How To Design Sustainably

Discussion and Notes from IDSA Sustainability Talks 2020

Published 2020/06/22
Image by Vlad Kutepov from Unsplash

From June 3-5th 2020, the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) held a special "Sustainability Deep Dive" event online. This two-day conference brought together designers from around the world to review and share the current state of sustainable design practices. There were a lot of inspirational talks, great ideas and big claims made about how designers should use their work to push the ever-important principles of sustainability forward.

Talking and bringing awareness to these topics is great, but as Tucker Viemeister (one of the conference's speakers) commented, "Great to see the conversation continuing - now lets do it!!" We couldn't agree more.

Let's talk about some of the highlight takeaways that were made during the conference, and actionable ways we can implement them into the real world.

Materials are not enough. We need to think about systems.

Andrew Dent, PhD, Material Connexion

A common sustainable design theme is to stress the importance of using "sustainable materials". While this is important, it is certainly not the only consideration that could be made. If the sustainable material exists within an unsustainable system, the material will still become waste. This means that it's incredibly important to consider the system in which your idea operates, and ensure both the physicality and flow of materials are balanced with their production and use.

What you can do

A fancy, stand-alone product render is nice to look at, but you should avoid presenting an idea that you have on its own. You must also present a systems map that describes the implementation and continued support of your idea in the real world. This will help you not only find what gaps lie in achieving a truly sustainable product, but it will also emphasize to others your commitment to achieving sustainable goals.

Make sure to go beyond the product supply chain as well. Incorporating the user journey and use cases into your mapping will help you better understand how to add more sustainable practices to your back-end.

Circular Design needs to create an ecosystem of value.

David Dombrowski

The concept of circular design is amazing: everything that is produced in a product cycle is kept and recycled forever, so that no "waste" is ever produced or leaves the system. In practice, however, our current understanding of this system is flawed. One of the prevailing reasons is that circular economies cannot support growth, because we have yet to develop 100% efficient energy and material recycling systems. So, given how our many of the world's current cultures value growth and expansion, a fundamental change is necessary to develop a separate value system that does not require growth, and instead requires sustainability.

What you can do

There are huge efforts being made in the fields of material research, which are producing some amazing ideas that will help us implement more circular waste streams. Incorporating these innovative materials into your designs can help the user consume more responsibly, but they still don't address the root issue we have of valuing mass-manufactured, disposable products. To change this root issue, designers should stay involved with the consumer for much longer than the initial sale (e.g. subscription-based services). This can help put the burden on companies to stay responsible and sustainable for the manufacturing, use, and re-use of their products, thus integrating circular design practices directly into their operations.

Ideas executed poorly lead to massive waste and eternal impact after a few seconds of use.

Hylnur Atlason

The easy analogy to make here involves disposable plastic products. Cutlery, plates, cups, bottles, etc. look good on paper: they're cheap, easy to manufacture, keep things sanitary and cut down on cleaning time. However, all of these characteristics have caused these products to become some of the worst contributors to our world's current waste management problem. There are also better ways to achieve the same result, so it's definitely possible to mitigate these poorly executed ideas in every field and find products that are both effective and sustainable.

What you can do

Sustainability is all about balance, but as mentioned above, it's not just a balance of materials. The key is to balance the amount of time someone uses your product with the amount of time the product will impact the world once it's no longer being used. Plastic forks wouldn't be as much of a problem if everyone kept, cleaned and re-used their forks forever, but the culture surrounding the cost and disposability of plastic forks makes this behavior difficult to adopt. So when you're creating a new product, think about increasing perceived value through prolonged use.

Transformation happens on the boundary between independence and inter-dependence.

Kevin Gangel, Unstoppable Conversations

As much as independence and individual accomplishment are valued in many societies around the world, we need to cooperate much more than we may realize. Especially at the scale that is required to address sustainability, an effort that includes everyone is required to address a problem that affects everyone.

What you can do

There are numerous benefits to collaborating that can help us all more effectively tackle these huge, multi-faceted issues. So to pool resources, reach a wider audience and enact larger scale changes, we should embrace a cooperative attitude when rethinking how to implement sustainability into the world. Talk with other local, national and international organizations that are working on similar topics. Attend networking events to get the latest on who's working around you. Start collaborative projects among people you know. Be willing to give advice and support to those people who might need it. The faster we embrace each other's strengths and passions to enact positive change, the faster we can achieve tangible sustainability outcomes in our communities and around the world.

Recycling validates waste.

Dr. Leyla Acaroglu, Disrupt Design

Many places around the world have found it difficult to encourage the widespread engagement of recycling. People have a hard time separating themselves from disposable products, either for convenience or economic reasons. Those who do recycle find that the recycling systems that are in place end up producing a lot of waste anyway.

Even at peak performance, recycling is not a perfect solution. The benefits of recycling include reduced energy use, reduced pollution and less resource consumption, which are great. However, recycling often does not produce as high quality material as n-recycled, virgin material. This has resulted in a supply chain imbalance: recycling facilities are sometimes being forced to pay companies to take their recycled materials because of lack of demand.

What you can do

Dr. Acaroglu hit the nail on the head: recycling absolves people of the need to further consider their consumption habits, while not effectively providing a good return on investment economically or environmentally. So, designers need to

1) integrate recycled material as a valuable component of their product identity by celebrating their legacy, and

2) emphasize the long-term use of products rather than relying on recycling to address the sustainability requirements of their idea.

User-centered design is too selfish, and needs a broader vision. We need to anticipate the future and facilitate change.

Julianne Trummer and Blake McEldowney, Mormedi

This is an extremely important point, and is core to the Common Better design philosophy. Human and user-centered design philosophies have been the standard for a long time. However, our understanding of this approach is changing. There are many emerging theories on the negative impacts of this attitude, but one of the largest are the ecological implications.

By putting the user first, pure human-centered design leaves no room to consider other stakeholders, the environment or any other related system outside of the immediate product interaction. This leads to individual, immediate, micro-focused design interventions that cannot effectively address the large-scale social and environmental issues we are faced in our current world.

What you can do

Common Better is founded on the principles of Transition Design and Speculative Design, because we believe (as Mormedi said) the world needs a broader, more future-focused vision when addressing large-scale social and environmental design challenges. By using tools and techniques to map the potential future of our world using concrete data and research from the present, we can work backwards and think in more wholistic ways about how we can ease our transitions to these inevitable futures.

Don't talk about design. Talk about values and ambitions.

Stefan Ytterborn, Cake Electric Motorcycles

This has come up many times in the above points: nobody likes to be sold to, and nobody cares about design (except for designers). What drives people in every decision they ever make, in every thought they ever have, and in every word they ever say, are the values they have in their world and the ambitions they hope to achieve.

What you can do

Do exactly what Stefan said. Sustainability is a heavily value-based, philosophical approach to understanding and interacting with our world. So if someone wants to be sustainable, they're not going to buy a product that was designed to be sustainable. They'll buy a product that is sustainable, and will make them achieve their ambitions of becoming sustainable. Focus on the benefits that the user will receive, rather than the features the designer is giving, and sustainability can become the honest and achievable culture it deserves to be.
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