Reflective Essay


Over the last decade or so I have become increasingly concerned with environmental issues and evermore aware of how entrenched ‘throw away consumerism’ is in modern society. From a design perspective, this thinking is echoed in part by McDonough and Braungart (2009) coining the term ‘crude products’. Moreover, it can be argued that the extraction, production, manufacture and transportation of materials and products can have as dramatic environmental impact as the reduced longevity of ‘crude products.’ Perhaps most alarming of all are the recent revelations that some of the worlds’ multi-billion dollar designers/manufacturers, whilst exploiting natural resources, cheap labour and designing products with planned obsolescence (Reuters, 2018), are then so revered (Telegraph, 2011).

In contrast, there is perhaps potential, demand or indeed need for a new approach to design. McGuirk (2011), brings about the idea of the ‘Designer Maker’: a shift from mass production to a more traditional approach of ‘making’ as elaborated by Sparke (2013). Elements of this theory are demonstrated by contemporary designers such as Gavin Munro, Sebastian Cox and Another Country. Alongside this trend is the concept of the ‘circular economy’ Ellen McArthur foundation, (2018) promoting a volte face from extract, use, dispose to one based around restoration and regeneration.

Combined with a cynical view of globalisation and mass production, it is against this backdrop that I strive to explore materials and processes in regard to carbon footprint. Moreover, to then understand the narrative of ‘making’ within the context of ever increasing environmental pressures.


Being based in Manchester, the impact of the industrial revolution is all too prevalent with the city constantly adapting to the demands of the time. History documents the shift from cottage industry to mass production and consequent effects on skills and craftsmanship. With modern globalisation, these effects have been amplified and it is now possible to reflect on the changing role of the designer through this transition. A recent trip to Girona and a serendipitous stumbling across an old theatre-set-workshop conjured romantic notions of time honoured skill, with artistic license being in the hands of the maker. This brought about the question of the existence of ‘designers’ pre-industrial revolution, especially when terms such as, artisan, craftsman, draughtsman are more readily associated with the past. It is perhaps plausible that the industrial revolution spearheaded the separation of ‘designer’ from ‘maker’, putting the ‘skill’ of making in the hands of the machine and thus creating the role of ‘designer’.

Post-industrial revolution has seen numerous ‘movements’ from art nouveau and the avant garde modernists, through to the digital age, all of which saw the designer ever more disconnected from manufacture processes. The invention of plastic and the mass-production-line being obvious technological advancements, enabling a small design team to realise their concept to the masses. Thwaites (2011), illustrates the complexities of modern production with his project attempting to make the unassuming toaster.

The shortcomings of current global economic policy is perhaps now all too obvious with global warming and plastic rarely out of the news Gabbatiss, (2018); Holder, Kommenda, Watts, (2017). It was the options unit titled ‘Commercial aspects of product design’ that really heighten my understanding of globalisation and the complexities of neo-liberal capitalism. Much of the research undertaken for this unit added credibility to my beliefs. Combined with research informing ‘contextualising design practice 1’, specifically the design agenda ‘A return to tradition’ the notion of ‘homo faber’ resonated, bringing a clear focus to my practice.

The ‘collaborative project’ was useful as it provided the opportunity to test each other’s ideas. Together it was agreed to explore contrasting materials which introduced the work of Hilla Shamia and specifically her wood casting process. This led to experimentation, with contrasting materials and helped inform the research proposal.

My initial research proposal titled ‘explore the interaction between two contrasting agendas – organic/inorganic and traditional/modern’ was based upon my interests at that point and proved a struggle to encapsulate my ideals. Whilst for the first time I was thinking clearly about what kind of designer I wanted to be, as a research question, I felt the proposal was flawed and left me feeling despondent.

The process of defining organic and inorganic immediately brought the viability of this proposal into doubt. Organic – relating to or derived from anything living and in chemistry terms relating to carbon compounds. In contrast to inorganic – relating to non living and non carbon compounds. On this basis, plastics, leathers, furs, wood can all be classified as organic. Metals, ceramics, glass inorganic. The research intention seemed diluted as many products already use a combination of materials and without boundary any interaction between materials would lack value or meaning.

Further research into carbon and specifically the carbon cycle was more interesting and aligned more closely with my environmental and ethical concerns. The opportunity to take part in carbon literacy training and viewing the film ‘Before the flood’ gave new focus to my research proposal.

Working in the renewable energy sector provides insight into technologies such as biomass boilers (REA), widely understood to be carbon neutral, as an equal amount of CO2 absorbed during tree growth is liberalised during combustion of the biomass. Looking back, this was perhaps a key influence that brought about the idea of wood being a carbon sink.

The Environment Agency seemed a good place to obtain CO2 data for various materials, however the EA carbon calculator fails to account for wood as a carbon sink, instead attributing the CO2 cost of cutting and processing timber only. However, the VTT (technical research centre of Finland) carbon calculator does provide data of sequestered CO2 for different woods whilst also accounting for the carbon cost of processing. Building on the notion wood a carbon sink has potential to offset the carbon cost of other materials thus the research proposal: ‘What does design look like if bound by a carbon neutral ratio?’ then manifest.

