Interview: Waste is a Design Flaw
Sophie Thomas, the founder of Thomas.Matthews, had recently delivered a compelling lecture in our school on our role as designers to envision for a sustainable economy. She had also designed some of Singapore's iconic wayfinding structures, like Gardens by the Bay in 2012. Together with Theresa, we arranged for an interview with her, hoping to gain deeper insights into how we can truly make this happen.
About Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas was instrumental in putting sustainable communication design on the map. From early activist days working with Friends of the Earth, to delivering ‘The Great Recovery’ design and the circular economy research project at the RSA. Her current positions as a Design Council BEE and on the Board of Trustees at WRAP, have brought a strong sense of inventive and responsible thinking to studio and the wider industry.
Thomas.Matthews is a team of communication designers based in London. They specialize in design solutions for the built environment and social change, focusing on the delivery of good design that is appropriate, sustainable and beautiful. Founded in 1997, Thomas.Matthews has 20 years of experience working with clients from governments and global corporations to NGO’s and charities, architects, landscape designers and planners, museums and cultural spaces.
What does waste mean to you?
When I see bits of waste, I see potential. They are basically materials in the wrong places! So waste for me is always a potential. It is valuable and can be made it into something. But it also frustrates me because from one end I see potential in the value of it, but I also see its design flaw.
Could you walk me through your material selection process?
We intentionally make sure that the longevity and the lifetime of a site matches the selected materials. We should have this kind of appropriateness of material to life. So if they want it to be changeable, we will work with a material that is suited for that need. If it has to be there for 20 years, we will design it that way. But often times it is a mismatch. We tend to either over-specify, resulting in a sign that is built with things that doesn’t need to be. Or we under-specify, so it fades or falls apart and needs to be replaced. So its actually about finding the appropriate material for the right use. And this is just one part of our entire design process.
So which material have you worked with the most?
It used to be paper when we first started out, but now its more of plywood. Plywood is an interesting material because we can specify the sustainability of its construction. We can also print directly onto it, meaning we don’t have to cover it with anything else.
Besides choosing the right material, how else can we design sustainably?
There is a great deal that we can do! Particularly now, there is a real need for activating people’s voices, especially those who needs to communicate but are unable to. Whether they are isolated communities experiencing the extreme effects of climate change, or other areas where awareness and communication are fundamental.
Other than communication, we should design better products and better systems to help countries manage the amount of waste coming in. It is about the infrastructure of waste, not necessary just about energy from waste because we are not there yet. If this is our only focus, we will bear the consequence of having lots and lots of different incinerators, and the pollution would just push out too much in the air. So its about moving backwards and backwards, back to the design of the product and the system. The two kind of work together to create a more circular economy.
Do you think the concept of a circular economy should be enforced into education?
Oh wow, that’s a very good question. Yes, but you learn about different types of sustainability at different stages of life. Maybe you learn about recycling when you’re eight, and reusing when you’re in middle school. And when you get to your degree, you start thinking about its principles which are really complex. You have to understand the system of your product, so that you are not just focusing on one small piece, but have an overall picture. As a designer you need to think big and small and go in and out of scale. This is probably something that you will learn on the job, but you have to have the principles before you can practice it.
So how should we get people on board?
First you get the big companies interested, those big packaging producers. Then you need to get their designers and their teams to actually really understand how they’re going to do it. So there’s a kind of education here that has to kick in at the business level. But then, all the younger designers like you who are coming in also have to understand how to do it as well! And that goes right back again into the question about curriculum. How do we teach designers to build that into the way they think? So that when you come out in 2-3 years time, there is a whole new way of designing packaging. We’re not there yet, but you have to be ready to pick up and go with it. It’s a multi-step process.
What about the role of consumers?
As a consumer, all you need to know really is where that piece of packaging go, what bin it goes in, where that broken phone gets sent back to, or who to fix your washing machine. That’s the first layer. Businesses then have that duty or responsibility to pick up that piece of packaging or fix your phone or your washing machine. Then its up to how the industry takes the responsibility to get the value back. The environmental producer responsibility (EPR) of the individual is really key to this. Because if you actually have people who are responsible for their waste streams, they will start to redesign their product to get the material back and keep the value.