Everything is designed.
There used to be a caveat to this statement of "except nature." However, with the onset of genetic engineering, we even have ways of influencing the design of nature as well.
With this new power, we need to think deeply about the intention behind design. Architect Bill McDonough advocates for design that is "delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just [for the] world, with clean air, clean water, soil and power — economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed, period." He reminds us that "design is the first signal of human intention."
As design educators, we prepare designers to understand, untangle and fix systems. And now we should be teaching them how to mitigate the harmful impacts to our future. The start of any design project begins with asking the right questions. Compelling clients to take risks that will lead to transformational innovations and fix the broken linear system of production.
Designing for a different purpose
Traditionally designers often work quickly to satisfy a client’s design brief by first researching benchmarks, innovating on emerging trends, pushing to gain market share and reaching price points and margins. All of this is done while meeting compliance and safety standards and staying on brand. Our passions for getting products to market may overshadow the need to carefully study the interconnected systems and plan for the long-term. Consider, for instance, the end-of-life cycle of solar panels designed in a way that cannot be disassembled for material reuse. Or the opening of a new sports venue that does not include the infrastructure for fully accessible transit. These are design oversights.
Over the course of their career, a single designer will work on hundreds of projects and products. Designers have immense power, both positive and negative, on the world.
At times, the best intentions may miss market targets. Take, for example, a class I lead with the Rotary International relief team to distribute gravity-fed water filters provided by Cascade Engineering into a Haitian batey (also known as a shanty-town) in the Dominican Republic. Some families who received the water filters used the filter component for draining rice rather than for making clean drinking water as was it designed. The filter no longer benefitted the families as it was intended to clean water. The project in some ways was a waste of time, money and resources if the filters were not used as intended. The family members should have been consulted in the design, installation or purpose of the filters.
We need to think more critically through every decision of the design process from a sustainability and social equity lens by asking the right questions such as; how are materials sourced? Where will the materials go when they’re no longer needed? And have all voices been included in the design’s co-creation?
Designers should evaluate every possible user, in every market location, over the life of the item, deliberately extending the lifecycle of products we design and ensuring equitable and inclusive usability. The entire product journey should be mapped carefully from choosing safe chemistry to keeping all materials out of the landfills and making sure the workforce is safe and fairly paid. We will have made good design decisions when the earth and its environment are protected, reasonable profits are protected and solutions are regenerative.
So, what needs to change to achieve a new design process that takes sustainability into account? Design methods should include stakeholder co-creation through community engagement or targeted user research studies. Designers should work with experts in accessible design to ensure products take minors into consideration, social scientists to understand cultural norms and societal issues or biologists that apply biomimicry strategies to design concepts. Designs should use popular environmental protocols in architecture like LEED, ZeroStep and the Living Future Building/Product Challenge. They also need deep understanding of regulatory code requirements, including International Building Standards, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Right to Repair Act. Many clients are asking to exceed regulatory compliance, with some design briefs now requiring an understanding of Design for Environment and Green Chemistry certifications.
An opportunity for inspiration, not limitation
Take McDonough’s aspirational goals for companies to be more daring in their design thinking and add a 50-year life cycle to the. The additional layers of responsibility to speculative design shouldn’t be seen as a burden, but as a way to spark the imagination.
Some of my students are not even 25 years old and yet they are already approaching a project thinking 50 years forward. While working with Grand Rapids, Michigan’s public museum, students were asked to reimagine exhibits to be interactive and embrace advancing technologies and science. They practiced whole systems design thinking by interviewing stakeholders, reaching out to subject matter experts, considering public policy and process and studying relevant history. Their learnings from the past propelled their ideas forward and engaged in ethics discussions around new tools with an understanding of a public museum’s role as a creator and convener of community culture.
The Wege Prize student competition is another example of how we are changing the design thought process. Collegiate students worldwide are challenged to work in teams to develop a compelling product, service or business model that addresses a "wicked problem" by following the core principles of the circular economy.
This competition is one way to accelerate designs for a circular economy that keeps valuable materials in flow, rather than dumped into landfills. The designers research, test and try concepts before bringing them to market, reducing the risks of unintended consequences to end users and the planet.
Over the course of their career, a single designer will work on hundreds of projects and products. Designers have immense power, both positive and negative, on the world. Designers should recognize their power and use it to make the change they want to see in the world. And businesses ask more from their design teams than just to bring a product to market quickly and cheaply.