A Sustainable Design Strategy
Adam Richardson, Director of Product Strategy at Frog Design, discusses sustainability as design principle in his article “Tragedy of the Commons,” in the Frog Design Web magazine Mind. In addition to the traditional factors contributing to product conception and development—business, technological viability, and people’s goals and desires—Richardson proposes that we should also consider a fourth factor: the environment.
“To quell the ecological damage being caused by our current industrial production system, we must contextualize feature requests within this broader understanding. User desires are no longer justification enough for production. We must add an Environmental factor to the historical rubric of Business, Technology, and People. And just as we sideline products and services that fail to adequately meet standards of viability, feasibility, or desirability, so too must we reject initiatives that are not sustainable. Ignoring this “E-factor” should be considered poor business practice and poor design—no matter how much consumers might seem to demand it.”—Adam Richardson
In one sense, we’re already considering sustainability as a factor in our designs—because all products require materials, manufacturing, and energy. We just don’t give the environment much weight in our deliberations. The results often are unsustainable design solutions.
To truly deal with the problem of sustainability, we may need to elevate the environmental factor above other design considerations, because it plays such an important role across the board. Looking at design from this perspective, we can and should view design for sustainability as the design of a complete product lifecycle—from creation to disposal.
Is this an expansion of the mandate of user experience or will this require an entirely new design role? Richardson doesn’t specifically call for the creation of a separate discipline to implement and support sustainable design, but his message is clear: We need to design for sustainability. And, just as the people who use products need an advocate on their design teams, so do we need advocates for the larger ecosystem in which we develop and use products and, ultimately, to which they return.
We’re at a strange crossroads for green design. From a business perspective, sustainability remains an expensive proposition. But from a marketing perspective, sustainability has achieved great momentum as the buzzword of the moment. In terms of desirability, the green trend has reached a critical mass. And for UX professionals who consider people’s goals paramount, this critical mass can drive eco-friendly design innovations. It’s a brave new world, in which there are no established heuristics, no rules of thumb for sustainability across the broad expanse of product creation. And the arguments and proofs justifying sustainability as an important factor in design are only beginning to take shape.
Let’s examine one example that shows the intimidating complexity of sustainable design: the struggles of materials scientists striving to create biodegradable plastics. A plastic that degrades in salt water would be highly advantageous to shipping and cruise lines, who produce and store outrageous amounts of waste while at sea. However, one of the arguments against the production of such biodegradable plastics in general—besides their great expense—is the tremendous amount of power such manufacturing processes require. In fact, the amount of energy we’d use in their production and the carbon dioxide emissions that would result are more damaging to the environment than the benefits of having a plastic that degrades over an extremely short period of time.