Sustainability is a Design(er) Problem
Updated: Feb 7
Designers are problem solvers
What comes to mind when we talk about design? Typically, a practice that bridges a problem to a solution. Aside from knowing how to ask the right questions, strategically, designers are often responsible for simplifying complex systems, services, products, and tools.
Pretty much everything we’ve ever used has been designed by someone, or some team, somewhere. Most importantly, we all know how bad design feels and looks.
It’s time to redefine Design Strategy
In today’s world, design strategy evolves beyond just usability and profitability. We see designers as strategists and gatekeepers who are capable of delivering products and services that not only benefit humans, but also support the dynamic ecosystem humans thrive in - Earth.
Many believe that sustainability is about protecting the environment. While this is true, sustainability carries far deeper implications than just ecological concerns: Faced with the urgent threat of climate change, sustainability is crucial from the perspective of sustaining human existence. Everything we do in service of sustainability, is ultimately in service of mankind’s longevity.
At the end of the day, our relationship with the environment is so close-knit that, unintended consequences to our environment as a result of poor long-term vision will directly impact human well-being.
Why do designers have the greatest potential?
80% of a product’s environmental impact is locked in at the design stage. This means that product (and industrial) designers must incorporate sustainability principles in their decisions while ideating, prototyping, and ultimately bringing a product into existence.
The more upstream a (product) design decision, the more impact it will have on the supply chain actors, material choices, recyclability, and ultimately — a company’s overall sustainability footprint. The more environmental impact reduced based on principles of sustainability, the more systemic change at organizational level.
By empowering designers, a clear path emerges where up to 80% of a product’s climate impact can be resolved by simply prioritizing sustainability at the design stage. In other words, designers have a tremendous window of opportunity to shape the environmental and social impact of their creations, well-before manufacturing.
4 key questions to keep in mind while designing products
What is the design trying to accomplish?
What is the intention behind the design? e.g. helping a company sell more products to stimulate faster and repeat purchase behavior? Or incorporate durability and longevity by using premium materials that last 5x longer?
How is it brought to life?
How is this product produced?
Where is this product actually made?
Designing as many aspects of the product as you can from the same material makes recycling the product at its end of life easier, more efficient, and more profitable.
Pay attention to packaging
Let’s be honest, most product packaging is just to keep the product intact until consumption. Material, size, modularity, and recyclability are points to consider, in addition to cost.
How is it used?
How long is the product life cycle meant to last? Designing products that are meant to use less energy and have a long life-span.
Can the product be upgraded ?
In the electronics industry, the technology in a product can become obsolete long before the design. Designing products that can be upgraded to keep up with rapidly changing technical performance can save materials and money.
People want high quality products that will look and function beautifully long after the competing product has died, and they’re willing to pay a premium for it. Designed properly, products can transcend the “throw away” culture that dominates electronics today
Design for life after death - Products designed to have secondary usages after their primary function has lapsed can add increase the lifespan of the product, add to resource conservation and may replace another purchased product
Where does it end up?
Modular designs are not only more easily recycled at the end of their life but also more easily repaired, and therefore last longer. Modular designs can also be more efficiently manufactured and shipped, reducing energy consumption at the beginning of the product’s life.
This one’s obvious, but should always be kept in mind:
Design with recycled or easily recyclable plastics (HDPE, PP, PS, PVC), biodegradable plastics (PLA, PHB, polyamide, bio-derived poly ethylene), paper, cardboard, wood, stainless steel, aluminum, etc.
Life Cycle Assessment - Designers increasingly will need to conduct Life Cycle Assessments with tools like Carbon Sync, to evaluate the environmental impact of a material over its entire lifecycle.
Design to unlock sustainable business strategy
In the past 300,000 years, humans have progressed because we’re master inventors of tools and processes - we relentlessly optimize for efficiency and survival
We become unstoppable when there’s a sense of urgency, especially under a looming existential threat
For a business to continue thriving, adapting to the changing world, and better serve its customers, it’s imperative to prioritize design into its overarching sustainability strategy