Sustainability in Design

by Ed Boaden on April 21, 2009

Sustainable design in modern society

Sustainability is a very hot topic in today’s design community. Concern for the environment is arguably at its greatest level ever, and large manufacturers are beginning to take on board the sustainable issues that their customers are looking to be addressed.

In most cases designing and manufacturing responsibly requires large investment. Many companies simply address their customers by ‘greenwashing’ – ‘green’ marketing campaigns that show that the company is environmentally responsible – however, these are largely superficial and do not tackle the root of the problems themselves.

Techniques for designing for sustainability

There are many techniques for designing sustainably. Depending on product usage patterns, some are more effective than others.

  • Design using recycled materials or reused components
  • Design for disassembly
  • Design using the minimum number of different materials
  • Design using only recyclable materials
  • Design for the system that processes materials at end-of-life
  • Design for durability
  • Design for enduring product-user relationships
  • Design avoiding short-term fashions
  • Consider the social and economic impact of the product – without doing this, there is no point designing for sustainability

Which techniques are most effective in reducing energy and material consumption?

Some designers would like to think that making things from recycled materials or designing them for marginally longer life will save the world, but in truth much of it will end up in landfill regardless. Take a drinks bottle – Do you buy a bottle made with recycled content, or use a refillable bottle? A lot of ‘green’ campaigns focus on recycled content or recyclability, but if the user does not recycle the product, or buys it when they don’t need to, then there is no positive effect. Remember that ‘recycle’ comes only after ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’.

Remember too, that for many products the energy consumption during manufacture pales in comparison to the amount of energy used during the lifetime of the product. By investing in R&D, energy usage of a product can be reduced, and by designing for positive usage patterns, energy usage can be reduced further.

Design for disassembly at end-of-life is important in reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfill. Legislation, such as the WEEE directive (Europe), forces manufacturers to design for recyclability. By designing with disassembly in mind, the process of collection and recycling at end-of-life can be done economically. One idea put forward in the book ‘Cradle to Cradle’ is that used components and materials can act as ‘nutrients’ for the next generation of products. This way, no new materials are required, and no materials end up in landfill.

Another interesting book is ‘Emotionally Durable Design’. Which discusses creating enduring relationships between user and product. As well as making a product physically durable for a longer working life, the designer should also consider designs that will be cherished throughout their life. This means not designing novelty or fashionable solutions that are likely to loose their appeal long before they stop working.

Designers’ responsibility for the future

It is both our responsibility and that of manufacturers to design for long and fulfilling product life-cycles. As designers, we should do our best to put forward ideas that would result in lower energy and material consumption. Just as the designer makes decisions that are responsible for manufacturing costs all the way down the production chain, we are responsible for environmental decisions at the point of conception as well.

Two thoughts to leave you with.

  • Sustainability shouldn’t be treated as a design discipline in its own right; it should be incorporated into everything that we do.
  • Sustainable design isn’t about making sacrifices, its about encouraging better patterns of use through design.

About the author – Ed has worked at DIY Kyoto, Pli Design, and [re]design in London. You can see more of his work at

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