How to design beyond the product: Innovating our way forward

As we look forward in 2014, let's think about what our intentions are — not just in designing the arc of our personal lives in the upcoming 12 months, but also with regard to the work of the product designers and engineers among us.

As designers know so well, good design provides for needs and desires in sensitive and clever — even ingenious — ways. By infusing product design with principles of sustainability, the potential for revolutionary problem-solving becomes possible, as does the importance of the designer’s role in envisioning and crafting a sustainable future into 2014 and beyond.

The broadening of the design intent — beyond beauty, or aesthetics, and functionality — represents the next frontier in design by furthering the notion of human-centered design to multi-species, multi-landscape and diverse ecosystem-focused resilience design.

For the designer, today’s context is both a challenge and a significant opportunity, as has been well-described by Michael Braungart, Bill McDonough, Janine Benyus and many others.

Through the past century, industrial design has developed a mastery of materials, aesthetics, manufacturing processes and human-factors knowledge. Sustainable design is the next logical step in the development of human-centered design. It adapts and extends current design capabilities to fully include understanding of both natural and social systems — seeking to avoid adverse ripple effects on either the earth or to people and human relations. The innovations that stem from sustainable design approaches are intended to satisfy user’s needs and desires without harming planet or people. The outcomes may not even be through new products, but could be in the form of other clever responses (and new business models, which may offer services).

Development of the sustainable design field offers the potential for an ever-increasing role of the designer in shaping the world in which we live. And in re-forming the role of the designer, there is the potential for a revolutionary invigoration of the design process as we know it.

The factors to consider before beginning the design process

Sustainability-oriented systems-based thinking is applicable at all levels of the design process. As design proceeds down a path of increasing constraints and increasing refinement, so does the process of envisioning and planning for sustainability within the context of addressing and crafting a new service, experience, product or even business. There are touch-points at which the cyclical nature of both processes enables natural overlap.

A successful product design process leading to innovative solutions is often managed in successive phases. From the designer’s viewpoint, the process is not precisely clear-cut and the lines drawn between phases can be fuzzy. The actual thought processes occurring within each phase can be quite similar to the others. The designer’s attention moves fluidly and flexibly both forward and backward along the project timeline, and from one area of design responsibility to another.

In this process, designers commonly ask several questions, starting with "What function is needed?" From there, they move on to "In how many different ways might this function be provided? What is the cleverest way to provide the function? How can it make the fewest impacts (both social and ecological)?" The last phases include the questions "How can I get this thing made? Who will provide the necessary components? How and where will they be assembled?"

Depending upon the answers to these questions, this cycle can be iterated again and again until the process yields satisfactory results.

Three guiding sustainability elements for green design

As specificity emerges in the design process, three guiding sustainability elements can assist designers in their decisions: dematerializing, substituting and humanizing.

1. Designers dematerialize products in order to reduce material and energy flows, about which a considerable amount has been written and much remains to actually accomplish.

2. Designers substitute or exchange type or quality of material flows and/or activities that are particularly problematic from a sustainability perspective, such as those which are toxic, persistent and bio-accumulative, as well as ones which in sourcing or production undercut the structure and function of natural ecosystems. Myriad tools increasingly exist for assessing — and selecting more sustainable — materials, such as the Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), originally developed by Nike, and the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT), which was developed by BirdLife International, Conservation International, International Union for Conservation of Nature and UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

3. Designers humanize in order to decrease adverse impacts of decisions upon both human conditions and social systems, increase positive synergies within social systems and avoid decisions that consolidate resources in the hands of an ever-smaller group of individuals (informational, financial, natural, etc.), which is another approach to considering myriad adverse effects on individuals, communities, regions and nations of current raw material sourcing, product manufacturing, distribution and end of life cycles.

It follows that the terms dematerialization, substitution and humanization are not only important one by one. They are also interrelated in a dynamic way that should be used for planning. They can be used individually, in parallel and on different scales.

For instance, from changing amounts and types of fuel in the same process, through a more radical change of the whole process (such as from combustion engines to renewable sources of energy), to completely new and less resource demanding and more ecologically/socially sound ways of satisfying the same human need.

Overall, dematerialization, substitution and humanization interact in a rich space in which expertise and task-specific learning are required. The designer can drill down to achieve depth in any one of these actions, and at any level of the design process, be it question, strategy, action or tool. At the same time, by simply asking the questions about these actions, the designer can begin to evaluate a particular problem or solution in a different light, and facilitate decision-making that will create more sustainable solutions.

Increasingly, the opportunity is for designers trained in sustainability and systems thinking to hone their ability to ask the right questions, and infuse the design process with immense innovation — that has the potential to move us towards a resilient, flourishing and aesthetically pleasing 2014 and beyond, into the future.

Image by Lara Zanarini via Shutterstock