Radical Design

Recently I did a lecture for a research department affiliated with DeMonfort University in Leicester and the theme was Radical Design.

From the beginning, I was excited to consider what is radical in design?

I guess when we think of radical, we might be thinking about design movements that broke with the status quo, we think of Radical Italian Design in the 60’s and 70’s and think about the work of designers like Gaetano Pesce and Alessandro Mendini who were using design as a platform for political and cultural critique, rather than the conventional commercial context.

Design was radical because it was being used as a tool for political discourse.

Lassu Chair| Alessandro Mendini 1974
Vitra Design Museum ‘Radical Design’| Wallpaper

Or perhaps we can think of radical design in terms of Paradigm Shifts. In 1955, Henry Dreyfuss was publishing his classic book “Designing for People”, which transformed the design industry by shifting the focus from machines to people.

We take for granted the idea of user-centered design, but until Dreyfuss brought a lens to it, this wasn’t the case at all.

There is a point when a radical insight creates a rupture in the pattern and a new way of thinking and viewing the world appears.

For me, Radical Design is about this. About Radical Paradigm Shifts. Those seminal moments in history where design and designers reflect the larger spirit of the age. When design is connected to people and place and challenges how we think, act and relate to our environment and each-other.

I prefer to align my work with perhaps the most urgently needed paradigm shift today: to learn how to live sustainably and in harmony with nature and its living organisms. So, when I think of Radical Design, I think in terms of the type of change that would be required for us to avoid complete ecological disaster and make changes fast enough to build a new way of doing things. That would be radical change.

Image result for ecological disasters
Unintended Consequences|RT

A few years ago, I started to become very interested in design for sustainability, in particular issues around urban waste, and I started learning more about it and about some projections around the challenges for services in cities as they become more and more populated.

I came across several figures that framed the urgency of the issue and really emphasized the problem of waste in cities, so and I wanted to see how I could address it through design.

The nature of our problem with waste had already been voiced back in the 60’s very eloquently by Victor Papanek, he said

“That which we throw away we fail to value”


For me, this really summarized the issue of waste today. It’s a cultural problem, a problem of perspective. And what we need is a change in perspective, just like when Dreyfuss’ work created a complete shift in terms of what is central in the industry: people. Now we need to re-evaluate once more, what is central: the earth.

So, I began a project that would take me 3 years to complete, which I called Waste labs.

The basic idea was to create a business case for urban waste by designing high end applications that used waste as the raw material. I focused on glass as the first material to tackle because it’s the heaviest waste material in the sector I researched (C&I Business waste)and because it’s recycling process is incredibly energy hungry.

Lifecycle of Glass| Diana Simpson Hernandez

In terms of how this system works, the local business would book a free collection, we would send out small vehicles installed with a glass crusher, reduce the glass bottles to 20% of the original volume…

The glass would be taken to the local  glass lab facility, where it would be processed and transformed into products.

The products would be installed for use in public spaces. After some time, these could be recycled again in the local facilities.

The idea of the service itself included an app that would allow users to contact their local facility and arrange a free collection. This would allow for more convenience for the users and would facilitate the glass lab to arrange collections around local clusters and optimize logistics. It would also showcase the products being manufactured that related to each batch collection, so users would be able to track their waste and where it eventually ended up.  This would create a sense of connection with our waste rather than a ‘throw away and forget about it attitude’, further challenging our relationship to waste.

Glass Lab System| Diana Simpson-Hernandez

This project culminated with the creation of over 60 sq meters of bespoke surfaces for Hotel & Members Club The Library at Saint Martin’s Lane in central London.

Library Hotel Main Bar| Diana Simpson-Hernandez

For this commission I was asked to create bespoke flooring, surfaces, and furniture, all using the hotel’s bar glass waste.

This project showed that there is a real application for systems of this kind that can run in a local, small radius, use very little energy and engage the local communities in the process.

Waste lab principles:

  1. Creating local systems of waste reuse
  2. Seeing the intrinsic value of waste
  3. Using the raw aesthetic of waste to create new visual landscapes
  4. Supporting the new paradigm that seeks a more balanced and harmonious relationship with nature and her resources
  5. Using waste as the source of innovative materials
  6. Creating applications for waste-based materials to shine, so making waste beautiful
  7. Using local waste streams to create local economies that can empower people

As a summary, this method is about placing designers in the middle of the process of policy making, finding areas where there is an opportunity for a fresh approach that can produce innovative business models, tackling problems and broadening the place where designers can make an impact.

As we all know, many of these ideas about sustainable living, recycling, reusing, using resources carefully, etc… all of these are 40 or more years old.  In fact, as some of you might also know, in 1972, a study called Limits to Growth was commissioned by The Club of Rome . (For those of you who are not familiar with the Club of Rome, it was founded in 1968 in Switzerland, and it’s an organization that looks to promote an understanding of global challenges)

It basically showed the results of a computer simulation that analysed the amount of available natural resources versus the rate of consumption and established we cannot consume at the same rate and expect the earth to sustain us all. This was 46 years ago, before the 80’s and 90’s consumerist craze, before the rise of the wealthy classes in China and India and Amazon.com.

For some scientists today, like Guy McPherson (Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Arizona State University), it’s too late to do anything. In fact, they argue that the damage has been done and we must, instead, focus on living ethically and with kindness and wait for the earth to get rid of us all.

I’d like to finish with the idea that perhaps design today must be more of a radical material activism. A political, interconnected activity that works together with other industries, reflecting the spirit and the concerns of our age and envisioning and building new sustainable futures for humanity.

I think in terms of Radical Design, today, it’s time there was a Unified Green Field… or something like that. Like in Physics there is the Unified Field Theory that joins the fundamental forces and particles in one field, in the same way, we should have a unifying narrative that joining all the efforts everyone is doing toward living sustainably, consuming less & reconnecting with Nature. All, together in one massive, coherent narrative. I think that would be radical.

I’d like to finish here with the idea that perhaps design today must be more of a radical material activism. A political, interconnected activity that works together with other industries, reflecting the spirit and the concerns of our age and envisioning and building new sustainable futures for humanity.

Diana Simpson-Hernandez

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