“Everything goes back to that word, ‘value’. What do we value? And how do we use all of these tools to support our values? “
A Q&A with Sustainability Consultant and Educator Frank Millero
Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Frank Millero, a design and sustainability consultant as well as design educator. He has been helping companies with sustainable initiatives for over twelve years and he has taught a range of design courses at Pratt Institute for nearly twenty.
Frank Millero is on the Board of Directors for SERVV, a nonprofit dedicated to fair and ethical trade, where he works to empower small-scale global artisans and farmers. Trained as an industrial designer at Pratt Institute, he brings his passion for sustainability and his boundless curiosity to all of his projects. We asked Frank about prototyping and designing for sustainability, his history as a design educator, and the future of sustainable design.
Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?
A: For me teaching is endlessly interesting. I got to teach a design research class last fall and that was a fun opportunity to think about what my research process is in the work that I do. In terms of design work, recently I got to work with a nonprofit called Mayan Hands. They work with weavers in Guatemala to produce textiles. What I really enjoyed about it was that I got to learn what the techniques were and how they were done. I wanted to create something that was really culturally sensitive because they were using a traditional technique, but I didn’t want the project to be necessarily traditional. How do you find that compromise between creating something new but also honoring the tradition?
The good thing was that the weavers were really excited to try new things, so I worked on developing color palettes and designs based on the biogeography of Guatemala. That was a point of departure that made a connection to the land and to the people. It was a fun project in many ways. I got to learn about their textiles, but also about Guatemala.
Q: Could you tell us about one of your favorite projects and share why it is important to you?
A: In Cambodia I worked with the nonprofit SERVV to come up with designs and design ideas. I was there for a month and I got to see how they make things. They were using large, traditional wood looms and they did cut-and-sew. The program was set up to help support women, especially women in farming communities. Part of the year they didn’t have any income from farming and so this provided them with another source of income.
One of the things that we did that was a little bit of a departure from the traditional techniques was creating something that was quick and easy to make. They had some screen printing capacity, so I worked with the director to find local canvas from the market and we used the screen printing techniques that they knew to create tote bags. It was a simple project but it was great because it was a teaching tool for people who were learning to cut and sew simple constructions. It was also really affordable to make and they could make a lot, so it was profitable.
I think the most interesting thing about that project was connecting directly to the people who were making the product and learning about their culture, learning about the way that they were producing things. I knew a lot about the environmental dimension of sustainability but this gave me an opportunity to think about the social dimension of sustainability and to realize how important that was.
Q: What is sustainable design?
A: Sustainable design is a fascinating challenge of creating high value products and services that consider environmental, social, and economic factors throughout the life cycle. I use that phrase ‘high value’. How you define value is important because there are always so many trade-offs when you’re thinking about what impacts there are, what you have to live with, and what you can work towards. It depends on so many different factors.
One of the things I realized when thinking about that word value is that the designers can’t really decide this on their own. It has to be something that’s built into the design brief at the beginning, so that everyone who’s working on the project understands what the values are. Having that discussion early is important. When you get to a point where things conflict and you have to have trade-offs, how do you make those decisions?
Q: How can we design with sustainability in mind?
A: That part is fairly straightforward to me. I think it’s about education and awareness first. Like any aspect of our design process, the more we understand it, the better we can achieve what we’re looking for. Education is also about asking a lot of questions.
When I go to a factory, I try to ask as many questions as I can to find out what they are doing and what they are hoping to improve. What are the best practices in their industry? Certifications are helpful because they help you understand what some of the best practices are, but not all partners will be certified or have the money to be certified. So it’s really important to ask them directly about their practices, and that goes for social practices, too.
Take some of the textile vendors I worked with early on in my career; I would ask them if they had organic cotton and some of them had no idea what that even meant. So you educate them and explain what it means and why it’s important. We would have them create two samples or at least cost out conventional cotton and organic cotton. It was always a bit of a battle with the merchants to say, it’s 20 cents more but this is really worth it. Sometimes it took creating a whole story around it to get people to understand the value and importance of it.
Some people just graduating and entering a job might feel like they don’t have a lot of say in the decision making, but they do have an opportunity to communicate and propose ideas. They can find somebody who’s a mentor within the organization, maybe higher up, who can be an advocate for their ideas. It’s important that you have people at different levels in an organization who are committed to sustainability.
It’s also important to realize that everyone and every organization is going to be at different stages of incorporating these ideas. Wherever you’re at, it’s you need to set goals, figure out how you’re going to measure them, and hold yourself accountable. The more specific they are the better, because then you can measure them in some way, at least qualitatively. But hopefully quantitatively, too.
Q: Could you share some products that you think are good examples of sustainable design?
