The ten principles of guitar design, Part 9, Environmentally Friendly
This is Part 9 of a 10 part series, applying Dieter Rams’ “10 Principles” to guitar design. Just as we did in previous instalments, we should understand that these principles were just one designer’s opinion as to how to evaluate their work, and that they’re presented in their original order assuming that there is no particular importance to that order.
Good design is environmentally-friendly
“Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.”
Perhaps none of the other 10 Principles opens up quite as large a can of worms as this one. It is unique in that it extends beyond the basic design concerns of use and appearance, throughout the supply chain and product disposal or re-purposing. The statement contains no mention of effects on the health of the workforce fabricating the products, just the environment. However, it does mention physical pollution, and that protecting the environment would include the prevention of environmentally-caused health conditions. For now, let’s just say that visual pollution has been addressed in Principles numbered 3, 5, 6, and to some degree 7.
If you view design as merely an exercise in drawing an aesthetically pleasing body shape, then this Principle would be inapplicable to your work. So would some of the other Principles. Rams was in the business of designing things that actually got made and used, so he naturally gave some consideration as to how the product was to be manufactured. The designer has some control and assumes some responsibility for the impact the manufacturing of the designed guitar has on the environment.
Legal and Ethical Constraints
A word you can substitute for “Legal Constraint” is “Compliance”, and the business of manufacturing involves a plethora of requirements, regulations, and standards that companies have to follow. These may include rules for handling hazardous materials, spray emissions, power, waste, safety, etc. As with any other manufacturer, guitar builders are expected to operate legally, and it becomes more difficult to do so as the business gets more complex. It would be impractical to discuss all the compliance issues that a guitar designer need be aware of, but a good start would be to understand the processes that a guitar goes through and the general business environment that they’re built in.
The act of building and finishing guitars generates a lot of stuff that finds it’s way into the air, primarily dust and overspray. If you’ve done any amount of woodworking and luthiery, you know exactly what I mean by “a lot”. Take that amount and multiple it until you reach the scale that a typical guitar factory operates at.
There was a time when guitars and other stringed instruments were finished with varnishes and shellac finishes, either brushed on or “fadded” in French Polish. Both involved solvents, so that’s always been an issue, but they were relatively “clean” as far as other emissions go. Unfortunately both are labor-intensive, so designers and builders switched to spray finishes such as nitrocellulose lacquer, which had it’s own problems long-term, but environmental regulations were relatively lax and it was a minor issue for compliance. As the regulatory environment changed, builders have had to look at alternative finishes such as water-based, and different methods of application including HVLP spray equipment.
Then there is the issue of highly-regulated and protected raw materials. While it is possible to specify and legally source some of these materials, it’s questionable whether or not it’s practical to do so. If you include such materials in your BOM, you’re going to need to know what impact that will have on your manufacturing and distribution efforts, and also what the end user will have to deal with. Many builders will not want to get involved with anything that involves more than a modicum of paperwork, and it’s hard to blame them. As a designer, you should at least be familiar with things like the CITES Treaty, possibly the US Lacey Act, etc. as you put together your materials list.
While harvesting Ivory may not be considered “pollution”, it certainly doesn’t conserve resources (aka “elephants”) and it has a direct impact on the environment where the tusks came from. So does cutting down 10 Ebony trees just to find one that has a jet black color, leaving the others to rot. While the harvest and sourcing of some materials are technically legal, there may be other reasons not to specify them in your BOM, including personal ethical reasons and market forces. Both of these can be considered Voluntary Constraints, although Market Forces have a very practical aspect to them.
I once heard a very well-known and respected expert in the field of guitar repair say a phrase that’s stuck with me for years: “Guitarists hear with their eyes.” Perhaps that’s not giving us and our ears as much credit as we might deserve, but there is certainly a substantial amount of truth in it. Blind listening tests tend to point this out on a regular basis, especially when the listener doesn’t know what materials have been used.
Buyers have expectations as to tonal qualities that a particular material produces, and often they’ll prefer those that are more traditional. They express their preferences through their purchases, both on a micro- and macro- scale. These preferences may not be your preferences, and in many cases will certainly not be the preferences of those manufacturing the instruments. Changing consumer preferences, though, is a slow process fraught with misconceptions and misinformation along the way.
In other markets for other consumer products, there is a segment of the buying public that places a premium and importance on sustainably harvested timber, Fair Trade labor practices, reduced emissions or Carbon Footprint, and other environmentally-friendly business practices. We’re seeing some effect of this trend in guitar manufacturing, with some examples being Taylor’s sourcing of Ebony, Gibson’s “smartwood” partnership with the Rainforest Alliance, baked or “torrefied” maple fingerboards, and new alternative “tonewoods” being introduced into product lineups.
After the guitar is built and in use, it usually doesn’t produce a lot of “physical and visual pollution”, unless that’s the designer’s intent. Audible pollution is another thing altogether. Of course, it does have weight and physical volume, so moving it from one place to another is going to consume some energy. You could argue that heavier guitars use more energy and therefore more pollution. But unless you’re building with plutonium parts, the guitar itself is not going to directly produce a lot of damage to the environment .
During the manufacturing process, there is always going to be a “scrap” factor where some of the material is disposed of as trim, dust, chips, shavings, swarf, rejects, etc. The more scrap you have, the more raw material has to be sourced, increasing the overall impact. Of course, much of this scrap can be reclaimed and repurposed, and that will mitigate the overall impact to some degree. Some of this scrap can be directly converted into heat through burning, which reduces other energy consumption but also increases emissions.
While a designer can’t always influence how the scrap is repurposed, disposed of, or otherwise handled, they can help minimize the amount that is intentionally created. They can do this through a number of ways as long as they understand how the guitars are going to be fabricated. One way is to maximize the cutting efficiency of the raw materials, i.e. cutting neck blanks or glue-ups so that the builder can get the maximum number of necks out of a given size blank. Another is to design parts so that they require less machining; a classic example being Fender necks, designed to use as small a neck blank as possible that still results in a full-depth neck. Another is to use bent wood ribs on semi-hollow electric guitars rather than routing out most of the material on a solid body blank.