13 November 2006
Re-published from the Winter 2004 Edition of Designmatters
Re-published from the Winter 2004 Edition of Designmatters 

The following interview was originally published in the Winter 2004 edition of Designmatters that focused on the theme of social awareness.

Karen Blincoe

In the 1980s, Karen Blincoe was a successful designer in London. She made good money by creating signage for the Wimbledon Championships, packaging for major British supermarket chains and designs for Reuters.

"But one day I was asked to take on an assignment for a large corporation that specialized in quality artificial fruit and vegetables, which are widely used in the movie industry and advertising. I spent days photographing these plastic fruits in the right country settings to make them look authentic and appealing in the brochures. But when I realized how toxic the production of plastic fruit is, I started to question the objective of my profession. I started to doubt my livelihood," Karen Blincoe says.

The artifical fruit experience had an impact.
"I got involved in the green wave that swept across England at the time. I spoke on the issue of ecology design, and to my customers I proposed using recycled paper and vegetable ink, just like the Body Shop. But unfortunately, all good intentions came to nothing with the 1991-1992 recession."

Today, Karen Blincoe lives and works in Hornbaek in northern Zealand where she has founded the International Centre for Creativity, Innovation and Sustainability (ICIS), situated in an old thatched farm with a wonderful view of the fields and a small lake. She organizes lectures and master classes with international experts.

Asking for trouble
In 1991, Karen Blincoe returned to Denmark to head the Institute of Visual Communication at the design college, Danmarks Designskole.

"There really wasn't much of a student interest in these issues. In Denmark, sustainability implies organic farming and men with bushy beards and hay in their clogs - something ugly and boring and an obstacle to creativity."

But Karen Blincoe harboured a passion and organized a seminar at Rodding Hojskole on sustainability and paradigm change, which gave rise to the idea of calling on experts and others with an interest in the subject.

"That seminar made me infamous since I included unannounced speakers with alternative views. One of them spoke about spirituality and sustainability and touched on a subject like emotional self-development - to the amusement of some of the participants, who returned to Danmarks Designskole and the Royal Academy School of Architecture in Copenhagen to tell everyone how unprofessional I was."

Karen Blincoe smiles as she tells the story. She emphasizes that designers have to relate to all aspects of design, from economics and lifecycle analysis models to emotions, intuition and human potential.

"You are asking for trouble when you voice things like this freely - and people are nimble mud-throwers in certain parts of the design world," Karen Blincoe says.

Designers should seize the opportunity
"Concepts such as social awareness and sustainability hold great opportunities for designers and architects, if they seek to make a difference in the world and be taken seriously," Karen Blincoe says.

But in Karen Blincoe's experience, design students at Danmarks Designskole are not taught how to relate to society in a professional capacity and are not challenged to consider their role in the process of designing and conceiving new products and methods.

"The education is too superficial. I believe students need philosophical training to make them aware of the influence they have on people's lives. Designers must consider whether they wish to make a difference or simply become cogwheels in the machinery of consumer society."

"Only by relating to society do designers stand a chance of challenging the myth that designers are entertainers and of gaining recognition as professionals who address the important issues."

"The picture is the same the world over - no matter where I go. We are ill-treated and disregarded. No one takes us seriously, so perhaps we should address our self-image."

Companies want to be challenged
Not enough designers dare raise the issues of sustainability, social responsibility and ethics when given an assignment, according to Karen Blincoe.

"Most would probably address the issues quite readily if companies asked them to do so. But if you don't dare raise the issues yourself, what do you really have to offer as a designer? Design is about balance and a comprehensive approach. Arms production, for instance, would be sustainable if you used recycled metal and avoided child labour - but then you lack the social and ethical dimension. It is very much the task of the designer to look at the whole picture."

"Unfortunately, new graduates have not learned how to challenge and communicate with customers. They have no idea about the lingo or culture of businesses or about their role in negotiating with a company. Graduates within other professions have been trained in teamwork - to relate to other people. A designer must realize that companies are complex organisms that they need to get a grip on. Some graduates will have a knack for it, but generally speaking most will never find employment. They are too uncertain of what they have to offer customers. As designers we are obliged to ask ourselves what we are doing and how it will affect society. We must ask whether it carries a message we can subscribe to."

"When I hold lectures for business leaders, they often comment that I have a lot of cheek to come along and tell them to base their business on sustainable values. They turn the tables and say that it would be irresponsible of them to adopt any measure that didn't show up positively on the bottom line. But you just have to look at the problems the Danish security company Falck is experiencing with running an American prison to realize that failing to live up to your social responsibility will hurt bottom line figures," Karen Blincoe concludes.

About Karen Blincoe
Karen Blincoe, MDD, is a designer, teacher and environmentalist. She is currently Treasurer for the Icograda Executive Board and Professor at the Faculty of Design and Architecture at Brighton University, England. For a number of years, she was the Head of the Institute for Visual Communication at Danmarks Designskole. ICIS was established in November 2001 and was awarded the Danish Design Vision Prize in 2002.

ICIS Foundation

The International Centre for Creativity, Innovation and Sustainability seeks to promote a comprehensive, holistic view of creativity, innovation and sustainability. They host seminars and master classes where experts, business people and designers debate and investigate new ways of employing design. The ICIS seeks to influence the business community and political and scientific circles with their message of a sustainable world.