Lucie Wu

Hi and welcome to my little corner of the internet :)

I am a designer and researcher. My work reaches from digital design to object design to systems design. 

I am especially interested in issues around the climate crisis, transportation, water, and waste.

I am a recent graduate of urban planning at UCLA. I previously studied human-centered design at the University of Washington.


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01. Bridge

02. Woodshed

03. Monolid Zine

The Green Imperative
by Victor Papanek


A designer has always been also a teacher, in a position to inform and influence the client. With the present environmental mess it is even more important that we help to guide the intervention of design with nature and mankind.

This may be the cardinal point where design practice meets the spiritual. Buddhism teaches humility and the vanity of material possessions, and indeed these are tenets of most philosophies and religions.

Perhaps there should be no special category called “sustainable design.” It might be simpler to assume that all designers will try to reshape their values and their work, so that all design is based on humility, combines objective aspects of climate and ecological use of materials with subjective intuitive processes, and relies on cultural and bio-regional factors for its forms.

In our greedy rush for more and more material goods in the West, we have seriously neglected our links with nature and our responsibility to the environment; we are losing love and affection and respect for each other; we are forgetting the ephemeral and the freedom of owning little in the way of material possessions.

When everything is temporary, it is life that becomes lasting.

It seems that by concentrating on goods that don’t last nearly as long as we hope and don’t age well, we have lots our sense of quality and the temporary. By trying to make art profitable and useful, we have also lost our sense of joy.

CHAPTER 1: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Unless we…change our most basic patterns of consumption, manufacture, and recycling, we may have no future.

We seem to adopt one of two ways in approaching the problems posed by a deteriorating environment:

One - try to do something on an individual or family level (use less water to flush toilets, recycle, buy hybrid cars, etc).

Two - We mentally shrug our shoulders and decide to leave it to the experts.

Papanek suggests a third way - We must examine what each of us can contribute from our own specific role in society. We must ask the question: “What can I do as a professor, construction worker, taxi driver, prostitute, pianist, lawyer, housewife, student, manager, farmer? What is the impact of my work on the environment?”

My primary conviction as a human being, a designer, and an ecologist is: Nothing Big Works — Ever! This curse of bigness holds true of large corporations, huge school systems, mushrooming bureaucracies, and other megastructures.

These dangerous times for Earth call not just for passion, imagination, intelligence, and hard work, but – more profoundly – a sense of optimism that is willing to act without a full understanding, but with a faith in the effect of small individual actions on the global picture.

The problems may be world-wide, yet they will yield only to decentralized, human-scale and local intervention.

CHAPTER 2: Designing for a Safer Future

My earliest introduction to this way of packing was my first job as as young boy in NY. I worked in the basement of the MoMA packing small sculptures. We had two gigantic popcorn machines, and made popcorn – unsalted and without cheese, I may add – in which to pack the pieces; polystyrene worms did not then exist.

In January 1992 a set of laws was introduced in Germany to deal with the reduction of packaging waste. The law states specifically that manufacturers must take back, sort, and recycle materials and packing.

The “environmentally friendly” recycling initiative started by the plastics industry should be welcomed with great caution. American householders are encouraged to separate plastics form the rest of their household trash, but it seems that thousands of household and industrial plastic water, instead of being recycled in the US, are being shipped to less industrialized countries, particularly in Asia, where the waste is reprocessed under much less stringent rules for health and environmental safety, or is merely dumped in landfills there. (I learned in a documentary on recycling that the recycling program in the US was started/funded in the 60s and 70s by soda industries so they could keep selling beverages in single-use bottles.)

A discarded plastic bottle will be around for between 200-400 years. 25% of all trash in the US consists of plastics. If closely packed, even organic and biodegradable waste can last for 20-40 years without significant changes.

The slogan “Re-use, recycle, and dispose responsibly” is a familiar one. “Use less”, however, should be our over-riding maxim.

In a world in which less is used and less is bought, products that are designed to last longer and are more carefully crafted and assembled will obviously need to cost more.

