The IDSA Women in Design Committee’s vision is to have gender parity in our industry. One way we work toward this goal is to amplify voices. In this article, Views on the Impact of AI, we have view points from women and nonbinary designers who are emerging into the profession and establishing their career. The WID Committee welcomes thought, support, and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
INNOVATION is the voice of the industrial design profession, providing in-depth coverage of industrial design issues and communicating the value of design to business and society at large. This award-winning quarterly is generously illustrated with images of cutting-edge designs and features a clean yet dynamic layout that brings editorials and top-notch content to life. The magazine was first published in 1982, and IDSA members consistently name INNOVATION as a primary benefit of their membership experience to this day. Want to read more? Access to the latest issues of INNOVATION magazine here!
From Sci-Fi Fem-Bots to Sustainable Design
When the topic of artificial intelligence comes to mind, I can’t help but think of the sci-fi fem-bots that have been featured in movies like Blade Runner, Ex Machina, and Her. These films, among others, have often portrayed women as the conduit for artificial intelligence. As a result, I became curious about how women industrial designers view the impact of Al on their profession, so I decided to ask a group of women in the field for their thoughts.
What’s the Consensus?
Overwhelmingly, the message I heard was that artificial intelligence is not a replacement for human designers. While Al can automate routine tasks and provide data driven insights, it cannot replace the creativity, intuition, and empathy that are essential to good design. Rather, Al should be viewed as a tool that complements and assists human designers, enabling them to produce more compelling and innovative products. As Milja Bannwart, an industrial design consultant and creative director based in Brooklyn, NY, explains, “There are many aspects that a designer incorporates into the design of a product. There is a story to be told, the emotional impact on users, consumer testing and research, form and color, the quality of materials used, and craftsmanship.” By using Al in combination with human creativity, designers can unlock new possibilities and produce products that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
Furthermore, according to Lorraine Justice, PhD, FIDSA design researcher, author, and professor of industrial design at RIT, Some people believe that Al will transform designers into mere curators or arbiters of design, rather than original creators. However, this is only one aspect of the potential options for this technology. The human desire to create will always exist, and designers will continue to use any available tools to create better designs.
According to Yukiko Naoi, principal at Tanaka Kapec Design Group in Norwalk CT, Al could serve as a valuable tool for collaboration in industrial design. She believes that in any creative process, any input or specific angle of seeing things is valuable and that Al could provide a viewpoint that individual designers may overlook. “Al’s ability to offer fresh perspectives could be particularly useful in industrial design,” says Naoi.
Al is a great tool to automate many of the routine tasks involved in industrial design, such as creating 3D models, rendering product images, and analyzing user data. This can free up designers’ time to focus on more complex and creative aspects of the design process. According to Ana Mengote Baluca, IDSA, a faculty member at Pratt Institute, designers should approach the use of Al with a healthy dose of skepticism. While relying too heavily on Al may be risky, Mengote Baluca acknowledges that the technology shows promise in exploring new forms for products: “My big concern about Al is that it will drive trends and affect the aesthetics of what we create. If the algorithms are written in a way that promotes what is popular, then that wilI become the next big thing. I worry that we will lose diversity in style and in aesthetics if we rely on Al too much.” Naoi adds, “Just like any tool, it depends on how we use it. If we rely only too heavily then some of the outcomes will be too obvious computer driven.”
Challenges and Opportunities
Naturally, there is a lot of apprehension about how AI will affect the design process. Al has the potential to transform our lives in many positive ways, from improving healthcare and transportation to enhancing education and entertainment. However, there are also valid concerns about the impact of Al on humanity, including job displacement, privacy concerns, and ethical issues. To address these concerns and ensure that the use of Al in industrial design is responsible and beneficial, it’s essential to establish ethical guidelines and standards for Al development and implementation. It’s also important to involve all stakeholders, including designers, engineers, consumers, and policymakers, in the conversation about Al’s role in design. By doing so, we can maximize the potential benefits of Al while minimizing the potential risks and unintended consequences. When discussing the impact of Al on industrial design, Jeanne Pfordresher, partner at Hybrid Product Design in Brooklyn, NY, adds, “Al has tremendous potential for creativity, and if we can address the ethical issues surrounding it, even better.” Ultimately, the successful integration of Al in industrial design will require collaboration, transparency, and responsible innovation.
