D&T4: Rachael Sleight – What Design Practice Means To Me

Rachael Sleight is a lecturer of Sustainable Materials and Processes here at the GSA’s School of Innovation, and she spoke to us about her views on design practice, accompanied by examples of her own work. Alongside working at the GSA, she has been working for Stylus, an innovation research and trend firm, she has set up a bespoke leather bag business called Burnbank and has worked as a freelance for a number of other design companies. She has a wealth of experience in material experimentation, and her design process is grounded in “materials first, product second.” I will comment on some of the stand-out thoughts from her lecture this morning.

One of Rachael’s design principles is to produce ‘timeless design’ – creating something that will outlast you. This can be done by making something with a timeless aesthetic, or a look and feel of something that will not grow out of fashion or become undesirable. More importantly, it can be done by creating a product that will physically be timeless. What I mean by this is that a product can be designed to be reused, recycled or even repaired. This mentality links back to the circular economy that I have spoken about in this blog before when commenting on Craig Whittet’s Demise of Skilled Manufacture. A product designed to last longer, whether this is due to a responsible selection of materials and manufacturing processes or designed so that it can be repaired or repurposed, is the absolute goal of product designers in our day and age. It is clear that Rachael is true to those beliefs when dealing with her leather bag business, Burbank.

Rachael was asked the difficult question concerning the sustainability of dealing with leather, given its origins as animal skin. She had a nice answer to the question, which is hardly surprising given she is a lecturer in sustainable materials. The leather she uses is only ever from cow hides, and so is a by-product from the meat industry. When leather is looked after and treated throughout its life, it will last a lifetime – which is much longer than vegan alternatives will last. Vegan alternatives also contain plastics to help increase the lifetime and strength of the material. This showed me that even though a material may not at first seem like a particularly responsible option, if you consider where it is sourced, how it is treated and how long it will last, it might prove you wrong. This could be a particularly interesting insight into how plastics are dealt with in the future.

The final point I want to comment on is from Rachael’s time working at Nokia. In 2006, she worked on a single clear plastic casing for a phone. The translucency was to show the user the internals of the phone, and to give the impression of ‘honesty’ within the product. Coming at a time where most alternatives were made up from layers of different plastics making it very difficult to recycle, this phone bucked that trend. This is a gentle reminder not to be scared of going against the grain, and rethinking a situation entirely if there are benefits of doing so.

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