Product culture has been allowed to run wild and has substituted trendy objects for community values, many of them provided by industry and their captive industrial designers, designer, and architects.

6% of the world’s population consumes more than 35% of its resources.

Using less, preserving for the future, conservation and softer energy sources are only drops in the bucket unless these activities are linked to a greater social process that can influence industrial design, industry, and policy.

Design and planning must consider sustainability and social justice as reciprocal conditions - that saving the planet and saving the community become one - inseparable.

All design education must be based on ecological methods and ideas.

How an ecological world-view could change design:
  1. There will be a greater emphasis on quality, permanence, and craftsmanship in designed products, as people and designer come to understand that obsolescence or bad workmanship waste natural resources that can’t be replaced, and contribute to shortages on a global scale. The style of the future will be based on products that age gracefully, and will be more timeless than the quickly changing fads, trends, and fashions of the late 20 century.
  2. Designers and manufacturers will need to question the ultimate consequences of a new product being introduced. Questions of profit balances and production quotas are not enough.
  3. New product ranges will appear, especially in areas such as catalytic converters, afterburners, scrubbers for factories, air, water, and soil-quality monitors.
  4. It will be understood that no design stands on its own: all design has social, ecological, and environmental consequences that need to be evaluated and discussed in a common forum.
  5. There must be a greater concern for and a deeper understanding of nature, and this will be a preserving and healing force for the global environment.

CHAPTER 3: Toward the Spiritual in Design

Decoration is deeply satisfying to human beings and has been throughout history.

We take pleasure in adding adornment to plain areas - yet this is functional decoration: it fulfills the aesthetic part of the six-fold function complex.

Living in overdeveloped countries with underdeveloped taste, we excel in ornamentation, visual braggadocio, and excess.

Reduce wants and false needs.

It is the intent of the designer as well as the intended use of the designed object that can yield spiritual value.

As we practice our art and skill, what we do moulds whole we are and what we are becoming.

Designers asked for more than a hundred years: “How can I make it more beautiful?” The logical question “Can it work and look better? isn’t put often enough.

  1. Will the design significantly aid the sustainability of the environment?
  2. Can it make life easier for some group that has been marginalized by society?
  3. Can it ease pain?
  4. Will it help those who are poor, disenfranchised or suffering?
  5. Will it save energy or - better still - help to gain renewable energy?
  6. Can it save irreplaceable resources?

A positive answer to these or similar questions does not make the design visibly spiritual. But the performance of such services to our fellow humans and planet will help us inwardly. It will nourish our soul and help it to grow. That’s where spiritual values enter design.

There is a point at which beauty and high utility through good design interconnect. It both conditions exist simultaneously in an object, and are furthermore clear expressions of the social intent of the people who designed it, it is possible to speak of the spiritual in design.

We are still looking for a new reality-based aesthetic direction. Concern for the environment and for the disadvantaged of our society are the most profound and powerful forces with which to shape design.

Designing things to come apart is as important as to design them well initially.

Innovative design can solve this ecological challenge - wasting less - and at the same time tackle three different problems of human performance and psychology.

The job of the designer is to provide choices for people. These choices should be real and meaningful, allowing people to participate more fully in their own life decisions, and enabling them to communicate with designers and architects in finding solutions to their own problems, and - whether they want to or not - to become their own designers.

Small-scale, decentralized production, or working at home on a DIY level can combine with re-use to form a new process and benign ecological intervention.

The requirements for decent design are far too complex for a designer to solve alone (or even by several designers working as a team). It is essential to work with people form other fields. The basic members of such a team will include: an anthropologist, psychology, or member of one of the other social sciences, an environmental scientists with a strong bent towards biology and ecology, a doctor, an electronics and mechanical engineer, a lawyer, and a graphic designer, as well as myself for product innovation and design.

I remember my professor telling us repeatedly that no large company could ever afford to compete in the market through design excellence.

A designed object that isolates or marginalizes an individual (or group of people) is generally unacceptable.

