For the past few weeks I was home for the holidays and had a lot of time to think about what I want to accomplish in 2016. Before I went back home, I had spent the last couple of months diligently preparing for the graduate school entrance exam for the Design Strategy department at Kyushu University (the same uni where I'm a research student now). Just as a bit of background information, the exam is 100% in Japanese and involves writing essays on design, memorizing quite a lot of design terminology I'd never heard of, and a presentation and interview with some of the faculty. As you can guess, I was more than a little nervous about passing. However, I somehow must have convinced them, because just in time before I headed home for the holidays, I found out that I passed!
So that means I'll be an official master's student starting in April! Yay! Not only will I have an actual schedule with classes, I will be working towards a degree in the Design Business program. I can't say exactly what my career will look like in 5 years, but I have always daydreamed about the possibility of having my own design shop or other business someday. Whether I end up working at a design firm, an in-house design department, or working for myself, I feel like design business is one of the big knowledge gaps that has kept me from having as much confidence as I'd like to. Some of the classes I'm looking forward to are: Project Management, Intellectual Property Theory, and Design Ventures.
Preparing for the entrance exam got me thinking a lot about design as a general practice again. It made me remember the things that I feel are important - the ways that I could make the world a better place as a designer. Among other things, like universal design and human factors, the thing that has always interested me the most is sustainability in design.
As I put together a poster and presentation about my research proposal, I realized that I had almost lost track of my initial motivation for choosing this topic. The whole point of my project is to propose a sustainable furniture design inspired by traditional Japanese woodworking. Sometimes I feel like I get caught up in minute details and the idea of "making progress" and lose sight of the big picture. But once I remembered the reason I came to Fukuoka in the first place, it got me motivated to revitalize my interest in sustainability.
In my undergrad degree, I took a lot of Materials + Processes and Sustainability classes to learn how to choose appropriate, cost-effective, and environmentally responsible materials and manufacturing processes. One of the things that stuck in my mind was watching the documentary Waste = Food. It's all about how the concept of waste doesn't exist in nature, because "waste" just transforms into "food" for new growth (e.g. cherry blossoms that don't yield fruit just turn into nutrition for the soil). The documentary talks about how we can work within nature's cycles instead of using brute force to try and (unsuccessfully) overrule them. If we worked with nature instead of against it, problems like toxicity, landfills, and global warming would be non-existent. Some of the ways the makers of the documentary propose working "eco-effectively" are designing for dis-assembly, separating "biological" (biodegradable) and "technical" materials (metals, plastics) so that they can be effectively recycled, and phasing out toxic materials.
Watching this documentary had a big impact on me at the time. Let's face it - as someone studying to be a product designer, I was initially depressed by the realization that everything I design will eventually end up clogging landfills all over the planet. I also became more aware of the negative consequences of perpetually creating waste and went on a "shopping fast" where I carried around only $5 in cash and no debit card for a couple of months in an effort to resist impulse buys (the only exception being bringing $50 on a grocery run once a week). Shortly thereafter I experimented with a minimalist lifestyle while studying abroad in Madrid, bringing only one suitcase of belongings to get me through my nine-month-long study abroad. Frankly, I ended up being a little disappointed at how big of an impact material things had on my happiness, after reading wonderful things about how freeing and enlightening minimalism was supposed to be.
Wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to feel guilty about consuming so much? Wouldn't it be great if you could buy a new pair of shoes without worrying about the toxic plastics and adhesives used in its manufacture, the sweat shop where someone earned next to nothing to make it, the fact that it will eventually wear out and you'll have no option but to throw it "away" to some landfill? The makers of Waste = Food argue that these kinds of undesirable side-effects of industry are all avoidable. It sure would be nice to see them stop being the norm in this lifetime.
The documentary Waste = Food is based on the book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough (architect) & Michael Braungart (chemist). This winter break I decided it was high time I read the book. Reading it got me thinking about how I could make a difference right now. To be honest, the book proposes such an ideal end goal that it's hard to know where to even start, but at least now I know that sustainable design is something I want to contribute to.