One of the biggest challenges facing designers today is how to create products that are both functional and environmentally responsible. Al has the potential to enable more sustainable and environmentally friendly product design. For example, Al can be used to model a product’s life cycle and predict its carbon footprint, allowing designers to identify areas where they can reduce emissions and improve sustainability. Additionally, Al can help designers to optimize material use, design products for disassembly and reuse, and create more energy-efficient designs.
Finding efficiencies in massive amounts of data is a time-consuming task that is ideally suited for Al. Industrial designers can leverage this technology to create more sustainable designs and more efficient supply chains, which can help to mitigate the negative impact of human activity on the environment.” Al can help us manage supply chains and reduce inefficiencies,” says Mengote Baluca, adding that “by creating decision-making tools for designers, we can make more conscious choices.”
Al can significantly improve the design process by leveraging vast amounts of data on user preferences, market trends, and product performance. This enables designers to create more efficient and effective designs that better meet the needs of customers. Bannwart recommends “integrating Al at the outset of the design process to analyze data and identify trends, conduct consumer and competitor research, and even generate concept ideas. In later phases, Al can also be useful for creating design variations, accelerating the process, and experimenting with form generation for the sake of exploration.”
Many products in the market today have used Al in their design and development. Adidas used Al to design and manufacture the Futurecraft 4D shoe. The shoe’s midsole was created using a 3D printing process that was optimized with Al algorithms to create a lattice structure that is both lightweight and strong. Apple used a combination of machine learning and acoustic simulations to design the AirPods Pro. Al algorithms helped optimize the fit and seal of the earbuds and create the noise-canceling technology that is one of the AirPods Pro’s key features. Al also has great potential for creating better user experiences in products. For example, Dyson used Al to design the Pure Cool Link air purifier, which can automatically detect and respond to changes in air quality. Al algorithms were used to optimize the performance of the air purifier and create a user interface that is intuitive and easy to use.
Al is rapidly becoming an integral part of the industrial design process. While I don’t believe Al will or should replace human designers, I do think that by establishing and following ethical guidelines for Al development and usage, we can leverage Al into helping designers create products that are not only functional and aesthetically pleasing but also sustainable and environmentally responsible.
Design News is your tiny dose of design, technology and other important news, curated monthly by Interwoven Design. In this issue we take a dive into sustainable protective head gear, chocolates inspired by biomimicry and marine life, a new cement-like material from repurposed seashells, our new adaptive lingerie and a new platform connecting plastic alternatives with designers and developers!
Protective Headgear Made of Seashells
The Shellmet is a protective hard hat manufactured with a combination of discarded shells and recycled plastic. Plastics manufacturer, Koushi Chemical Industry, along with TBWA\Hakuhodo Agency have collaborated to conceive a piece of safety equipment from the most commonly eaten shellfish in Japan. According to TBWA\Hakuhodo, not only is the shellfish the most commonly eaten by people in Japan, but one fishing community alone produces 40,000 tons of scallop shell waste! Koushi Chemical Industry’s material, Shellstic, is made by sterilizing, crushing, mixing with plastic and pouring it into a mold. The material can also be colored allowing the Shellmet to be offered in multiple colors. The product’s aesthetic features use biomimicry and pull a “ribbed structure” inspiration directly from the attributes from which it is made. These attributes increased the Shellmet’s durability by 30% during testing. And if that wasn’t enough, the helmet can be recycled into a new helmet or repurposed into building materials!
