An Interview with Sir Jonathon Porritt

Judges Interviews

Jonathon Porritt

What is the single most interesting brief you have worked on during your career?

When I left friends of the earth in 1991, I was hard at work on a book called “Save the Earth” which was designed for the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in 1992. The Earth Summit was a really big & successful event, in that governments really did agree to make some major changes.

I was very involved with the Earth Summit, and created a project called the “Tree of Life”, a pledge-based project were we invited people from all around the world to make a pledge as to what they would do to help make the Earth summit a success. We had a million people around the world making pledges about their own lifestyles.

We built the Tree of Life as the centrepiece of the Global Forum in Rio – it was a beautiful piece of work made out of indigenous timber and copper with a thousand copper leaves, each representing 1000 pledges. It was great fun to work on.

Who has been your biggest influence?

That’s a tricky question for me as there have been so many people that have been influential in my life.

Top of my list would be Wangari Maathai, a wonderful Kenyan activist who I first got to know in 1986 when she came over to the UK to take part in Friends of the Earth’s new Rainforest Campaign. We took her on a UK tour where she gave a series of incredibly inspirational talks.

She founded a tree planting campaign in Kenya, The Green Belt Movement and was the first woman from Africa to win the Nobel Peace Prize as an environmentalist! She was astonishing in her ability to build bridges between communities and countries, to fashion a vision of what a secure, sustainable future looked like for all nations.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given?

My dad was a very successful man, he was an eminent surgeon, an Olympic athlete, a diplomat – but he never cared much about money.

He was a bit baffled when my career didn’t go off in the direction that he thought it would (like joining the Green Party and getting a job in a west London comprehensive!) But he never tried to dissuade me.

He said “Only ever listen to other peoples’ advice if it fits with your own life destiny” I knew he wasn’t happy with what I was doing because he wanted his children to get into medicine and he thought I might at least go into mainstream politics. His view was that parents are only as good in the advice they give as the understanding they have of their children.

What was it about this initiative that made you want to be involved?

This is all about working with young people in the creative industries, encouraging them to use their skills and talents to address some of the biggest challenges in the world today – and I love that!

What advice would you give a creative student today?

My one bit of advice would be that any design with real integrity has to have an eye on the future as much as it does on the present. And if it isn’t taking into account those two time frames – the degree to which it helps improve people’s lives today whilst simultaneously helping to improve people’s lives in the future – it sure as hell won’t be sustainable!

Sustainability shouldn’t be a category within the design community; it should be a universal design principal.

What role does design have in helping solve humanitarian problems?

This is an enormous topic! I’ve always put a high value on the work of designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, creative innovators because that’s where the thinking the we need for the future will start.

Sustainability also has to be aspirational, about appealing to people’s sense of a better world for themselves, not just a better world for people in the future. We have to use the power of design to create that dual objective – enabling people to understand their own potential and aspiration, within a genuinely sustainable framework. The only way to make people more aware of their own individual responsibility is to design brilliant, products, services, methodologies. All the great things designers can do!

What was it about this initiative that inspired you to get involved?

What really matters is embedding the values that underpin sustainability within the educational process. People become designers for different reasons, but the greater number of young designers who care about this stuff – and want to make a difference – the better it will be.

They think that that is the best way they can use the skills they have. Those with educational experience need to be embedded with a conscience, I don’t think that is the case at the moment.

So the more this initiative can build, make an impact, the better it will be! The winners the get out there and show through practice what this mindful approach to design really looks like – to the benefit of the entire design world.

There are lots of awards schemes of one kind or another celebrating the genius of the design industry. I’m supportive of that, but you have to have something beyond that. Beyond “clever”, beyond “smart”, beyond “superficial and slick.” There has to be some grounding back into real people’s lives, helping people make sense of what is a pretty difficult time today.

How does your creative conscience show itself through your work?

I am a “left brain” kind of person most of the time, so I have to go out of my way to balance this! I deliberately cast myself into situations that will challenge my imagination rather than my intellectual side.

Author: Chrissy Levett, Creative Director