Viridian Design and Rethinking Our Relationship with 'Stuff'

I hope your home doesn't look like this. If it does, stop reading, shut down your computer and start cleaning -- now!

Seriously, though, how much time, effort, money and brainspace do you devote to stuff? Buying it, taking care of it, thinking about it, arranging it, rearranging it, throwing it away, buying more ... you get the idea.

I think about consumption a lot -- as part of my job and part of my life. We'll never stop consuming -- it's part of our DNA, I imagine -- but for the global economy to become sustainable, we need to find ways to consume in new ways that don't pollute and deplete the earth's resources.

bruce sterlingBut how, in the meantime, should we approach our personal consumption? Recently (thanks to Ian Yolles of RecycleBank) I came across an essay by the writer Bruce Sterling, called the Last Viridian Note, which, as best as I can tell, is the conclusion of a more than decade-long effort to rethink design. In 2000, Sterling released the Viridian Manifesto, which he has described as an attempt to use design "to end our substance-abuse problem with fossil fuels."

We'll leave for another day the question of whether changing our personal consumption habits has much impact on the planet. (Hint: It doesn't, at least not until many, many millions of us do so, not just here in the U.S. but in China, India, Russia, Brazil, etc.) But changing our habits -- which begins by being purposeful about what we buy -- will change our lives.

In the Last Viridian Note, Sterling begins by saying this his "personal relations to goods and services -- especially goods -- have been revolutionized" and led him to a "different mode of being in the world." Historically, he says, "material goods were inherently difficult to produce, find, and ship" so it made sense to hold onto them. No more -- now they can become a burden:


The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

It's not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.

Do not "economize." Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It's melting the North Pole. So "economization" is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less. Voluntary simplicity is, furthermore, boring. Less can become too much work.

The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don't seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects. It's in your time most, it's in your space most. It is "where it is at," and it is "what is going on."


This, of course, is not the way most of us in the middle or upper class think about things. We splurge for special occasions, buying thing we rarely use -- fine China or jewelry or a wedding dress. Instead, Sterling writes:

The things that you use every day should be the best-designed things you can get. For instance, you cannot possibly spend too much money on a bed -- (assuming you have a regular bed, which in point of fact I do not). You're spending a third of your lifetime in a bed. Your bed might be sagging, ugly, groaning and infested with dust mites, because you are used to that situation and cannot see it. That calamity might escape your conscious notice. See it. Replace it.

Sell -- even give away -- anything you never use. Fancy ball gowns, tuxedos, beautiful shoes wrapped in bubblepak that you never wear, useless Christmas gifts from well-meaning relatives, junk that you inherited. Sell that stuff. Take the money, get a real bed. Get radically improved everyday things.

The same goes for a working chair. Notice it. Take action. Bad chairs can seriously injure you from repetitive stresses. Get a decent ergonomic chair. Someone may accuse you of "indulging yourself" because you possess a chair that functions properly. This guy is a reactionary. He is useless to futurity. Listen carefully to whatever else he says, and do the opposite. You will benefit greatly.

Expensive clothing is generally designed to make you look like an aristocrat who can afford couture. Unless you are a celebrity on professional display, forget this consumer theatricality. You should buy relatively-expensive clothing that is ergonomic, high-performance and sturdy.

Anything placed next to your skin for long periods is of high priority. Shoes are notorious sources of pain and stress and subjected to great mechanical wear. You really need to work on selecting these -- yes, on "shopping for shoes." You should spend more time on shoes than you do on cars, unless you're in a car during pretty much every waking moment. In which case, God help you.


He recommends that people carry a multitool, by which he means some version of the Swiss army knife. A multitool, he writes, is a set of possible creative interventions in your immediate material environment. That is why you want a multitool. They are empowering.

A multitool changes your perceptions of the world. Since you lack your previous untooled learned-helplessness, you will slowly find yourself becoming more capable and more observant. If you have pocket-scissors, you will notice loose threads; if you have a small knife you will notice bad packaging; if you have a file you will notice flashing, metallic burrs, and bad joinery. If you have tweezers you can help injured children, while if you have a pen, you will take notes. Tools in your space, saving your time. A multitool is a design education.

As a further important development, you will become known to your friends and colleagues as someone who is capable, useful and resourceful, rather than someone who is helpless, frustrated and visibly lacking in options. You should aspire to this better condition.


He then recommends confronting everything else, a job that "will be painful" and for which you might seek help from a friend.

You will need to divide your current possessions into four major categories.

1. Beautiful things.
2. Emotionally important things.
3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
4. Everything else.

"Everything else" will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year -- this very likely belongs in "everything else."

You should document these things. Take their pictures, their identifying makers' marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again..

Then remove them from your time and space. "Everything else" should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.

It may belong to you, but it does not belong with you. You weren't born with it. You won't be buried with it… You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.

Beautiful things are important. If they're truly beautiful, they should be so beautiful that you are showing them to people. They should be on display: you should be sharing their beauty with others. Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.

They're not really that beautiful? Then they're not really beautiful. Take a picture of them, tag them, remove them elsewhere.

Emotionally important things. All of us have sentimental keepsakes that we can't bear to part with. We also have many other objects which simply provoke a panicky sense of potential loss -- they don't help us to establish who we are, or to become the person we want to be. They subject us to emotional blackmail.

Is this keepsake so very important that you would want to share its story with your friends, your children, your grandchildren? Or are you just using this clutter as emotional insulation, so as to protect yourself from knowing yourself better?

Think about that. Take a picture. You might want to write the story down. Then -- yes -- away with it.

You are not "losing things" by these acts of material hygiene. You are gaining time, health, light and space. Also, the basic quality of your daily life will certainly soar. Because the benefits of good design will accrue to you where they matter -- in the everyday.

Now for category three, tools and appliances. They're not beautiful and you are not emotionally attached to them. So they should be held to keen technical standards.

You will be told that you should "make do" with broken or semi-broken tools, devices and appliances. Unless you are in prison or genuinely crushed by poverty, do not do this. This advice is wicked.


He goes on for some length about tools and design -- you can read the rest here -- and wraps up with this:


Every time you move some new object into your time and space -- buy it, receive it as a gift, inherit it, whatever -- remove some equivalent object.

That discipline is not as hard as it sounds. As the design of your immediate surroundings improves, it'll become obvious to you that more and more of these time-sucking barnacles are just not up to your standards. They're ugly, or they're broken, or they're obsolete, or they are visible emblems of nasty, uncivilized material processes.

Their blissful absence from your life makes new time and space for something better for you -- and for the changed world you want to live to see.


Great stuff. You'll excuse me now -- time for spring cleaning.

Photo CC-licensed by Wonderdawg777.