Melissa Pérez Puga, a Mexico-based industrial designer, has found the similarities between the process of making nonedible materials and chocolate. By utilizing 3D printed molds, and inspiration from marine biology, the designer has created coral reef shaped chocolate pieces. To complete the beauty of the product, Puga designed colorful packaging that also connects with marine life. The designer explains that ‘Chocoral’ aims to bring more appreciation to the texture and beauty of the coral species. The Chocoral boxes are categorized and sold depending on the percentage of cocoa in each package: 30%, 50% and 70%. Each of the packaging is designed with a differentiation factor that allows chocolate lovers a way to determine which to purchase!
Our second repurposed seashell material on this month’s Design News is that of Newtab-22. Dubbed Sea Stone, the new material is made from discarded shells that are ground down and mixed with a non-toxic binding material that enables the creation of a concrete-like texture. The aesthetic attributes of the grinded shells adds a seemingly terrazzo finish, while also having the ability to add dye doloring. As previously mentioned, hundreds of millions of tons in seashells are thrown away every year and while some are recycled, the majority end up in landfills or on beaches. Newtab-22 explains that their ambition to help repurpose waste from the seafood industry led to the creation of a sustainable alternative to concrete, due to their similar properties. Currently, the process of grinding shells is done manually to avoid use of energy. There are some limitations due to the need of heat to ensure durability, but currently the Newtab-22 team is focused on applications where the material best fits while keeping the process as sustainable as possible.
Even Adaptive Lingerie designed by Interwoven is soon to launch! Even Adaptive is a line of adaptive undergarments with contemporary silhouettes that can be put on with the use of a single hand. The design process spanned all the way from creation of the brand strategy and assets, to hardware and garment development. Interwoven Design Group developed a new fastening clasp to replace and improve the user experience of the outdated closure mechanisms of the adaptive bras and panties on the market. The closure experience combined with the modern, comfortable, and colorful designs make Even Adaptive lingerie truly inclusive, innovative, and one-of-a-kind.
This month, we had the opportunity to attend A Plastic Planet’s online platform, PlasticFree, launch event! PlasticFree is a database that connects designers, architects and developers with sustainable alternatives to materials. One problem that designers have when sourcing material is the plethora of information that leads to dead ends with the inability to pinpoint a specific material let alone accurate information that includes properties and production. This new tool allows users to collect Plastic alternatives virtually, in a mood board style, from all around the world. All of the data collected on PlasticFree has been verified by a team of scientific advisors. This allows designers to bridge the gap between design and material science while having access to digestible information. Moving towards a world where a package’s or product’s full life cycle can be planned, shifting away from the negative connotations of consumerism!
A Q&A with Sustainability Consultant and Educator Frank Millero
“Everything goes back to that word, ‘value’. What do we value? And how do we use all of these tools to support our values? “
A Q&A with Sustainability Consultant and Educator Frank Millero
Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Frank Millero, a design and sustainability consultant as well as design educator. He has been helping companies with sustainable initiatives for over twelve years and he has taught a range of design courses at Pratt Institute for nearly twenty.
Frank Millero is on the Board of Directors for SERVV, a nonprofit dedicated to fair and ethical trade, where he works to empower small-scale global artisans and farmers. Trained as an industrial designer at Pratt Institute, he brings his passion for sustainability and his boundless curiosity to all of his projects. We asked Frank about prototyping and designing for sustainability, his history as a design educator, and the future of sustainable design.
Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?
A: For me teaching is endlessly interesting. I got to teach a design research class last fall and that was a fun opportunity to think about what my research process is in the work that I do. In terms of design work, recently I got to work with a nonprofit called Mayan Hands. They work with weavers in Guatemala to produce textiles. What I really enjoyed about it was that I got to learn what the techniques were and how they were done. I wanted to create something that was really culturally sensitive because they were using a traditional technique, but I didn’t want the project to be necessarily traditional. How do you find that compromise between creating something new but also honoring the tradition?
The good thing was that the weavers were really excited to try new things, so I worked on developing color palettes and designs based on the biogeography of Guatemala. That was a point of departure that made a connection to the land and to the people. It was a fun project in many ways. I got to learn about their textiles, but also about Guatemala.
Q: Could you tell us about one of your favorite projects and share why it is important to you?
