Good design is about making ideas come alive, as solutions that fulfill one or more needs.

Sustainable design drives the intent to create a future-proof solution that fulfill one or more needs.

Introduction to design history

After Second World War, people started to have more money and spend money on consumer goods. For the companies that meant several years, where they could sell more and more, which lead to a focus on optimization, LEAN, Just in Time, outsourcing to Asia, selling and earning as much as possible.

In 2010ies a new trend appeared. The consumers started to demand a better user experience. The customers started to ask about the story behind, so they could tell the “good” story about the product to their friends and family. At the same time apps and different gadgets got more and more common, which meant it was possible to add services to the products that earlier on had just been a physical product with no possibility to interact with.

User experience is still in focus today, when designing a new product or service, but a new dimension in the form of sustainability has been added to the design process. Over the past years we have gotten use to that household electronics are marked with energy labelling, some food products are marked with “Fair Trade”, some textiles are marked with “no child labor” etc. The consumers are expecting the companies to change behaviour and think about the impact their design decisions around raw materials, labour, usage of chemicals etc. got. There for we have seen a shift from product centered design over user centered design to life centered design.

For some companies product stewardship has been part of their DNA for decades. See example here from IBM. I like the idea of that management in IBM has set a frame for there designers and I see it as a good example of why the overall responsibility for sustainability should be anchored in the leadership team. There should not be any doubt among the designers that IBM support sustainable design.

I have worked focused with sustainability since the beginning of 2019. At that time most of the projects where around collection of data for sustainability accounting, so the companies could create a baseline and understand where their biggest issues were.

In 2021 the projects shifted toward re-design or new sustainable design of products, services, processes, IT solutions etc. For some companies that meant optimization of logistics – driving less kilometers, changing some of the raw materials, energy optimization, new packaging etc. But for some it also meant a change of business model, focus on CSR or identification of new revenue streams.

Sustainable Design

According to the UK design council then 80% of the the environmental impact of products, services and infrastructure is determined in the design stage. 

Design-related decisions are happening everyday everywhere in the World, therefore design is one of the most impactful areas we got in the battle for a more sustainable world. This also puts a lot of responsibility on designers and product developers, as their decisions can have an impact many years in the future.

It is easy to just do what you normally do, as it often requires investment to change the “as-is” situation, but there is no excuse for not challenging your design, when designing new products, services, processes etc. The new legislation mentioned later in this blog has already started impacting design in several companies I have worked with.

The design stage is the perfect time and opportunity to find new and creative ways to make your products and services sustainable. The good news is that there are several well-established tools, techniques and methods already that are ready for designers to use.

Putting sustainability in the center, when designing also means that you not only put the user in the center, but life in the center. Check out this page for inspiration about Life Centered Design, where you look at non-human and non-users as personas.

Sustainable Design Research & Stakeholder Management

Before jumping into using the different available sustainable design methods then you as a designer will need to do some research, as change of design impacts the environment, society, business and the end users. So you need to understand what kind of impacts you re-design may have to make sure you invite the right participants to support the design process. You as a designer cannot know everything, nor can your colleagues.

Especially in the beginning of your journey as a sustainable designer it is important for you to do a lot of research to make sure you understand the possible design impacts and bring in the right experts.  When you have worked with these areas for a while you will be in a better position to decide when and what kind of experts are needed. One place to find inspiration is here Repository of lectures from Climate Designers.

Some of the design changes will require investment, so you need to also ask the leadership about their willingness to invest in new machinery, ask sales if customers will be willing to pay for more sustainable products, and in general understand the willingness of the leadership to make the needed changes toward a more sustainable design.

As a designer you will fail if you don’t involve both external and internal stakeholders, as they will help you design for sustainability and be your best ambassadors for the new sustainable design when moving on from the design phase to approval and implementation. 

Sustainable Product and Services Design

As a consumer it can be really hard to know which product is the most sustainable product. Therefore the new guidelines on how to calculate the EU Product Environmental Footprint of a product is essential to make sure the consumers can compare the footprint of a product based on the same calculation methods. Already now there are several countries that have set rules around marketing of “green products” only can take place with a validated LCA (life cycle assessment).

EU Product Environmental Footprint (EU PEF) is still in test expected to be in place from 2024. If your company already got LCA’s in place then it will be an easy task to adjust it to fit with EU PEF. Alternatively you got a lot of work in front of you to understand your current footprint of each product and service followed by analysis of what changes you might need to do in order to bring down the footprint. Personally I think it is a very good exercise, as it challenges us to think about what our current EU PEF look like, why it looks as it does and what we can do to bring the footprint down?  

 For the EU Product Environmental Footprint you will need to look at the impact from material origin and footprint, over transport, production, consumption till “end-of-life” with a lot of sub-categories below.

As part of the exercise you might want to look at Circular Economy. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation is a good place to find examples with good explanation and tutorials.

You might think that services does not need the same design overhaul, but included in many services you got eg consumption of cleaning articles, trucks for transport, lifetime of a pc and many other physical things. And all of those things also add up, so going though your services will also have an impact.

Re-design of processes for sustainability

Each company should evaluate and consider re-design of processes from time to time. It is healthy to challenge the as-is and look at them with fresh eyes. Sustainability is a really good driver and inspiration source for thinking new ways of doing things. It even in some cases kills the normal arguments against changes, as nobody wants to be the one doing something bad for sustainability!

Sustainable Design Thinking

There are several different design methods that are used in connection with sustainable design. I personally have been using Design Thinking for many years.

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which you seek to understand your end users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions which you can prototype and test.

It originates from psychological studies of creativity in the 1940s. In the 1990s it was adopted for business purpose and is today used by several global companies like Apple, Google, IBM, Samsung and many more.

Design Thinking consist of a set of exercises used by the designers to facilitate the design thinking process. The exercises consist of both creative, strategic, practical and rational excercises that are mixed depending on the purpose of the design process.

Forrester in 2018 evaluated IBMs usage of Design Thinking. Here is a couple of the results from the survey

2X faster time to market

75% reduced design time

33% reduced development time

50% less defects

301% ROI

I have not seen any research on how much sustainable design thinking impacts a design vs other kinds of methodologies, but as mentioned before then:

According to the UK design council then 80% of the the environmental impact of products, services and infrastructure is determined in the design stage

Nor have I a seen any publicly available sustainable design thinking exercises though I know that eg IBM and other companies have added sustainability, impact, UN 17 SDG, Circular Economy etc into some of the publicly well know exercises that you can find here or even created completely new exercises.

No matter what design method, procedure, framework or process you normally use then it is possible to add in sustainability. See drawings below as examples of how you can invent your own exercises

Our blog posts / Critical reviews

Must read articles / must see videos

Knowledge base

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *