Motivating Change, @GDC Practivism.

I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that I sometimes have difficulty reconciling my work to my lifestyle. I grow vegetables. I raise my children with awareness of our ecological systems and the importance of their preservation. I consume as little as possible. Yet some of my work is for clients whose products aren’t aligned with my values. Very nice people with whom I have positive working relationships, to be sure, but closely tied to a world I believe to be unsustainable.

So when I got an email announcing this year’s Practivism, the GDC’s annual conference on sustainability in design, I was all over it. My hope was that I’d come away with a few new resources on how I might support my business with a more sustainability-minded clientele. There’s only so much pro bono work one can do while still putting a roof over ones head, and the big Globals have the budgets to keep small studios like mine healthy. My goal has always been to strike a karmic balance, to let the bigger corporate jobs support the smaller passion projects. But is that enough?

I can’t say that Practivism really answered this question for me, at least not in a concrete way, but it did reaffirm for me the pivotal role creative communicators hold in designing a sustainable future. It got me thinking more about the people we’re trying to encourage towards this end, as opposed to the movement itself. And it introduced me to several creatives at the forefront of the sustainability movement who, guided by their ethics, are succeeding both in business and in communicating positive messages.

Practical Activists Erica Priggen (Free Range Studios), Lorne Craig (Unicycle) and Dawn Danby (Autodesk) formed a compelling and complementary trio, reminding us of the many avenues we have to communicate the need for social and environmental change through our work.

Erica presented us with some of the storytelling tools Free Range uses in their tremendously successful video campaigns, including The Story of Stuff and The Meatrix. She reminded us of the roots of storytelling, tracing back to the oral tradition and following it’s path through the advent of broadcast and corporate-controlled communications, back to the democratization of storytelling in our current “Digitoral” age. At the heart of the most persuasive Digitoral stories lie mythologies and archetypes that have accompanied us throughout modern human history. These are populated with characters with whom we can identify on a base level, and stories that mimic our own animal natures, needs and desires; the root of real people and behaviors.

Next, Lorne gave us examples of how these archetypes have have blossomed with complexities, driven by action and reaction to modern consumerism. Yet within these complexities lie those same primal desires: for health, sustenance, and transparency (fundamentally, the search for truth). Lorne suggests that it is in appealing to these desires that we might begin to bridge perspectives and influence people’s behaviors.

Dawn brought a unique perspective to an already rich dialogue. As an industrial designer working with engineers to maximize the efficiency of the modern tools we use every day in our homes and in industry, she suggested that most inefficiencies result from user flaws.

A powerful example she gives cites a recent study in the UK focused on how people use their teakettles. It was discovered that every street lamp in the UK could be powered by the energy wasted from people overfilling their kettles.

Wow. Guilty as charged.

To highlight a model of positive efficiency she then discussed the Prius interface, designed to empower drivers with a greater understanding of how their engines work and give them a game-like sense of accomplishment as they use their engines to maximum performance.

In closing, she challenged us as designers to conceive of and communicate new ways to approach common habits; changing how real people use objects.

My take home from the conference is multi-faceted. First of all, there are indeed ways to communicate sustainability to people who are not already converts. Lorne’s work with London Drugs is a prime example of this. By suggesting green to customers – as opposed to telling them – consumers are empowered with information, and thus the ability to make individual decisions on which products to choose based on knowledge.

Also, people are morons. All of us, myself included. How often do I walk into a freezing cold room and crank the thermostat knob up? All the time (according to my husband). I also push the “close door” button on the elevator button over and over if I’m in a hurry, and I love long showers. I do a lot of things right but, like all of us, have a hard time breaking old and inefficient habits.

And most importantly, I was reminded that not only do we occasionally forget that we’re designing for people (as opposed to statistics or focus groups), but we lose sight of the deep commonalities we share beneath our habits and belief systems. While we don’t all share the same truths, we are all willing to fight for the truths we believe in. While we don’t all agree on how to best care for our bodies, we all strive to keep them functioning. And though we don’t all share the same values, we’re all looking to feel secure.

Now I see that it’s in the places where we’re the same, not the places where we differ, that our movement towards change should begin.