A: In Cambodia I worked with the nonprofit SERVV to come up with designs and design ideas. I was there for a month and I got to see how they make things. They were using large, traditional wood looms and they did cut-and-sew. The program was set up to help support women, especially women in farming communities. Part of the year they didn’t have any income from farming and so this provided them with another source of income.
One of the things that we did that was a little bit of a departure from the traditional techniques was creating something that was quick and easy to make. They had some screen printing capacity, so I worked with the director to find local canvas from the market and we used the screen printing techniques that they knew to create tote bags. It was a simple project but it was great because it was a teaching tool for people who were learning to cut and sew simple constructions. It was also really affordable to make and they could make a lot, so it was profitable.
I think the most interesting thing about that project was connecting directly to the people who were making the product and learning about their culture, learning about the way that they were producing things. I knew a lot about the environmental dimension of sustainability but this gave me an opportunity to think about the social dimension of sustainability and to realize how important that was.
Q: What is sustainable design?
A: Sustainable design is a fascinating challenge of creating high value products and services that consider environmental, social, and economic factors throughout the life cycle. I use that phrase ‘high value’. How you define value is important because there are always so many trade-offs when you’re thinking about what impacts there are, what you have to live with, and what you can work towards. It depends on so many different factors.
One of the things I realized when thinking about that word value is that the designers can’t really decide this on their own. It has to be something that’s built into the design brief at the beginning, so that everyone who’s working on the project understands what the values are. Having that discussion early is important. When you get to a point where things conflict and you have to have trade-offs, how do you make those decisions?
Q: How can we design with sustainability in mind?
A: That part is fairly straightforward to me. I think it’s about education and awareness first. Like any aspect of our design process, the more we understand it, the better we can achieve what we’re looking for. Education is also about asking a lot of questions.
When I go to a factory, I try to ask as many questions as I can to find out what they are doing and what they are hoping to improve. What are the best practices in their industry? Certifications are helpful because they help you understand what some of the best practices are, but not all partners will be certified or have the money to be certified. So it’s really important to ask them directly about their practices, and that goes for social practices, too.
Take some of the textile vendors I worked with early on in my career; I would ask them if they had organic cotton and some of them had no idea what that even meant. So you educate them and explain what it means and why it’s important. We would have them create two samples or at least cost out conventional cotton and organic cotton. It was always a bit of a battle with the merchants to say, it’s 20 cents more but this is really worth it. Sometimes it took creating a whole story around it to get people to understand the value and importance of it.
Some people just graduating and entering a job might feel like they don’t have a lot of say in the decision making, but they do have an opportunity to communicate and propose ideas. They can find somebody who’s a mentor within the organization, maybe higher up, who can be an advocate for their ideas. It’s important that you have people at different levels in an organization who are committed to sustainability.
It’s also important to realize that everyone and every organization is going to be at different stages of incorporating these ideas. Wherever you’re at, it’s you need to set goals, figure out how you’re going to measure them, and hold yourself accountable. The more specific they are the better, because then you can measure them in some way, at least qualitatively. But hopefully quantitatively, too.
Q: Could you share some products that you think are good examples of sustainable design?
A: I worked with an organization called Get Paper in Nepal. The products were high quality and they had parts of their business that helped support the other parts. One part was handmade paper and the other part was more conventional paper-making. They produced a lot of packaging.
They got off-cuts from a local T-shirt factory and used that cotton as raw material for their handmade paper. They incorporated artisans in the governance of the organization, and that is a really unusual way to govern your organization. We think of most organizations as top-down, but more and more there are opportunities for people to think about cooperative organizations and new kinds of economic models. I thought this one was great because the artisans were on the decision-making panel. It wasn’t just outsiders coming in and designing things, the product was also coming from the artisans themselves.
They had this cool community program where they would count how much paper they used per year, translate that into trees, go to a local area of degraded land and everyone in the community—the school would be closed for the day, the factory would be closed for the day—would go plant trees.
Over time this helped to increase the water table because without the trees there was a lot of erosion. The community really saw the value in the tree planting because they immediately saw the effect. There are a lot of tree planting programs in the world and I think that they’re great in general, but when it’s directly connected to the community I think it’s even more powerful. It really shows that connection.
