its modi operandi extends far beyond its social comings. Backed by significant design research carried by both, its parent company Intuition Robotics, and creatives at fuseproject, headed by Swiss designer Yves Béhar, ‘ElliQ’ dives into this potential fear among adults as they age.

Subverting the typical notion of a robot akin to a humanoid, fuseproject’s design innovation imagines its companion robot like a non-locomotive albeit beautiful tabletop object. The screen and the companion, entirely distinct and unconnected, signify the input and response mechanics of the robot. In a rather minimal assembly, the physicality of ‘ElliQ’ being is rounded out by the hinged companion and screen being attached to a slim anodised aluminium base. Subtle gestures, easy enough to be replicated by older people, bring ‘ElliQ’ to life in a “relatable and disarming manner,” establishing an intangible trust with this artificial companion.

6. TABLEAU's 'Confessions' addresses the silent crisis in male mental health

I Didn’t Do Enough by William van Hooff (L); :S by Lab Bla Bla (R) | Best of 2022: Doing good with good design | STIRworld
I Didn’t Do Enough by William van Hooff (L); :S by Lab Bla Bla (R) Image: Piercarlo Quecchia + DSL Studio

Danish studio TABLEAU collaborated with the therapeutic clinic Post Service in a design exhibition that explores issues of "toxic masculinity, an inherently female zeitgeist, and the need for a critical examination of the nature of mental health services." Putting a spotlight on male mental health, the showcase hosted at the Alcova in Inganni district during Milan Design Week 2022, brought together creatives from the discipline of architecturedesign, and art to interpret their own personal confessions in the form of an object.

Speaking of the curatorial idea and the collaboration with Post Service, Julius Værnes Iversen, Creative Director at TABLEAU said, "We have asked 14 artists to produce a functional piece of art in the shape of a confession in order to open up a discussion with the public on how we can shape our way of addressing the male mental health in a more open cause of action…” In this “only male-exhibition,” participating creatives channel their emotions into forms that reveal experimental materiality and sculptural compositions.

7. ‘No Space for Waste’ to present everyday objects created from environmental debris

Fragments of Hope features vases made of glass obtained from 2020 Beirut Port blast | Best of 2022: Doing good with good design | STIRworld
Fragments of Hope features vases made of glass obtained from 2020 Beirut Port blast Image: Courtesy of Karma Dabaghi

World Environment Day 2022 (June 05) was thematised around 'Only One Earth,' with the focus on 'Living Sustainably in Harmony with Nature'. Within the design industry, while all eyes were on one of the world’s biggest design expositions—the now concluded Salone del Mobile.Milano 2022—to bring forward the most innovative ideas and technologies, addressing pressing issues of today, here is one of the showcases from the fair which presented intriguing ideas to counter the environmental impact of industrial waste. Aptly titled No Space for Waste, the exhibition was an ode to circular design and creativity, comprising works by various international architects and designers who have transformed different kinds of environmental wastes. These ranged from upcycled fishing nets to furniture designs and lighting products, construction debris and collected glass waste extracted from the 2020 Beirut Port blast, being used to create beautiful, everyday pieces of use.

8. From plastic waste to fodder for 3D printing, Polyformer bridges the gap

Polyformer is a 3D printed machine that recycles plastic bottle into 3D strands of 3D printer filament | Best of 2022: Doing good with good design | STIRworld
Polyformer is a 3D printed machine that recycles plastic bottle into 3D strands of 3D printer filament Image: James Chou

The process of 3D-printing has simply revolutionised production matrices for creative practises at large, from architecture to fashion and furniture. Its properties of flexibility, modularity, material economy, and efficiency have led to its applications being extended to diverse fields including construction, contemporary designs, medical science, and robotics, and the technology still continues to rage, change and evolve.

Using this additive, future-oriented process, industrial designer Reiten Cheng devised ‘Polyformer’ with the thought of mitigating the plastic crisis, more specifically, focussing on plastic PET bottles that can create recycled products. A simple question, “What if PET bottles have a second life?” led Cheng to observe how lengthy traditional recycling processes were, and how, only 28.1 per cent of PET bottles ended up getting recycled. Left to ponder upon a number of possibilities along with the proverbial “What If?” coupled with his knowledge in the fields of engineering and design, Cheng’s Polyformer, a 3D-printed, compact, uncomplicated, and one-of-a-kind machine recycles PET bottles into filaments for other 3D printers to use, succinctly upcycling plastic waste.

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