A: I worked with an organization called Get Paper in Nepal. The products were high quality and they had parts of their business that helped support the other parts. One part was handmade paper and the other part was more conventional paper-making. They produced a lot of packaging.
They got off-cuts from a local T-shirt factory and used that cotton as raw material for their handmade paper. They incorporated artisans in the governance of the organization, and that is a really unusual way to govern your organization. We think of most organizations as top-down, but more and more there are opportunities for people to think about cooperative organizations and new kinds of economic models. I thought this one was great because the artisans were on the decision-making panel. It wasn’t just outsiders coming in and designing things, the product was also coming from the artisans themselves.
They had this cool community program where they would count how much paper they used per year, translate that into trees, go to a local area of degraded land and everyone in the community—the school would be closed for the day, the factory would be closed for the day—would go plant trees.
Over time this helped to increase the water table because without the trees there was a lot of erosion. The community really saw the value in the tree planting because they immediately saw the effect. There are a lot of tree planting programs in the world and I think that they’re great in general, but when it’s directly connected to the community I think it’s even more powerful. It really shows that connection.
Another example: Bill McKibben has an organization called Third Act. This is an organization to activate people who are over 60 to support sustainability projects. His idea was that we have this large population, some of them are starting to retire but they have all of this wisdom and experience. They were also passionate in the 60’s and 70’s about environmental and social causes. He was tapping into that history and also their skills. The idea was that everyone should be involved in this kind of activism. What’s amazing is that they vote, so they have a lot of influence in terms of policy.
Q: When did sustainability become a focus for you as a designer and what inspired that specialization?
A: My background was in biology, and I spent 10 years working as a staff biologist and exhibit developer at the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco. This was a very important starting point for my career. I feel like I was practicing sustainability in some ways there and I didn’t even know it. The mantra of the museum is, “Here is being created a community museum, dedicated to awareness.”
While I was there I got more and more interested in design. I took design classes at night through UC Berkeley: furniture classes, different kinds of design classes, and also art classes. Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World was really influential for me. There were a few books I read at the time that got me interested in sustainable design, one was The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, and another was Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins. Another really influential book was Biomimicry by Janine Benyus.
This was all in the late 90’s. And so I thought, Well, you know, I have a biology background. There are all of these interesting opportunities to think about connections, and that’s what led me to Pratt for my graduate program. While I was there, I was interested in looking at the intersection of science and design. I wasn’t focused so much on sustainability but it was an underlying current. Later I was invited to teach a junior studio about sustainable design at Pratt. It was challenging because they told me just a couple of weeks before the class started, and this was one of my first times teaching. It was an early prototype. I got interested in this idea of What tools do students need?What tools do designers need to help them get engaged in this topic and care about it? That was a key starting point for me.
Q: Could you talk about the prototyping process in the context of a sustainable design project? What does sustainable prototyping look like?
A: I think that it’s never too early to prototype and test out your ideas, to test your assumptions. Sometimes at the Exploratorium I would just take a table out, put a microscope on it with a video monitor, go outside and get some pond water, and put it on the microscope and invite people to look at it. I would ask, What do you notice? What’s going on? This was really primitive prototyping to get ideas for the experience.
Keeping people on the same page is also important. I’ve been at organizations where designers say, we’re not going to show it to them yet, because they’re afraid that it’s going to get shut down early. You have to have check-ins along the way, and this is a challenging balance. You want to have some creative freedom, you don’t want to be shut down early, but you do want to make sure that you’re checking in along the way. That’s what prototyping allows you to do: create new directions and be really collaborative.
I think that the prototyping impacts are small compared to large production runs, so I don’t worry too much about it. It’s a good investment, basically. It is important to look at the issues of toxicity, because there are some materials, especially model-making materials, that do have health impacts for the people involved. If you’re ordering the model, you are still responsible for those health impacts, because somebody else could be exposed.
Finding partners who have best practices in the industry, have protection for workers, reduce the amount of exposure…all of those things are really important questions to ask. There are different types of prototypes— looks-like, feels-like, works-like—and you may not need something that’s really beautiful if you’re just creating a works-like prototype. Communicating that to producers might help to see what the alternatives are.
Really simple materials like paper tape and glue are some of my best prototyping tools. There are also opportunities for you to recycle and reuse some of the materials you have. I like to use cardboard, it seems like there’s an endless supply of cardboard from boxes. These kinds of materials can get you to where you want.
Q: What inspired you to become a design educator?