Another example: Bill McKibben has an organization called Third Act. This is an organization to activate people who are over 60 to support sustainability projects. His idea was that we have this large population, some of them are starting to retire but they have all of this wisdom and experience. They were also passionate in the 60’s and 70’s about environmental and social causes. He was tapping into that history and also their skills. The idea was that everyone should be involved in this kind of activism. What’s amazing is that they vote, so they have a lot of influence in terms of policy.
Q: When did sustainability become a focus for you as a designer and what inspired that specialization?
A: My background was in biology, and I spent 10 years working as a staff biologist and exhibit developer at the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco. This was a very important starting point for my career. I feel like I was practicing sustainability in some ways there and I didn’t even know it. The mantra of the museum is, “Here is being created a community museum, dedicated to awareness.”
While I was there I got more and more interested in design. I took design classes at night through UC Berkeley: furniture classes, different kinds of design classes, and also art classes. Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World was really influential for me. There were a few books I read at the time that got me interested in sustainable design, one was The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, and another was Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins. Another really influential book wasBiomimicry by Janine Benyus.
This was all in the late 90’s. And so I thought, Well, you know, I have a biology background. There are all of these interesting opportunities to think about connections, and that’s what led me to Pratt for my graduate program. While I was there, I was interested in looking at the intersection of science and design. I wasn’t focused so much on sustainability but it was an underlying current. Later I was invited to teach a junior studio about sustainable design at Pratt. It was challenging because they told me just a couple of weeks before the class started, and this was one of my first times teaching. It was an early prototype. I got interested in this idea of What tools do students need?What tools do designers need to help them get engaged in this topic and care about it? That was a key starting point for me.
Q: Could you talk about the prototyping process in the context of a sustainable design project? What does sustainable prototyping look like?
A: I think that it’s never too early to prototype and test out your ideas, to test your assumptions. Sometimes at the Exploratorium I would just take a table out, put a microscope on it with a video monitor, go outside and get some pond water, and put it on the microscope and invite people to look at it. I would ask, What do you notice? What’s going on? This was really primitive prototyping to get ideas for the experience.
Keeping people on the same page is also important. I’ve been at organizations where designers say, we’re not going to show it to them yet, because they’re afraid that it’s going to get shut down early. You have to have check-ins along the way, and this is a challenging balance. You want to have some creative freedom, you don’t want to be shut down early, but you do want to make sure that you’re checking in along the way. That’s what prototyping allows you to do: create new directions and be really collaborative.
I think that the prototyping impacts are small compared to large production runs, so I don’t worry too much about it. It’s a good investment, basically. It is important to look at the issues of toxicity, because there are some materials, especially model-making materials, that do have health impacts for the people involved. If you’re ordering the model, you are still responsible for those health impacts, because somebody else could be exposed.
Finding partners who have best practices in the industry, have protection for workers, reduce the amount of exposure…all of those things are really important questions to ask. There are different types of prototypes— looks-like, feels-like, works-like—and you may not need something that’s really beautiful if you’re just creating a works-like prototype. Communicating that to producers might help to see what the alternatives are.
Really simple materials like paper tape and glue are some of my best prototyping tools. There are also opportunities for you to recycle and reuse some of the materials you have. I like to use cardboard, it seems like there’s an endless supply of cardboard from boxes. These kinds of materials can get you to where you want.
Q: What inspired you to become a design educator?
A: I’m the middle child. I have an older sister and a younger brother, so I got to learn from them but also to teach both of them at the same time, and I really enjoyed that. My brother is five years younger than I am, so he was a little kid, and I enjoyed that process of seeing him learn new things
When I was in high school, I had a job at a grocery store as a bag boy, and this was in Miami so it was super hot. I’d have to go out and collect the shopping carts, and I had to wear a tie and mop the floor. And I was making, I don’t know, three dollars an hour. And one of my teachers asked me if I wanted to be a math tutor. I got paid twice as much, I was in the air conditioning, and I got to work with my peers, helping them with math. This was a really exciting experience for me.
