If Products Could Tell Their Stories


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I’ll be teaching a class as an adjunct professor on my favorite subject at NYU’s ITP school this winter term: If Products Could Tell Their Stories – Towards a Model of Sustainable Design.

Thanks to Tom Igoe, at ITP, for his encouragement. And precedent – his book:

Made me think – if products can now talk, thanks to  technology becoming cheap enough and small enough to embed everywhere, then products will be able to soon tell us the truth about where they derive.

I’ll be using this website to help catalogue all of the frameworks, models, thoughts, and design examples of sustainable design thinking that will drive behavior change both from consumers and manufacturers. The focus is on how things get made, and then designing in ways for people to use products so that as “consumers” they understand the impact of the consumption.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with several ITP graduates as designers and technologists, and I love the fact that the school emphasizes getting dirty with technology, taking things apart, and prototyping to get to solutions.

Here’s the course description – I’ll be posting a detailed syllabus and further discussion about what we’ll be learning.

Is there lead in my nephew’s toy? Does my new HDTV have a much greater impact on global warming than my old TV? When I finally recycle those old cell phones and computers that have been collecting dust in my closet, where will they be taken, and will anything or anyone be harmed as they are recycled? 

Without answers to these questions that people are seeking, there are limits to the role consumption can play in our shift to a more sustainable economic model. As product developers, designers, tinkerers, and technologists, we have the means to uncover these answers, and communicate the backstories of the things that we make.

The objective of this course is to explore sustainable models, methods, and practices of both production and consumption. The class explores an interaction design model proposed by Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, in which he implores, “Designers must design, not just for objects or for people, but for the technosocial interactions that unite people and objects.” Additional content exposes students to the relationship between production, consumption, and impacts to the earth’s ecosystem and human health. Students learn how to analyze product/service systems and life cycle thinking.

Students also are asked to investigate and communicate a product backstory to an existing product. The final exercise of the course involves the creation of a new product/service system that provides a framework for users to affect and modulate the environmental and social impacts throughout their relationship with that object. Class participation is required and group projects are encouraged.