Did you have your Sustainability Discussion Today?


Image by: tamachanhaazarashi.
Designers these days face a lot of pressure to not only do good design, but also to do the right thing. Indeed the importance of sustainable and environmentally friendly products cannot and should not be underestimated. However, while Designers are central to the creation of these products, it takes a lot more than just having the “Will” to do it.
Experience has shown me that Consumerism is such a humongous engine, with so many factors influencing or controlling it, that a Designer and his “Will” is but a drop in the ocean.
Regardless, Designers are in a good position to influence and often the issue is creating a sustainability discussion that can also be relevant and meaningful to the business and their financials. I would also like to add that this difficulty of translating a sustainable proposition into something that makes financial sense is one of the key reasons why “Green” is not taking off in many companies. Yes, sadly money does make the world go round.
Another key point I like to add is that traditional sustainability discussions are almost the norm these days. Recyclable materials, low impact processes, Lead and toxic free materials, and even end of life management etc. are all achievable and even part of government legislation in many countries. While a lot of products do satisfy such legislations, more could be done. However, I personally feel this is the wrong approach to take, more like a stopgap measure rather than a cure.
Rather than trying to fix a product, why not instead “fix” the buying behavior of consumers? Think about it, the awesome Macbook Unibody that I’m typing on is made out of recycled aluminum, however the amount of power you need to recycle it when you are done, makes this idea of a recycling process pointless if everyone is chucking it out after a year. However if I told you that this was my first computer after my 5-year-old laptop died, well you get the picture. It is not so much about cleaning up after it all, but about getting people to consume less.
This comes to an interesting cosmic alignment.
Industrial Designers are known to be experts in creating products that are a reflection of consumer behavior, or even, as some say, able to influence behavior by creating desire!
So the next time you are working on a design, consider shaping it to encourage ecological and sustainable consumer behaviors. Not only that, if you can add making the designs financially meaningful into the mix, you would have got it sold!
I have to say I’m not an expert in this, but here are some suggestions that might spark some ideas to help you along:
1) Design longer lasting products. Commit to designing and building the best possible product you can, and market the hell out of it! Charge a premium for this and I’m sure this product strategy can still be financially sound.
2) Design Products that are part of an upgradable system. Modular or Lego type systems are great way, for consumers to throw away less as they can now buy what they need.
3) Create products that can be fit into smaller packaging. Design products that can be easily assembled, so they can be flat packed IKEA style. Less factory assembly resources required, more products on a shipping pallet, and hence smaller overall carbon footprint.
4) Products that can be easily disassembled. People seem to forget design for disassembly. Why not create products that can be easily disassembled for re-use and refurbishing back into NEW products? Reused components save costs and landfills.
5) Parts reduction. Simplicity is back in style. This means elegant and simple product constructions with less fuss and less ornaments. Make it in one part or not at all!
These are just some simple suggestions off the top of my head. I’m sure you can come up with more ideas and options that either encourages sustainable behavior and/or makes financial sense. Please do share, as I love to hear about them?
PS: You might like to take a look at this post “10 Useful Cost Saving Design Strategies for these Troubled Times” for more ideas. Cost savings usually mean less materials and thus less impact.

7 Comments
  • pianovis

    June 10, 2009 at 9:35 pm Reply

    Interesting piece. There’s definitely good suggestions here. I do have to say that charging a premium (ref #1 suggestion) may hurt, especially in a challenged economy. Read on, car manufacturers…

  • Waikit Chung

    June 10, 2009 at 10:05 pm Reply

    Good reminder! I would like to add the following guidelines + questions:
    6) Try to design services to solve problems when possible, as they are requesting less material and energy in general. In that case the industrial designers becomes an ‘experience designer’. However, the reality is that there are many product delivering companies that have to come up with new models of their mobile phones, tv’s, etc.. each year to satisfy the consumers who easily become bored. How to handle with this particular human behavior? And how to survive without delivering physical products, when it is hard to change a company’s tradition?
    7) Use recycled material in new designs as much as possible. Be bold and forget about the material/surface quality of new material and give your product a beautiful eco-look. Hmm..how many attractive looking products are made from recyclable materials?
    8) Save material usage. Design with dimensions as small as possible. Less material=less weight=less energy for producing and transport
    By the way, last week I joined a chat session at the new designbox website, where people were able to ask questions to an expert in sustainable design. They have summarized the questions and answers and posted in their discussion board. Check it out at (you need to register to view the forums):
    http://designbox.envirowise.gov.uk

  • Michael

    June 10, 2009 at 11:02 pm Reply

    interesting read! i remember reading somewhere about how designers should devote atleast 10% of their time to projects that “give back” somehow, and are less about profiteering and more about socially responsible/sustainable design solutions.
    I highly suggest the “cradle 2 cradle” book if anyone hasn’t read it…really is an eye-opener that all designers should have a read of. The cradle 2 cradle approach (rather than cradle to grave) changes your way of approaching design when it comes to design thinking. Too often than not, sustainability practices come as an “afterthought” rather than being an intrisic ideal from the very beginning and throughout every process.
    Very interesting what the people above have mentioned also. Good to see people really engaging in this matter! :]

  • Sylvian

    June 12, 2009 at 2:51 am Reply

    Thumbs up: ‘It is not so much about cleaning up after it all, but about getting people to consume less.’

  • Joon Yan

    June 17, 2009 at 8:07 pm Reply

    This sounds a bit like the way japanese designers design.
    I once read an interview between naoto fukasawa and kenya hara and they were mentioning that we design to influence people’s behaviors. They wanted people to feel ‘like this is enough’ from the products that we are using. Rather than forever being unsatisfied and buying ever more and seemingly ‘better’ products when the one we have works perfectly well.
    The only way I see this happening is if an emotional attachment is created between man and product, too bad this is easier said then done.

    • DT

      June 17, 2009 at 9:25 pm Reply

      Hi All,
      Thanks for the great additional points to the list. Appreciate each of you adding to the conversation.
      Hi Joon Yan,
      I fully agree with your insight. Creating and designing better products that create this bond is one perfect example of fostering a sustainable behavior by encouraging people to love their product more and hence keeping by their side longer.
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  • inmantua

    June 23, 2009 at 9:47 am Reply

    Hi,
    I am here in Las Vegas right now and its odd because everything we build is temporary, however no one ever thinks about how these things we build will come apart and what will be done with them after we take them down. I think that modular has become so popular with regards to building but I think the time has come for thought on modular dismantling and re-use…Just an add to your super comments before.

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