Baillie Mishler and Lauryn Menard of Oakland-based PROWL Studio set out a manifesto for future-facing design
Photography by Noah Webb
Every day we are faced with devastating realities, from images of glaciers melting and humans being displaced by natural disasters to news of war over the scarcity of resources available for the masses. The future looks bleak. It seems every direction we turn there is catastrophe and hardship, and it is easy to slip into a pit of despair. How can we continue to see hope? Where is the light in this darkness?
This phenomenon has been described as future fatigue – something we at PROWL Studio are driven to tackle through stubborn optimism and a new era of thoughtfulness infused through our design thinking and processes. We started our studio with the name PROWL, not just because it sounds nice and evokes a strong emotional reaction, but because it represents the journey that we are on.
Simply put, the word “prowl” means ‘to move about or wander in or as if in search of what may be found’. By now, you might be asking – what are you hunting for exactly? We are hunting for pathways and solutions that will get us closer to a more optimistic future – a future where humans are happy, healthy, and thriving, but also coexisting on an Earth that is healing itself from the damage we have caused.
Before we started PROWL, we were frustrated by what we were not finding. The organisations we were exposed to and working with were simply not ready or equipped for the hunt. We are industrial designers by trade. The industry’s knowledge of its direct effect on the climate is nothing new. Since the invention of computers, we have known that the extraction of the materials we use, the processes by which we manufacture and the disposal of the goods we create are all problematic. But we waited too long to react.
The media does not shy away from exposing us to these disasters on a daily basis either, with headlines reading The climate disaster is here (The Guardian, 14 October 2021) or Time is running out to avert a harrowing future (New York Times, 28 February 2022). As futurist and sci-fi writer William Gibson famously asked: ‘How often do you hear anyone invoke the 22nd century? Even saying it is unfamiliar to us. We’ve come to not have a future.’
He shines a light on an important point. The 20th century was filled with massive innovation, with radical changes and advancements in technology which changed life as they knew it. The vision of the future was bright, but fast forward to today. The one year that people talk about instead is 2035 — not an aspirational date, but rather a dreaded deadline for the planet before the Earth reaches its tipping point. People are tired, but is this pessimism helping us? We believe it is not.
Photography by Bryson Malone
What we believe instead is that we can combat this ‘future fatigue’ that Gibson speaks of with stubborn optimism and the design of actionable strategies. What does this look like in practice? We often use the metaphor of a diet with our clients. Let’s think about nutrition as a holistic approach; many factors and variables play into someone’s health – how much they exercise, their genetic makeup, their ethnic heritage, their gut biome.
The same goes for brands. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will pivot all companies toward a conscious yet profitable future. For some, cutting back on packaging materials may be a known and obvious place to start. For others, the problem may be more nuanced. One example of how we work this way would be our recent design project for an electrically charged travel trailer company.
Our team worked on the design and interiors of the vehicle as well as the colour, material and finish strategy. Instead of approaching this like any other EV on the market, or even any RV on the market, we started with understanding the future that this vehicle would be a part of and how something of this scale could be easily adapted over the years as the owners move from young able-bodied adults into their elder years, or even as their kids transition from childhood into adulthood.
Because we were starting from essentially a blank canvas, all of these scenarios can be considered – which will ultimately lead to a product that will last and not outdate itself. A simpler example of this would be some work we are currently doing with a contract furniture company. One thing that the firm knew they wanted to do better and to improve upon is their use of foam as cushioning.
For starters, polyurethane foam is extremely unhealthy because it emits VOCs and other carcinogenic substances into the air throughout its lifetime. It also cannot be broken down after its life and therefore adds to the crowding and toxification of landfills. What we are doing is looking for a healthier one-to-one alternative that makes sense from a business standpoint with cost but will also maintain the quality that they are known for and that their customers expect.
Small, achievable transitions in the way that we work through design problems and strategies can make a huge difference. We must take a holistic and complete picture of where things are at currently in order to see a clear path forward, peeling back the layers of how things have been done in the past and revealing strategies for change. The future can be bright and filled with opportunity for growth if we choose to work toward it collectively. Let’s shift our thinking and fight future fatigue through design.
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