The job of any designer is one of clairvoyance: to see how a present-day want will evolve into a future need and create that future object today – so says Benjamin Hubert, Director of UK-based design agency LAYER and guest speaker at this year’s Design Indaba. His once eponymous design agency, Benjamin Hubert Ltd, has evolved over the last five years from focusing on signature furniture and home accessories, such as the Ripple table, to human-centred experiences – yet all of it sustainable and future-proof. “We do a lot of work that deals with a lot of deeper values and layers which resonate with the companies we work with,” says Hubert. “Ultimately, we help improve people’s lives.” It’s the kind of design he describes as “necessary” and “design for change”.
“It’s about translating the want into the need. Lots of people want lots of things, or think they do, and it’s a designer’s job to be a filter for that. Your job is to understand the want and translate into something that, in the next few years, you can realistically see the need for, whether it’s the shift in the global economy, or the way we live or communicate, or a problem with natural resources – they’re some of the issues we’re trying to tackle with the projects we work on, not just the desirable potentially high-end commodity that everybody wants but that few people need.”
One of the tenets of future proofing and design for change is materiality, which is central to all of LAYER’s products. Scale for Woven Image, for example, is a super-modular stand-alone acoustic screen that grows or shrinks with a changing workspace. The screen is made up of a series of triangular tiles made of recycled, pressed hemp that magnetically clip to the adjustable plastic skeleton. “Materiality has mainly got to do with appropriateness. What material solves the problem best? Is it cost-effective? Is it accessible? Does it have longevity? All of these criteria form the basis of a specification for the material.”
Sustainability, though, is not only about materiality, but changing the way consumers behave. The Worldbeing wristband, an original LAYER concept, turns the ideology of energy efficiency into a social platform by tracking an individual’s carbon footprint, sharing data and offering rewards. The concept device will track the wearer’s energy usage including mode of transport, amount of electricity used, and consumer goods bought by tracking movements, electrical devices, and purchases. The device, made from other recycled discarded devices with a built in electrocardiogram (ECG), would then sync to an app that visually displays the user’s carbon cloud that grows and changes colour to represent the wearer’s consumption. It will also offer badges and rewards, and a compete-with-friends option.
“This idea of people changing their lifestyle based on a platform that tells them whether they’re behaving responsibly or not is a really new way of thinking. Despite the fact that lots of people have been talking about it, there’s very little consumer-facing product that helps people live like that.” Wolrdbeing is being beta tested with the first kind of prototypes being looked at and analysed to determine how people are going to consume this type of product – the mindset, which aspects people are going to respond to, are relevant and engaging.
“This is a product that requires the response of the market to inform how we go forward with it. It’s very much a conversation than it is dictating how this product should impact on people’s lives. We’re increasingly bombarded by notifications and screens in our lives, we’re trying to understand just how you prompt people to make changes without nagging them to do so.”