Ethics are the philosophical basis for making choices about morals and values. Moral decisions are made through recognizing that a dilemma exists and consciously weighing the alternatives. Values provide direction when decisions about alternative courses of action must be made. Values do not have to be based on truth.

To think dispassionately about what we design and why, as well as what the eventual consequences of our design intervention may be is, is the basis of ethical thinking. It gets easier with practice.

The most direct link between values, creativity, beauty, art, and the transcendental is probably demonstrated by Maslow’s seminal writings on the hierarchy of values. “Metamotivational” needs. (the 6th level of hierarchy of needs: intrinsic values. Maslow died before getting to share more of this work)

Nearly everyone seems to feel that a designer, faced by a job that is ethically unsound or offensive, has only two choices: reluctant acceptance after much soul-searching, or outright dismissal.

There is both a cautionary note and a lesson in this case study (chocolate bar design). When faced with an unappetizing design brief, I practice this two-track approach. Perform the requested work, but do a voluntary study of an alternative solution as well. The caution lies in the fact that this approach has been successful in only about 4 out of 10 cases.

Looking at it from an ethical viewpoint, however, the issue is simple. Through my work and the risks I have taken, I have done my best to alter a difficult problem of values. Even if a client only accepts the work on their brief as given, at least I have the satisfaction that I tried, and made some personal sacrifices to attain a better solution.

This tells me that although a blunting of moral sensibility is connected with the marketing of designs or goods, it is only when one treats people squalidly that they will behave squalidly. By never losing sight of one’s higher aspirations, spiritual growth increases and is nourished.

CHAPTER 6: Form Follows Fun

We have become quite accustomed to goods and buildings that perform primary functions of use and method. The true needs of the consumer classes have been pushed aside to be replaced by artificially induced wants.

We know, or we think we know, that when we design for permanence, we must be exacting and careful – when our work is ephemeral, we find ourselves less engaged. But is that a preordained truth or just sloppy thinking by architects and designers?

To spend deep concentration, hours of work, and a high level of craftsmanship on an object or building that is intended to give joy or fun for only a short time is not restricted to sacred of festive events.

It can be argued that the greedy 1980s have left people imprinted with the idea that a part of their money should always be diverted from bread to circuses or, more simply, that they deserve more fun and should use any disposable income to get it. This will explain the accelerating, wild swings of styles, fads, and trends that the market offers, and the stampede to any new venture that seems to promise novel ways of enjoyment.

The profitability of manufacturing goods is of fairly recent origin. If you manufactured something – shoes, for instance – during the 17th century in the West, your role was far from secure. Compared to the producers of raw materials or food, you were at a great disadvantage.

Labor costs are dropping (compared to the West and Japan) and manufacturing is beginning to redefine itself.

The main argument running through this book is that the crucial issue for designers today concerns systems, processes, and goods that protect the environment and are ecologically benign, and that the other, almost equally important areas are those that designers frequently neglected – the elderly, the disadvantaged, and all others who have special needs.

Fun, however, as embodied in a product in Western countries must be shown to have either some social purpose connected with work. Most of our fun comes neatly packaged with excuses and rationalizations.

There were Memphis and other neo-Dadaistic strains that attempted to violate many of the heretofore sacrosanct rules of design, relating to the function, unity with variety, predictable order, harmony, fitness for purpose, human needs, and so forth.

This childlike in us is grounded in Earth and close to nature. It responds to beauty, to activities that help us use our body and mind by extending and challenging physical and mental powers, or that result in spontaneous laughter.

Like many other designers I have been fascinated over the years with the shifting meaning of objects. This springs simultaneously from two different sources: One is the way in which a changing society accepts new tools and artifacts and how these develop semiotically over the years. The other influence comes from how things are made.

Historically an object bore signs of the makers hand which formed a tactile as well as a spiritual link between the producer and the user. With contemporary production methods, this connection has been lost. It is important to regain it, yet difficult.

Lucie Wu
© 2023