At this point defining the proposal was essential. Carbon neutral, a term that is much used but questionable as to how well understood needed clear definition. To define Carbon Neutral requires a time frame. It became apparent that there are many carbon cycles; respiration, combustion, decomposition each with multifaceted components to consider. The ability of the planet to regulate the carbon cycle via; atmosphere, oceans and vegetation. To give context to this proposal was to define the carbon cycle within human scope. This immediately withdraws all fossil fuels from the equation. To be carbon neutral then concerns a cycle over millennia rather than mega-annums.

With the pressing nature of global warming, it was necessary to go further and relate carbon neutral in terms of a human perception of time. With time frame established as 100 years, it was then to differentiate those materials that sequester carbon from those do not. The conclusion was that wood is the primary material that sequesters carbon. All other materials to varying extent liberate C02 through excavation, extraction and processing.

Much research focused heavily into the theoretical carbon footprint of producing various materials, yielding data tables providing clear ratios of wood to other materials.
It was essential to investigate other factors in order to answer the research question comprehensively. Transportation; it would be inconclusive if for example hardwood (with inherent high amount of sequestered CO2) shipped from the tropics, for manufacture in northern Europe, did not have the CO2 footprint of transportation accounted for. Likewise, steel produced and shipped from China will have a different carbon footprint to that produced in South Wales. These examples serve to only add more questions to the concept of CO2 neutral. What of the CO2 footprint of the ship, the footprint of the supply chain to manufacture the ship? Is it then necessary to consider the lifestyle and carbon footprint of the crew of the ship, the crew at port, the vehicles and cranes to handle goods at port and onward transportation?

There is much data surrounding the construction industry and carbon footprint of transporting various materials, however many assumptions are made and averages assumed. To account for the lifestyle of each person with any kind of touch-point to the manufacture process was proving almost impossible. A decision was needed as to where to draw the line.

Contemporary designers already embrace the challenges of production, ‘Bodging Milano’ looked at reinventing the way things are made and returning to old methods and Gareth Neal’s carbon projects pushed the concept further with the pursuit of carbon negative. This led to consideration of the source of energy to power machines for production, indeed was it necessary to consider the carbon footprint of individual tools?
At this point, thoughts turned to demonstrating the relationship between carbon positive and carbon negative materials in the form of a product. The intention was to use metaphor to enhance the findings. Objects with two components that could easily be made using a different material for each seemed appropriate. Investigation of artefacts gave some inspiration. Eating could be a seen as a metaphor consumption and therefore consumerism. The plate in contrast to knife and fork. The milk stool, used to take milk from the cow (earth). I settled with the pestle and mortar which to me seemed perfect. The organic pestle being pummelled by the inorganic mortar for other gain.

With a viable idea; a metaphoric old implement still common place in the kitchen, contrasting materials for each component, easily varied in size according to the carbon ratio, and the data to back it up. The next consideration was the process.

To hand carve would have the lowest energy consumption but compromise the finish. Perhaps the preferred option would be the lathe, although more time is required to master the skill. CNC router high energy consumption but presented a short term solution. Simple enough to time and then process energy consumption form the data plate.

It became apparent that for the project to succeed it was essential to use electricity sourced from renewables, investigating this aspects confirmed that MMU has a fully renewable energy tariff, however this is perhaps not reason enough to ignore power consumption during processing. Moreover, it is worth noting that the UK energy sector pools supply into the grid. If a UK wide energy production carbon footprint is used, any remaining CO2 ‘sink’ after discounting transportation would rapidly diminish by the process of making.

For the Pestle, casting was the obvious choice, measuring energy is relatively simple and accurate. This brought about the question of energy consumption and tariff.

With so much to consider, the prospect of producing a carbon neutral useable pestle and mortar becomes ever distant. This project has highlighted the complexities of making in a carbon neutral way, the journeys materials and products both physical and metaphorically speaking take is immense and complex.

The future

I feel that my practice is starting to develop a strong ethos and integrity which I hope to condense into a manifesto. I am excited about the prospect of constraining my practice to a core set of values which I believe will present many challenges, not least around producing designs true to a carbon neutral ratio but also financially viable. Moreover, carbon neutral product design may be less an intention but more a necessity as the world transitions into an age of ‘Hot house Earth’ .

Reflecting on this piece of work, I realise that much technological knowledge has been gained, what is clearly missing is the why. It is necessary to now gain deeper understanding into the reasons why my intention to design and make in a carbon neutral way is so important to me. Moreover, to then develop a connection between people and carbon neutral products. I realise that I need to explore and develop the human, emotional and artistic aspects of design in order to inspire change in consumers purchasing. It is not enough to aspire to make carbon neutral products, what is equally important is to give tangible value and reason for people to purchase carbon neutral objects.

A crucial part of this is perhaps understanding why certain ‘crude products’ are so successful and investigate if there are transferable qualities. Taking inspiration from Donald Norman’s work, during the coming months I intend to research the ‘soul’ of the product and with the newly acquired technical data ratios, translate this into desirable products. Developing my artistic facets and conveying meaning of the product. Moreover, to then differentiate from others.

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