A Bigger Picture


I was sent this fantastic flash map of the world the other day. It shows births, deaths and pollution statistics in real-time across the world. It quickly becomes unnerving to watch as the truth about our impact on our planet starts to sink in.

Stuart Brand of the Long Now Foundation and Buckminster Fuller pressed the question ‘Why haven’t we seen an image of the whole Earth yet?’ and in 1968 the first image of the Earth was taken and distributed. The impact of seeing the Earth as an ‘island’ hanging in nothing, the only one we have and not limitless in its size and resources is the foundation of the environmental movement.

the earth form 240,000 miles (NASA Science Photo Library)

Today we have collected millions of images of the earth, showing everything from temperatures to layering it with information on population, seismic activity and ozone levels. Google Earth has gone a long way to show us our imprint on the world, whilst Google Night shows us in brilliant simplicity the major populations of the world (and the light pollution we’re causing!).

The biggest picture is often the most difficult to comprehend but the most important to see. Design is about stepping back or zooming out from a problem to try and understand the many other systems and effects that might have influence over it. It’s why service designers need to create huge walls of post its. John Meada calls it ‘away’ in his Laws of Simplicity – ‘More appears like less simply by moving it far, far away.’

…just showing off

The key to sustainable design is the ability to change something which doesn’t offset the balance of all these related and dependent systems in a harmful way. Of course, there’s nothing you can do if a butterfly decides to mischievously flap its wings on the other side of the world, but designers should always ask whether there’s another step back they can take.