Friday, December 17, 2010

What is Slow Design?

pink snail by °Dirk. (Creative Commons licence.)

(This post is a synthesis and update of my two previous posts on slow design on the ecoDomestica reDesign blog. Every blog needs a keystone post or manifesto; this is that post for Sustainable Slow Stylish.)

Slow Design is a philosophical cousin of several movements with similar goals: slow food, slow fashion, Platform 21's Repair Manifesto, relearning traditional skillstransition initiativesvoluntary simplicity, and the Zen Buddhist concept of wabi-sabi. Some bloggers have misconstrued the principles behind all these movements as being simply a variant of the old Alexander Keith's India Pale Ale slogan, "Slowly, Carefully, Taking The Time To Get It Right." Others seem to think keeping it local is the key to being Slow. Those are good starting points, but I think the principles of the slow movement go much deeper, right to the core of our behaviour as consumers. As they become more widely adopted, they'll have the potential to be truly world-changing. 

The published Slow Design Principles (Strauss and Fuad-Luke, see are couched in academic language, and the case studies cited mostly involve the design of objects or artistic installations. However, the principles and practices of Slow Design are tools that are useful to sustainable designers, decorators, and artisans of all disciplines. To summarize (and loosely quote) that document's main points:
Slow Design:
  • facilitates 'slowness' and provides a balance to the industrial-consumerist model of design.
  • seeks to shift the user's awareness and attitudes about materials, processes, time, and natural environment.
  • reveals experiences and materials that are often missed or forgotten.
  • strives for truthful, exposed use of materials and process (so the hand of the maker is visible).
  • facilitates creative interaction between the user and the object or its location.
  • makes users think about where the object came from, inducing contemplation & 'reflective consumption'.
  • allows the object to change, grow, or alter over time to reflect its history and usage, and continue to be used; and reflects its history prior to its current usage.
  • comes from open-source, collaborative, transparent, and evolving processes.
  • focuses on localness and community, through collaborations and co-design with the local community and local artisans, mapping and using local knowledge, reflecting local values & visual vernacular, and using affordable local materials, to give the finished design an authentic sense of place.
  • celebrates diversity and pluralism by engaging a large range of stakeholders in the planning process. (For example, the charette process used in LEED building projects.)
  • recognizes the urgent need for stewardship of the natural environment and resources, as well as honoring local knowledge and traditions, and encouraging engagement with place.
So, slow design is thoughtfully conceived, thought-provoking, flexible in use, collaborative, personalized, timeless, and sustainable. Slow design is not anti-industrial, per se, but it asks its users to think of themselves as codesigners or participants, instead of as passive consumers. Process is also important in slow design, and can involve creating open-source data and holding do-it-yourself workshops in order to foster collaboration, build skills, and stimulate conversations around local issues. Slow design is, at its heart, about making holistic choices that support communities and their traditions and skills. 

Furthermore, the frugality and do-it-yourself aspects of slow design really lend themselves to our changed economy. The Shelton Group's green marketing blog has noted this shift and suggested that marketers are going to need to pay attention to it, instead of just appealing to 'a more aspirational way of life' in order to sell products.

This list illustrates what these ideas mean in everyday life:

Slow Design is:                                                  Slow Design isn't:
authentic                                                           mannered, artificial, phoney
heirloom-quality                                                 semi-disposable
refurbished Victorian homes                                 NeoVictorian subdivisions
modern (while respecting the past)                      like living in a museum exhibit
gardens                                                             outdoor living rooms
rain barrels & watering cans                                automatic irrigation systems
clotheslines                                                        tumble dryers
timeless                                                             trend-driven
cedar shakes                                                       vinyl siding
handmade                                                          machine-made
reupholstering & refinishing                                  buying new
Etsy                                                                   Ikea
personalized and creative                                     impersonal and off-the-shelf
local                                                                   imported
reduce, reuse, recycle                                          buy, buy, buy
limited-edition or one-off                                     mass-produced
renewable                                                           fossil fueled
high quality                                                         brand-name-driven 'luxury'
thought-provoking                                                thoughtless
walkable, bikeable neighborhoods                         car-centric gated 'communities'
built for the ages                                                 planned obsolescence
...So, what do the principles of slow design mean to you? 

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