Each month, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.
How did you get started as a designer?
My degree is in Industrial Design. I’m a proud graduate of the internationally renowned College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit, Michigan. I’ve also done post graduate work in marketing with an emphasis on entrepreneurial development, and completed the Harvard University Entrepreneur Development Program. I also ran my own design consultancy, Design Communications, Inc. for 27 years in Washington, DC. For ten years I had a line of office furniture I designed for Continuum, a former division of Steelcase.
I started my career in the automotive industry, then moved to product design. Early on I learned the importance of design and material selection to reduce waste and cost in manufacturing.
Tell us about your background
I grew up on my maternal grandparent’s 200 acre farm near the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains in rural western North Carolina. We lived in a small town anchored by a textile mill called Alexander Mills.
My dad and three of my mother’s brothers worked for the mill but all four of them helped to work the farm because the farm provided us with self-sufficiency. We had apple, pear, peach, pecan, and walnut trees along with grapes plums, strawberries. We farmed cotton, soybeans, corn and sugarcane. That land is still in our family to this day.
From the age of six or seven, I remember being outside all day, playing in the forest, meadows and streams that were abundantly available and that literally surrounded our house. Spending time in one of my favorite spots, a clearing covered in a huge bed of emerald moss and ringed with mushrooms growing in logs. It was one of my favorite spots to go and be by myself. I would lie on that big bed of moss and listen to the sounds of the forest around me, the screeching of squirrels, birds singing, the wind blowing softly through the pine trees and watch the sunlight filtering down from the treetops as a nearby stream gurgled its way towards a distant creek.
It was a natural, organic, and holistic indoctrination into nature. I had an idyllic childhood, surrounded by the natural world. I am very thankful for that. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn have nothing on me!
How did you get involved in sustainability?
Both of my parents are from large families — 11 in my dad’s family, my mom had 12 paternal step-brothers and sisters and nine maternal siblings! So I had lots of cousins, aunts, and uncles. As farm kids who grew up living off the land.
We learned to recycle and reuse just about everything — it was a way of life, an ethic.
We saved jars for canning. Cardboard was saved and collected then sold for cash along with scrap metal. Food scraps were fed to the pigs. Leaves were raked, burned, and then the ashes were spread on our large garden to fertilize the soil along with manure from our cows. We learned the simple lesson that more productive use of something results in it costing less over its productive life, especially if it was used to make or save money.
However, every summer my mom and dad would take me, my two brothers, and my sister to Baltimore where we would spend upwards to a month visiting my mother’s two sisters and my dad’s two brothers who lived there. We would become city kids for a while.
I believe that lack of attention to sustainability is the existential threat of our time because it is the root cause of climate change along with systemic pollution of the environment, human ignorance, and greed.
I look at our consumer product-based lifestyles and wonder if some of this stuff should have ever been created — strange, obscene, nonsensical plastic items that end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Dump. Single-use items like plastic straws, bags, etc, etc. that just keep piling up and we continue to produce more and more of this instant garbage. What was wrong with paper straws?
The BBC recently posted a story on how the world is even running out of sand. And there have been deadly conflicts over sand rights!
I cringe every time I see a plastic grocery bag caught in a tree, waving in the wind as if nature itself is waving a flag of surrender or better yet a flag of alarm.
Why did you found the Organization of Black Designers?
Several years back I attended a “30 under 30” furniture design show, and there was not one African American face among those 30. I was angry and wrote to the sponsor. Later, after letters and lunches, we formed a partnership and they ended up sponsoring our first conference in 1994. The lesson: When you see something, you must speak out.
We founded OBD to embrace and improve the totality of the American design professions by energizing them with creative diversity. Diversity is the lifeblood of evolution, our insurance against annihilation. When we empower a diversity of people with their gifts, and enable them to apply these gifts, we all gain.
African Americans certainly have other critical issues to deal with, but I am working to help Black Designers understand that obviously we’re all on this small planet together. We all need ecosystems to be stable and protected. We all need clean air and water. We all need to be more conscious and environmentally protective consumers and designers.
And that there are many subtleties of interdependence between macro and micro ecosystems that we are just now becoming aware of — like the relatively recent discovery of the crucial balance of the types of bacteria that make up the intestinal flora in the human digestive tract and its impact not only on our physical well being but also on our mental and emotional well being. What food we eat and how that food is grown, what nutrients it contains or not has a direct effect on our intestinal biome and all the way up from there to our thought and emotional processes.
Perhaps we should ask designers, engineers and manufacturers to take something like a Hippocratic Oath that doctors pledge to: “First do no harm to Earth”.
What unique insights do Black Designers bring to sustainability?
There are some really interesting parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and the sustainability movement. With Civil Rights we went from enslavement to segregation to integration to affirmative action to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).
At one time, African Americans were essentially invisible to society. That is where we started with pollution, environmental damage, and climate change — we pretended that these things didn’t exist or weren’t a problem. And of course all of these issues disproportionately impact urban, lower income, and African American people.
It starts with consciousness raising, then a critical mass of people can create a movement. “We the people” must take action. We are making progress now, but it takes time.
What are you hopeful about?
Design has risen to a level of prominence in the corporate world as well as with the public. Most businesses are aware of the power of “Design Thinking”, and some even have a CDO (Chief Design Officer). We have become aware that we designed our way into this mess, and we can design our way out of it. I have great confidence that we’ll figure it out.
What advice do you have for young people, especially sustainable designers?
The Great Generation had to deal with World War II. The next generation has to deal with sustainability. I tell young people to start simple. Stop using plastic straws. Start consuming less. Be conscientious about what will happen to the things you buy and the things you design. Start doing. Educate yourself and get involved at whatever level you can. Hold companies to task.
Thank you David for your time and insights!
[image courtesy of David Rice]