Let’s talk “footprint”

Thanks to all of you who have read my Form, Function, Footprint essay. I received one comment from a friend and esteemed academic that made it clear I need to explain my definition of “footprint”. First, here’s the comment:

Mark, I “get” the value of mnemonics like “3 Fs” but “footprint” doesn’t really do it for me. The word has such a strong connection with waste and only environmental impact and only at the product level, usually. I would propose “Style, Substance, and Sustainability” since it makes more room for social and financial impacts as well as environmental impacts. We won’t get far enough (and not far at all) if we only consider the ecological impacts of sustainability.

I agree with the substance of the comment, and I’d like to share my response…

Rather than inventing a new semantic for designers, it’s my goal to leverage the established language of product design as the foundation for inspiring an evolution of thought and practice. The “form/function” mnemonic has stood the test of time, and “footprint” is a convenient and memorable progression. Rather than reframing the discussion around a new set of “s-words”, I prefer to leverage the established “f-words”. In the spirit of efficient branding, I’d rather teach the audience one new word, rather than three.

I certainly intend “footprint” to represent ecology and sustainability in their holistic definitions and sensibilities.

“Ecology” is defined as the branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms. By definition, ecology deals with more than the natural “environment”, and includes the immediate “society” of like organisms and the extended ecosystem of dissimilar species.

Likewise, “sustainability” involves much more than the simplistic environmental concept of “green”. Sustainability includes economic viability, environmental impact and social responsibility.

These terms are so readily “dumbed down” by mass marketing. This is why I’m calling for fundamental changes at the educational level. There is so much to learn about sustainability and ecology — i.e., footprint. Students must be taught, and researchers must continue to explore, the complex systems, relationships and interactions embodied by these concepts.

Designers must consider not just what things are made of, but how, where, why and by whom. This is the basis of the emerging field of “life cycle analysis”. Design education must adopt the “systems” view, and impress upon new designers that the footprint of a product is the sum of all these considerations. This is a rich, complex and essential field of study which has received little, if any, rigorous consideration in the traditional design curriculum. I believe there is no better time than the present to retool the educational curriculum for the Age of Sustainability.

2 Responses to “Let’s talk “footprint””
  1. Nathan says:

    Mark, I’m all in favor of redefining language and sticking with familiar terms. It requires us to invest a lot of energy in turning the meaning of word, like turning a large ship. You’re right about the problems with the word “green.” Adam Werbach and Saatchi S is currently using “blue” as a more business-friendly and more universal alternative and I think that’s a better approach than trying to unseat our preconceptions in the word “green.” I think you’ll have a much better chance modifying the definition of “footprint” and and even higher rate of success if you, simultaneously, modify the words around it (like Datschefski’s redefining of “beauty.”

    Look at the Dictionary of Sustainable Management for some potential new definitions in the works (as well as those for a lot of other terms)

  2. Billy says:

    I like the “3-Fs”; however, the concern does not lie in the “footprint” (as this ultimately results from the by-products of good design built around the “function” of fulfilling a need). The concern lies in the ordering of the “3-Fs.”

    When a bag is designed to work as a method of “function” – it naturally becomes a “form” that co-exists with man and earth combined. A bag is and shall always be built around the modular means of the human-body as it pertains to its surrounding environment. Messaging “function” and “footprint” after “form” is irrelevant if and only if “form” is the primary subjective. If “form” comes first, then “function” and “footprint” is wasted and cannot co-exist.

    With that being said, there is still no “form” of “footprint” that can truly “function” in favor of the earth – nothing “made by man” is sustainable. Therefore, if we decided to engage is building and/or buying product(s), atleast be mindful of the the “3-Fs” – Function/Footprint/Form.

    Great stuff Rickshaw! Keep it coming…

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