Book Review: The Designer’s Atlas by Ann Thorpe

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Why make an atlas for designers? By definition an atlas is a collection of maps, charts, and visual plates that systematically illustrate a subject. Thorpe states that it was the visual nature of atlases that inspired her book because no matter how eloquent a text may be, design audiences are not engaged by printed words alone.

The book’s message is about how design in all fields can move toward the goals of sustainability; the integration of information about design and sustainability rewards users with a rich range of ideas, concepts, and facts presented in a sophisticated format that is itself thought-provoking. As with other kinds of atlases, the varied text does not converge on one conclusion. Rather, readers take what they need to make their own.

Ingredients, not recipes, presented with verve and clarity, make the atlas useful for the design disciplines. Economic and cultural elements of sustainable design, rarely discussed in the context of ecological issues, have their own chapters, which are divided into sections related to design issues. Although long-term sustainability is the objective, the 21st century landscape is the one within which design must perform for the foreseeable future. The most important concepts and ideas about sustainability are presented in terms of its ecology, economy, and culture.

The introduction defines sustainable development versus development as we know it. Sustainable development enables environmental and social conditions that support the well-being of humans indefinitely. To give meaning to the term, “indefinitely,” Thorpe invites readers to imagine designing a functional object that will endure and be useful for thousands of years. Yet, however inspiring this thinking might be, it is unlikely to take place unless an enlightened clientele for sustainable design appears to support and fund it.

Development without the modifier, sustainable, has implied well-being achieved through economic progress in tandem with industrial development geared to technological change, usually in the short term. Sustainable development functions like ecosystems, which support themselves over a very long time period with life-sustaining products and services. This development may invest in art forms and cultural norms embodying systems of belief that sustain our well-being even though the economic value is hard to quantify and less related to the ecological origins of sustainability.

The three main themes of the atlas, subdivided into related topics, follow:


Ecology’s key sustainability issue is the overwhelming of nature’s systems by human systems. The challenge for designers during the historic period of industrialization was humanizing machine-made, mass-produced products. Today’s challenge, harmonizing human and natural systems, will best be met by learning to see hidden connections between the two. We need a holistic approach to materials that will not limit their usefulness, and we need appropriate production tailored to needs instead of mass production in the one-size-fits-all mode.


Technological acceleration has driven our economic goals not only in the private sector–the free market–where design is usually found, but in the public and nonprofit sectors as well. Designers have successfully expanded the market for the mass production of machine-produced goods by giving them consumer appeal. But just how this activity has increased our sense of well-being is unclear.

What is clear is that design has played a significant role in shaping the objects and images in our increasingly visual culture. The power of the visual images that stream our way is such that viewers routinely try to achieve what is shown to them as convincingly real no matter how fantastic it is.


Design’s success is often judged by its commercial success. Designers’ jobs may even be determined by whether their work meets marketing projections–never mind that this short-term focus puts an emphasis on ease of use that may actually limit the product’s usefulness. Commercial pressures have turned designers into pushers rather than enablers, a role they need to shed in order to support sustainable development.

So, how can design begin to change our dependence on the market-based means of well-being that stem from our reliance on the visual sphere of material goods? Many concepts that support cultural sustainability—a sense of time and history, open source design, and the acceptance of nature as part of culture–appear impractical when viewed in the context of commercial pressures. To move toward sustainable development, Thorpe advocates recognizing that the three systems of change–technology, policy, and behavior– interlock. Designers have a role in all three systems. They explore, invent, and apply new technologies in architecture, fashion, and products.

Feedback on designers’ work typically comes from sales: consumers either buy or don’t buy. Disgruntled owners of new products that don’t work satisfactorily must wait for the next versions; they have no way to register their wishes in advance except in market surveys, which are rarely broad enough to reflect all the audience’s concerns.

Perhaps we should have feedfront to make design less of a one-way stream and to engage users in the vital process of design. For instance, open source design, most familiar in the development of computer operating systems, allows users to act as designers by providing rapid feedback on imperfect prototypes. Thus designers may quickly see their work in newer and better systems.

Although the virtual form of computer-based design removes it from the field of physical artifacts, Thorpe points out that designers are increasingly involved in supplying information about form rather than the forms themselves. Design companies now exist that permit viewers to make online modifications of products they intend to buy by giving them a choice of, say, the shapes or graphic motifs for t-shirts and other clothing. Graphic design and photography make multiple contributions to design in other fields.

In the design of physical artifacts the ability of users to access construction and repair information could enable the interaction possible in open source computer technology. New features and components of physical artifacts could be backward compatible so that users don’t have to buy the new version to get the newest capabilities.

Which products/artifacts would benefit from the open source process. Thorpe’s answer is any artifact that has a reasonably large number of users. Still, a strong motivation is necessary for this level of engagement. Most of us probably don’t want to be involved in the design of our toothbrushes or safety pins, but other artifacts—bicycles, electronic communication devices–would likely generate the kind of interactive discussion our digitally connected society makes possible.

Thorpe’s last proposal for exposing design to other professions and perspectives and to make it less beholden to private sector patrons is to bring design as a profession into the field of sustainable development as in non-profit organizations, governmental, and educational institutions. Organizations devoted to sustainable development usually lack the tools designers have to combine human factors, technology, style, and function into an attractive package. Linking them would benefit both sides.

Designers should read The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability, not only because it is a mine of information and ideas, but because the relevant issues are explored and weighed with admirable directness and a sense of urgency that should strengthen their convictions about what they profess and how to do something about it.


One large-scale application of the open source process could be design competitions for, say, public parks, and buildings. Since the innovative special features of competition entries are considered proprietary in today’s modus operandi, those owned by the various competitors will not be part of the winner’s scheme even though they might benefit the project. If such ideas were shared in a preliminary design phase open to all competitors, their approach would be more holistic even though the outcome would still depend on the varying talents and skills of the individual competitors.

In the design fields the prestige of authorship is tied to ownership. But when the projects don’t function as they should, authorship loses its appeal. Yet, though the winning designs often turn out to have flaws, the competitors discount the risk of failures because winning will likely bring more projects and maybe stardom. Even though feedback in the design phase might prevent flaws, the relative lack of concern for long-term validation of performance has meant that buildings are rarely assessed in respect to their success or failure after they are completed and occupied. If the assessment occurs at all it is usually triggered by litigation rather than interest in performance per se.

Although it is easier to credit a single author than a team that instigates and coordinates the design process, it is certainly more accurate to recognize the collaborative process that not only involves a bigger team of designers but also includes other professionals such as engineers in a variety of fields. Yet few things threaten designers more than the idea of surrendering authorship or artistic control.

Although Thorpe does not advocate the use of the open-source approach to design described above in her book, it occurred to me that it could play an important role in the field of architecture.
I hope readers will weigh in with their reactions.

1 Response

  1. Pretty nice site, wants to see much more on it! 🙂

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