7 Steps to Sustainable Design

Designers should take on the challenge of creating more sustainable products. Where do we start with Sustainable Design? Here are the steps.

Natalia Szczypek

July 29, 2020

What is Sustainability?

Sustainability is an economic, social, and environmental concept that involves meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. For something to be sustainable it requires eliminating or reducing its negative impact, particularly regarding natural resources.

What Design has to do with Sustainability?

At the current stage of climate change, we all need to put our efforts together to achieve a more sustainable future. Designers, as stewards of the world, play a big part in this. Design is where everything starts. Design determines the positive or negative consequences that’ll arise throughout the lifetime of a product or service. That’s why the designers’ responsibility is not only to create usable and functional experiences, but also ones that have minimum negative effects on the future of society and the environment.

Human-Centred or Planet-Centred Design?

Since terms like “human-centred design” or “user experience design” have been brought to life, our awareness about climate change significantly increased. Nowadays, satisfying user’s needs doesn’t always equal satisfying the planet’s needs. However, the path of making products sustainable usually starts with making them great for users.

That’s why instead of changing our focus from user to planet, we should be extending the goal of user-friendly products to planet-friendly and ticking both boxes.

7 steps to Sustainable Design

Consideration of sustainability in design might include different steps depending on the end-product that is being created. Whether we design physical products, services, or digital experiences there are a couple of things to consider.

1. Manufacturing Process

Designers should keep the environmental effects of manufacturing processes in mind, even though they’re not directly responsible for it. Our considerations should include the amount of electricity or water used during manufacturing. This would require additional research and exploration of production processes as well as closer collaboration with the client. At the end, making even minor adjustments to design can make a huge difference and reduce negative externalities on a big scale.

2. Materials Used

Choosing suitable materials plays a big part in making sustainable products. The two most important factors for that are the amount of materials used and types of materials. Using fewer materials will not only reduce produced emissions, but also shorten decay time of a product. On the other hand, fewer materials used will usually reduce production times and costs. As designers, we should consciously consider different types of materials and advocate for those non-toxic, natural and compostable ones.

3. Better design – better for the planet

Simply speaking, the better the designed experiences are, the longer they can keep users satisfied. Longer lifetime means that people will be less likely to get new products and less waste is going to be produced. This strongly relates to software and user interface design. Poor digital experiences cause massive e-waste production. This point proves that focusing on the wealth of the planet doesn’t mean forgetting about humans and usability. It’s rather thinking beyond it and extending the goal of usability into the goal of sustainability. The better job we do designing pleasant experiences for our users, the more likely they will be to buy from ethical suppliers like us in the future.

4. Lifecycle

Did you know that producing plastic bags generates less carbon emissions and uses less water and electricity than producing paper bags? When considering that, we would probably be more likely to use plastic bags. However, we would only be considering part of the story. If we add up production externalities to the impact both products have after their disposal (like decay time or carbon emissions), it turns out that paper bags are actually more environmentally friendly. That’s why it’s so important to consider the whole lifecycle of a product, not only parts of it, when wanting to create sustainable products.

5. Replacing physical with digital

The inventor of “Kindle” probably asked themselves “couldn’t we just make a reusable book?”. With this approach, many products that we currently use could be transformed into a digital form. Think about all letters that were not sent because we have email, all diaries that were replaced by online calendars and all documents that were not printed thanks to Word or Google Docs. This makes a huge impact on the environment. Thinking about how we could swap physical, often single-use products with something digital can lead us to creating a big impact on future of the planet.

6. Giving users a choice

When we talk about digital products, there are many things designers could do to create a positive change. Designing websites or apps that simply give users a choice to be more sustainable makes a big difference. Giving people the idea that there are other alternatives to unsustainable choices is already a big step. What if Uber Eats app had a feature where the user could choose whether they need plastic cutlery? Or maybe including an option for “no plastic bags” in online grocery shopping. These small touches could benefit the users, service providers and importantly, our environment.

7. Advocating for sustainability

Even though designers are often not the final decision makers during product or service development, they can always be advocates for sustainability. As industry experts, our voice matters and will be respected. Whenever we can, we need to plant ideas about sustainable design choices in decision makers’ minds.

To the point

Most of the changes related to creating a more sustainable future usually turn out to be win-win for both us and the planet. Reducing unnecessary costs, saving time and switching our focus to a higher purpose are just a few of the benefits. Just like in personal life, the first steps towards planet-friendly solutions might be the most difficult one, but with time it becomes the new “norm”. The “norm” is doing our best to create a more sustainable world for future generations.