When I was in college, I tutored for Upward Bound. I was really inspired by the students because no one in their family had gone to college, and they just needed a little bit of help. They were eager to learn, and to see somebody with that passion for learning was so exciting for me.
At the Exploratorium I had an opportunity to teach people as well. We had three different types of interns; post-college interns, college-age interns, and high school interns. They would all be responsible for teaching each other, and I helped teach all of them. This idea of creating mentorship among the groups was really inspiring to see.
Q: How does your work as an educator inform your consulting work and vice versa?
A: I mentioned already that my experience at SERVV opened my eyes to the social dimension of sustainability. I realized in teaching my class that I was focused a lot on environmental issues but I hadn’t really thought about the social dimension, or intersection of the two. What is environmental justice? What happens when these two forces collide?
My experiences with commercial clients has also taught me so much. I go to visit factories, to work on a team to understand the business side of the retail world – that’s a whole different language. So much to learn there. I used to go to the store and talk to all the salespeople and ask them, What’s selling? What do people like? Why don’t they like it? Getting the vibe from them. When I first started asking them, they were reluctant because they knew that I had designed it and they didn’t want to insult me. But then, over time, after we had a friendship, they would be really honest.
I bring in samples to my classrooms and say, This is what happened, these are the things that could go wrong in production. So here’s different stages of prototyping, and here’s what ended up in the store. I’ve been connected through my work to so many different design professionals, and I invite them into the classroom as well.
Q: How has the conversation around sustainability in design changed over the course of your career?
A: I think for sure there’s been a lot more discussion about sustainability. It was not really talked about so much 30 years ago. More discussion has created more awareness, and there are companies trying to do new things. There’s also some greenwashing that happens, too, because companies don’t want to be shamed for doing bad things. I guess that’s my concern; while it’s being talked about a lot more, you have to be even more vigilant about the trustworthiness of the message.
We also have to look at the bigger picture of consumption patterns. While individual products might be made with safer, better materials, a bigger picture is: what is our culture of consumption? What will happen if we don’t dramatically change this culture? Other countries are modeling their behavior on us in the U.S. and the Western world, and this is troubling to me, too.
Q: What do you see in the future of sustainable design?
A: I hope that it’s a point of inspiration for designers in the future. Up to this point, it’s been this sort of burden, Oh and it has to be sustainable. As if it’s going to squelch your creativity in some way. I think that if designers have a new point of view that sustainable design will give you new ideas and new points of inspiration, then that will be a different kind of attitude shift. That’s what I try to develop in my class as an understanding; that all these products have issues for sure, but we have an opportunity as creative designers and thinkers to come up with new approaches, and that should produce new aesthetics, new opportunities.
I also hope that sustainability is integrated earlier in the design process. People think way too late about these issues, and it’s hard. Things get locked in really early. If it can get more integrated into design briefs earlier on in the process, we’ll have much better outcomes.
I hope that designers can integrate more qualitative or quantitative approaches that can help them in their decision making, like the LCA. You can model something and see how well it achieves its goal. Is this new transportation route better? Well, you can mathematically find that out. It’s not unknowable.
Designers can’t work alone, and corporations can’t work alone. It has to be governments, nonprofit corporations, consumers…everyone has to be involved in this in some way. And I think this is one of the things that’s concerning: some of the messaging is that, Oh, it’s the consumer’s fault because they’re not recycling properly, or whatever it is. Pushing it on people. Why did you buy this fast fashion? Well, I know why: it’s cheap and it’s available. So the practice of blaming people for all of these problems is something that I hope will change as well.
I see some really great opportunities in terms of understanding what environmental and social impacts are by having enough data, using AI and machine-learning, and having somebody in a sense smarter than us analyze the data to find the patterns and trends. These technologies can provide real benefits, they already have in terms of things related to climate change and biodiversity laws.
Everything goes back to that word, value. What do we value? And how do we use all of these tools to support our values?
