Down to earth

It’s time to embrace sustainable design and devise innovative, inclusive processes that consume fewer resources.

Sustainability is the cod liver oil of the design world. All designers know that it’s good for them, and for the world, yet they still tend to close their eyes and hold their noses when contemplating just a teaspoonful of the stuff. This is due to misconceptions about what sustainability means, what its real benefits are and the exciting challenges that it poses.

Over the years, design has developed into an umbrella term that covers ever-widening specialisations. Sustainability, too, is now undergoing a similar transition. Effective design, efficient design, eco-design, appropriate design, inclusive design and universal design are just some of the terms used in connection with sustainability. But each of these terms touches on a particular area of sustainability and cannot begin to describe the totality of the subject. Designing for true sustainability joins up myriad design disciplines to strive for excellence along the three intersecting axes of economic, social and environmental goals, providing integrated solution systems for complex criteria.

The economic goal of sustainability is very simple: over the long term, earn more with less. Reduce downstream capital investment by investing in design up-front. Consume fewer raw materials by optimising production processes or exploring alternatives. Eliminate inequitable labour practices by empowering the workforce to work in smarter ways. These are just some of the means to achieve a sustainable business. A multidisciplinary, systemic approach is required. Until all the downstream, as well as upstream, implications of proposed solutions are understood, and an effective economic plan for life cycle can be mapped, true sustainability will not be achieved.

The social goal of sustainability is to ensure that the products and services we develop and deliver are appropriate, inclusive, intuitive, but above all, desirable. These solutions have their genesis in a deep understanding of consumer needs at a micro level and a wide understanding of market segments and trends at a macro level. While basic performance requirements must be met, the design solutions should be bathed in an aura of desirability. Designers will need to become consummate communicators and persuade consumers to, in some cases, rescind their attachment to ownership and put stock in the idea that a solution based on delivery of a service is preferable to owning the thing that provides that particular service.

Finally, the environmental goal of sustainability is to ensure that all materials used in the manufacturing process do one of two things: return to the earth safely or go back to industry for re-use. We need to go much further than the recycling of materials, which in too many cases merely postpones the inevitable trip to the landfill. We need to look at the development of more services instead of more products. We need to invent new organisational models that will optimise the value chain. Again, it will be the big picture, systemic thinking that designers do best that will lead the day.

Many governmental bodies throughout the industrialised world think it is necessary to stigmatise our profligacy as a society with paternalistic legislation designed to protect us from ourselves. This technique has worked in the past (think drink driving) and new laws are scheduled for implementation that will have far-reaching effects on how companies do business and how we will need to organise ourselves as a society.

Architect William McDonough, author of From Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, argues that regulations are a signal of design’s failure. And he’s right, to a degree. Designers must be held accountable for promoting sustainable practices, but they rarely hold the ultimate decision-making power. Ours is a position of responsible influence, to raise issues in which we believe and to guide (and shame, where necessary) industry and Government to action.

Various laws implicating sustainability are already on the books, or soon will be. In Europe, the Waste Electronics and Electrical Equipment directive will require manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling and reusing the products they introduce to the market when the consumer life of those products comes to an end. In the US, Section 508 focuses on social inclusivity and is laying down guidelines for Web design that interaction designers will need to follow, even if their clients neglect to specify 508 compliance in the brief.

If all of this sounds very noble and worthy, it is. But where is the sex appeal, where is the excitement that inspires designers? Consumers still associate sustainable design with a trade-off between true desirability and environmental good – the brownish recycled papers, the scratchy hemp clothing and the anonymous, low-tech products of 20 years ago. But today, there are notable examples of products that are on the cusp of sustainability, while still retaining an aura of desire. The Apple iPod, for one. It is not perfect. True, the iPod is the only MP3 player that does not play songs in the proprietary formats used by any other digital music seller. And songs bought through Apple Computer’s on-line music store iTunes will not play on rival music players. Nevertheless, Apple has taken a sustainable approach to the design of the iPod. It is the only provider of hardware, software and services designed to deliver music to customers through a coherent, sustainable system that properly manages digital rights. It has leveraged the power of its brand to engage consumers on an emotional level and it has successfully used leading-edge design and technology to provide a seamless, portable music experience while minimising environmental impact. The company has also delivered this experience through a business model that satisfies some very thorny issues. Designers and engineers have to harness and interpret technologies and combine them with some shrewd business thinking to bring a highly desirable experience to market. By considering the complete service, Apple is enjoying runaway success and transforming the way the music industry does business.

What Apple also demonstrates is that there is nothing wrong with design that makes the heart beat a little faster. Desire is something that must always be a part of the equation to make a product/ service truly memorable. But desire cannot be developed in isolation. Beyond the product or service, there must be an understanding of context. A user doesn’t necessarily desire a new music player. Typically, they are after the songs the music player provides. By looking at the bigger picture, designers will inevitably play a bigger role.

Not all of us are brilliant form-givers. Not all of us are amazing typographers. Not all of us can create beautiful environments. But all of us have been trained to think. And we can use those design methodologies to lock intellectual arms to solve these new, complex problems. At the Design Council, we believe that design for sustainability is not a niche or a new practice. The issues that the term highlights are inherent in all design practices.

The beauty of sustainability is that it provides targets, not boundaries and requires designers to do what they do best, which is to break the rules. We must re-think, re-examine and re-package sustainability in ways that only designers can. Create. Innovate. And provide the sugar that makes the medicine go down.

Richard Eisermann is director, design and innovation at the Design Council

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