Designers and Forests


2 August 2013

A summer expedition to the forests of Utah presents design as a tool to help solve the ecological, social and economic problems that trouble the region.

Beetle Kill, Aspen Die-Off is the pilot expedition of the Designers and Forests project, a scheme that examines and addresses the problems affecting the forests of the western United States: the mass destruction of trees by rising populations of beetles feeding on them; the sudden collapse of aspen tree populations; and the economic monocultures generated in small-town America by the financial appeal of its oil and gas industries.

Utah's primary natural material, wood, faces a difficult future. Between 1997 and 2009, the US Forestry Department reported that 1,960,000 acres of forest in Utah had been destroyed by beetles (which are growing more prevalent as winter temperatures rise across the nation), leaving dead wood that is stained a distinctive blue from the fungal infection that the beetles introduce. Meanwhile, the widespread death of aspen trees, a little understood phenomenon, has further damaged the state's resources.

It was in this climate that Jason Dilworth and Margaret Urban, graphic design tutors at State University of New York at Fredonia, began the project. "In 2011 I took a bike ride across the States as part of the Alabamboo project," says Dilworth. "Looking at the affected forest along the route, I had an instinct of this being something I wanted to solve. People think it's strange - ‘You’re designers but you work in the forest?’ - but that's where this huge problem is."

Dilworth and Urban's response to the problem is an expedition through Utah. Spread over a two week period, the project has been funded through a combination of crowd-sourcing, university donations, and Dilworth and Urban's own money. As it explores the state's forests, the expedition will engage in dialogues, workshops and tours with forestry officials and experts, while also meeting members of local communities who have been affected by the forests' decline.

Joining the expedition are Daniel Byström and Victor Strandgren, Swedish designers and educators who will lead a team of students from Sweden's Nässjö Academy as part of the project (with the remainder of spaces filled by students from Fredonia and local volunteers). Byström and Strandgren met Dilworth and Urban during last year's Make It Happen conference in East Iceland, a workshop series examining how Iceland might support its burgeoning creative industries and a key influence on Designers and Forests.

"In Iceland you saw small towns that were dependent on fishing and when fishing stocks declined they were struck with this problem of what to do," explains Urban. "For a lot of them they were left with coming up with ways to empower their citizens and trying to help people transform their hobbies for traditional crafts into something that they could then use to maintain themselves. We got this similar idea of engaging with the materials in Utah."

What form this engagement will take depends on the success of the expedition, although Dilworth and Urban say that they hope for a series of outcomes, ranging from policy proposals ("to show options to the Forestry Service, because they can’t really OK anything until there’s tangible evidence that it works," explains Urban) through to the creation of open-source products or artefacts inspired by the project, developed in conjunction with the local community.

"We'd love to kickstart smaller economies here, where you have declining populations and so forth," says Dilworth, himself a native of Vernal, Utah. "We want to highlight the environmental problems, but also highlight design in general. It’s about elevating the level of discussion that occurs in a small town and getting away from the attitude of ‘Oh I thought design was something unobtainable; something for New York City or San Francisco.’"

This emphasis on design as a potential reformer is one of the project's focuses. While its primary concern is the state of Utah's forests, it also aims to examine fears over the economic monoculture generated in many American small towns through the presence of big energy companies, a situation that can devastate a community when the oil or gas supply runs out and the corporations leave.

"Design in these small towns is something that nobody really knows about," says Dilworth. "You go to school, then you go to work in either the mines, or the oil fields, because that's where the most money is. I'd like a legacy of this project to be design education and the opportunity for young people to pursue a career they perhaps hadn’t thought of."

"In the United States people outside of the major cities understand Apple and that sort of thing," adds Urban. "But they don’t understand that they have a choice in how they look at objects or that they could be the ones making it."

Based on the results of the initial pilot phase, the organisers hope to extend the scheme to cover the similarly affected forests of British Columbia, Western New York and Colorado. Yet Designer and Forests' future is dependent upon the way in which the communities it visits react to its message and desire for change.

"There's this initial block that we're graphic designers and there's no obvious connection to wood like there would be for furniture designers," says Dilworth. "But this problem is on such a large-scale that it requires a larger engagement than that. Looking at it as a simple relationship of forest, to design, to product isn't enough. It's about forming a connection to the history, landscape, culture and communities."

"Designers can see problems and come in and say that they have a solution for it," adds Urban. "But unless you involve the people directly affected, you don't have a good solution. We won't be there all the time, but they will. I've always viewed the work of the designer as being to have intelligent conversations with those around them."