I like to think about our connection to our history and to cultural heritage. I see young designers being interested in this idea of craft, of connection to their own personal past. What’s special about their local community, or what’s special about their personal history, can be a component of the design process, something that they value. Diverse voices and perspectives being heard in the design process is an aspect of sustainable design as well. It’s an opportunity to have lots of different ideas and perspectives come together to create these solutions.
Design is a broad, complex industry that isn’t well understood in mainstream culture. Industrial design, our specialty, is especially vast. In our new AMA (Ask Me Anything) series, industrial designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman answers questions about design and process from Instagram and LinkedIn. Do you have any questions about design? Let us know!
Rebeccah is the founder of Interwoven Design Group (that’s us!), an interdisciplinary design consulting practice that creates innovative, thoughtful and efficient products. She has over 25 years of corporate design experience and has held positions as Design Director for Fila, Champion and Nike. She is the author of Smart Textiles for Designers: Inventing the Future of Fabrics, is one of the founding partners of Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch+), and speaks internationally on design, innovation and the future.
Watch the video or read the transcript below for Rebeccah’s definition of sustainable design.
What is sustainable design?
Hi, I’m Rebeccah from Interwoven Design Group, and today you can ask me anything. The question that we’re going to work on today is: What exactly is sustainable design?
The basic objectives of sustainability are to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, minimize waste, and create healthy, productive environments. All of these objectives start in the design process. As designers we have a responsibility to prioritize these objectives when we work through any design process. But the biggest challenge is when a client’s fiscal and sales goals are out of alignment with these objectives. The four pillars of sustainability are: people, environment, profit and culture. Ideally, as designers we are most effective when we can achieve these goals and meet or exceed a clients’ needs.
If you’re curious about what we do here at Interwoven, you can get in touch. We’d love to hear from you. You can follow us on Instagram @interwoven_design or you can go to our website at getinterwoven.com.
Watch the video or read the transcript below for Rebeccah’s definition of sustainable design.
Overflowing landfills, giant islands of plastic floating in the ocean, the rise in material culture and consumerism, climate change, and more have alerted us as a planet to the importance of sustainable design. Our actions as individuals, as companies, as municipalities, all impact the health of the environment and the living beings it supports, including humans. What is sustainable design, and how do we incorporate sustainability into design? Fortunately there are a lot of sustainable strategies for designers, and many ways they can minimize and even reverse their impact.
What is sustainable design?
Sustainable design is an approach to design that demonstrates key principles of sustainability, which are mainly concerned with minimizing the depletion of natural resources and increasing product lifespans. There are many strategies for achieving these goals, though any given product labeled as being ‘sustainable’ may feature one, several, or (sadly) none of these strategies.
Sustainable impact is calculated by reviewing the impact of the product in four areas: ecological damage, human health damage, resource depletion, and social impact. Sustainable designers ask themselves what the impacts in these four categories might be at each stage of product development, and how they might be minimized or avoided. They do life cycle assessments to determine those impacts precisely, and to compare the impact of one product to another.
The Product Life Cycle
The product life cycle includes four main stages:
Raw materials: the impact of extracting raw materials
Manufacturing: the impact of manufacturing the product, including material processing, transportation and factory processes
Use: the impact of consumer usage of the product, including the potential duration of use
End of Life: the impact of disposing of the product, including the potential for recycling and material recapture
You will sometimes see the product life cycle split into 5 or 6 stages but they are all fundamentally the same. Sustainable design looks at each of these stages and reviews the potential for impact in each of the four impact categories above. Does the extraction of the raw materials involve human health damage? Does the use of the product harm the environment? Can the materials be recaptured at the end of life, or do they constitute permanent resource depletion?
This framework aids the designer in decision-making at every stage. While there is always some degree of impact, decisions about what materials to use, the durability and source of those materials, the form and assembly of the product, the manufacturing processes involved, and many more.
