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Designing for Sustainability. Designers have a responsibility to seek sustainable solutions.
Design isn’t clean. The final product often looks sleek, but the process of getting there can be messy, with a scrap heap of ideas, aspirations, and opportunities left on the floor. Unfortunately, and far too often, sustainability is one of those things left behind. Despite our best intentions, it can be difficult for designers to declare victory in the name of sustainability—believing that we are making a meaningful difference in addressing critical environmental concerns.

Still, designers have a responsibility to proactively seek sustainable solutions. We keep our fingers on the pulse of culture, society, and technology as we aspire to design products that are relevant. Today relevance invariably points to sustainability.

For some, this means using recycled, reclaimed, or organic components. Others focus on energy efficiency or a designed-for-disassembly approach. We can use locally sourced materials and manufacturing, and less packaging and printing, while serviceability and upgradeability are also legitimate considerations.

Fortunately, there are tools at our disposal to help us design for a lower impact on the environment, from enhanced software to regulatory agencies and certificate-issuing organizations that have established guidelines and requirements.

Larger trends in culture and technology can have indirect benefits to sustainability as well. Miniaturization—technology is always getting smaller— means we are increasingly able to fit more goods onto container ships. The nascent popularity of car and bicycle sharing in urban areas is having an impact on car ownership and reducing the number of vehicles on the road. And at last, it seems electric vehicles are slowly winning wider consumer acceptance.

Ultimately however, sustainable design remains complex and often difficult to measure.

As designers, we have to consider not only the artifact itself but also how it is manufactured, what it does during its lifetime, and whether it ends up in a recycling bin, recycling center, or landfill.

At the same time, when businesses develop products based predominantly on cost benefits, their goals won’t always align with sustainable design practices. Sustainability doesn’t neatly fit onto a spreadsheet. When it does, it’s a win-win for everyone. But more often than not, trade-offs are necessary. For example, glued-together products are typically thinner, cheaper, and therefore more desirable, but destined for landfills. Meanwhile, mechanically assembled products that are bulkier, more expensive, and seemingly “old fashioned” can be disassembled and recycled.

In the first decade of the 21st-century, the dominant message was that design mattered. Design is disruptive. It can change businesses and the way we live. And now it’s time for sustainability to have its own decade. Companies and business leaders need to embrace and champion sustainable principles. Or even better, they need to create organizations with sustainability in their DNA.

Jonas Damon, a creative director at frog’s New York studio, believes that intelligent industrial design has a positive impact on our environment.
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