A: I’m the middle child. I have an older sister and a younger brother, so I got to learn from them but also to teach both of them at the same time, and I really enjoyed that. My brother is five years younger than I am, so he was a little kid, and I enjoyed that process of seeing him learn new things
When I was in high school, I had a job at a grocery store as a bag boy, and this was in Miami so it was super hot. I’d have to go out and collect the shopping carts, and I had to wear a tie and mop the floor. And I was making, I don’t know, three dollars an hour. And one of my teachers asked me if I wanted to be a math tutor. I got paid twice as much, I was in the air conditioning, and I got to work with my peers, helping them with math. This was a really exciting experience for me.
When I was in college, I tutored for Upward Bound. I was really inspired by the students because no one in their family had gone to college, and they just needed a little bit of help. They were eager to learn, and to see somebody with that passion for learning was so exciting for me.
At the Exploratorium I had an opportunity to teach people as well. We had three different types of interns; post-college interns, college-age interns, and high school interns. They would all be responsible for teaching each other, and I helped teach all of them. This idea of creating mentorship among the groups was really inspiring to see.
Q: How does your work as an educator inform your consulting work and vice versa?
A: I mentioned already that my experience at SERVV opened my eyes to the social dimension of sustainability. I realized in teaching my class that I was focused a lot on environmental issues but I hadn’t really thought about the social dimension, or intersection of the two. What is environmental justice? What happens when these two forces collide?
My experiences with commercial clients has also taught me so much. I go to visit factories, to work on a team to understand the business side of the retail world – that’s a whole different language. So much to learn there. I used to go to the store and talk to all the salespeople and ask them, What’s selling? What do people like? Why don’t they like it? Getting the vibe from them. When I first started asking them, they were reluctant because they knew that I had designed it and they didn’t want to insult me. But then, over time, after we had a friendship, they would be really honest.
I bring in samples to my classrooms and say, This is what happened, these are the things that could go wrong in production. So here’s different stages of prototyping, and here’s what ended up in the store. I’ve been connected through my work to so many different design professionals, and I invite them into the classroom as well.
Q: How has the conversation around sustainability in design changed over the course of your career?
A: I think for sure there’s been a lot more discussion about sustainability. It was not really talked about so much 30 years ago. More discussion has created more awareness, and there are companies trying to do new things. There’s also some greenwashing that happens, too, because companies don’t want to be shamed for doing bad things. I guess that’s my concern; while it’s being talked about a lot more, you have to be even more vigilant about the trustworthiness of the message.
We also have to look at the bigger picture of consumption patterns. While individual products might be made with safer, better materials, a bigger picture is: what is our culture of consumption? What will happen if we don’t dramatically change this culture? Other countries are modeling their behavior on us in the U.S. and the Western world, and this is troubling to me, too.
Q: What do you see in the future of sustainable design?
A: I hope that it’s a point of inspiration for designers in the future. Up to this point, it’s been this sort of burden, Oh and it has to be sustainable. As if it’s going to squelch your creativity in some way. I think that if designers have a new point of view that sustainable design will give you new ideas and new points of inspiration, then that will be a different kind of attitude shift. That’s what I try to develop in my class as an understanding; that all these products have issues for sure, but we have an opportunity as creative designers and thinkers to come up with new approaches, and that should produce new aesthetics, new opportunities.
I also hope that sustainability is integrated earlier in the design process. People think way too late about these issues, and it’s hard. Things get locked in really early. If it can get more integrated into design briefs earlier on in the process, we’ll have much better outcomes.
I hope that designers can integrate more qualitative or quantitative approaches that can help them in their decision making, like the LCA. You can model something and see how well it achieves its goal. Is this new transportation route better? Well, you can mathematically find that out. It’s not unknowable.
Designers can’t work alone, and corporations can’t work alone. It has to be governments, nonprofit corporations, consumers…everyone has to be involved in this in some way. And I think this is one of the things that’s concerning: some of the messaging is that, Oh, it’s the consumer’s fault because they’re not recycling properly, or whatever it is. Pushing it on people. Why did you buy this fast fashion? Well, I know why: it’s cheap and it’s available. So the practice of blaming people for all of these problems is something that I hope will change as well.
I see some really great opportunities in terms of understanding what environmental and social impacts are by having enough data, using AI and machine-learning, and having somebody in a sense smarter than us analyze the data to find the patterns and trends. These technologies can provide real benefits, they already have in terms of things related to climate change and biodiversity laws.
Everything goes back to that word, value. What do we value? And how do we use all of these tools to support our values?
I like to think about our connection to our history and to cultural heritage. I see young designers being interested in this idea of craft, of connection to their own personal past. What’s special about their local community, or what’s special about their personal history, can be a component of the design process, something that they value. Diverse voices and perspectives being heard in the design process is an aspect of sustainable design as well. It’s an opportunity to have lots of different ideas and perspectives come together to create these solutions.
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