The Sustainability Toolbox
Here are some of the key tools in the sustainable design toolbox. This is not a comprehensive list but includes the tools we find especially powerful. You’ll notice that many of them reference and depend on one another, and this is no coincidence. Many of the tools support and facilitate the use of additional tools. While it may not be possible to implement all of them, it is always possible to take advantage of sustainable strategies to participate in responsible design. More and more designers agree that it is irresponsible not to consider these strategies. Many of the decisions that influence social and environmental impacts are controlled in the early design phases of the product, well before it gets to the consumer. This is where we have the most power to make a difference.
Materials & Use
If you review life cycle assessments, you’ll quickly see an unsurprising pattern emerge: fewer materials means fewer impacts. It’s a pretty reliable guideline. Considering the volume of material needed for a product and making an effort to minimize that volume is a great way to lower its impact. Could your form be streamlined in some way? Play with the structure to learn the smallest amount of material you can use while preserving functionality.
Longevity is not only about durability, though this is of course important to allow a product to survive over time. Longevity means that, for whatever reason, people want to keep your product over the course of their lives. They want to treasure it and pass it on to others. Perhaps the product can be repaired or rarely needs to be replaced. Duration of use is an incredibly powerful metric in impact calculations, spreading the impact over decades.
Designing a product to be recyclable is a tricky proposition, in part because the recycling system is limited and varies from one region to another, and in part because it depends highly on being able to isolate component materials at the end of life. It requires thinking about the key materials of the product, how they will be assembled, any adhesives or hardware that may be involved, and whether or not they can be disassembled. While it may not be possible for every element of the design to be recycled, the fraction that can could be improved with thoughtful material and manufacturing choices.
‘Design for disassembly’ is a popular phrase in the industry at the moment, and for good reason. This design approach creates products that are built to be disassembled at the end of life to facilitate recycling. Many of the hurdles of recycling arise from materials that are theoretically recyclable in isolation but impossible to handle when indefinitely bonded to another material. It can make repair an easier service option for the product as well. Many products, especially those with technological elements, lock the user out upon failure or end of life. Design for disassembly solves this problem of access and empowers the user to maintain and repair the product as needed.
Modularity allows a product to be reconfigured to suit the needs of the user. It is tied to longevity, disassembly, repairability, and recyclability. A piece of furniture that is modular is more likely to work in multiple homes across a user’s lifetime. A modular storage system is more likely to have a damaged element replaced than to be discarded altogether. This approach is compatible with a service model of design as well.
Objects that can be repaired have an exponentially longer lifespan than those that cannot. Think about clothing and shoes from the turn of the century, products that would serve the user for decades and still be passed on. This strategy is tied to disassembly, longevity, modularity, and service models. It can be achieved through empowering the user to repair the product themselves, or it can be part of a service system that is offered by the producer.
Single-use products are a major contributor to landfill waste, and circular systems that allow users to share a product or service give a product a more productive lifespan, serving far more users. Citibike is a great example of a service model, it allows users to borrow bikes when they need them, and users who rarely bike don’t need to purchase a bike they won’t use. That the product stays under company ownership means that they have a lot of control over how the product is maintained over time and disposed of at the end of life. The responsibility for the product is shared between the owner and the user.
Producer + Consumer Responsibility
While warranties are available for certain categories of products, they are rare in commercial goods and very rarely extend to cover the entire lifetime of the product. Increasing producer responsibility is one tool to discourage design for obsolescence or rapid failure. When the producer gets the product back at the end of life, suddenly many opportunities for recycling, repair, material recapture, and re-manufacturing emerge.
Products that can be repurposed for alternate uses once their original function has been fulfilled, or perhaps in concurrence with their original function, offer the user versatility and efficiency. Perhaps it is not the entire product but a specific component that has a second or third life after the first. These strategies are often discovered by consumers out of innovation or convenience, like a damaged cup or bowl that can be repurposed for organization and storage, but they can be planned by the designer as well.
The strategies don’t stop here but we hope this gives you a taste of what sustainable design can look like. Consider these strategies, and assess their potential for use in your design projects. Assess your own purchases for signs of these tools in use. It can be challenging but it can also trigger great innovations and a fundamentally better design. It is deeply rewarding to create and support sustainable design.