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Sustainable Design Can Save the Planet

I am a huge advocate of the idea that designers are the key to a sustainable future for people and the planet. Everything created on the Earth passes through the hands of a designer, be that a business card, a product package, a hospital bed, an office building, a light rail system or a city park – all are created by a designer. As such, we have – all of us (engineers, graphic designers, architects, industrial designers, interior designers, etc.) – a huge responsibility to learn as much as we can about the principals of sustainability and apply them to our projects. Just one product made in a sustainable way can save the ecosystem untold stress.

Using sustainability in design can seem like a daunting task. There are many aspects of the project to consider, from the materials used, to the stakeholders involved, to the environmental impact at each stage of  production. There is no lack of helpful resources from reliable sources to inform the eco-design process. From the informative and impactful Design Can Change to Celery Designs eco tools, from IDSA’s Okala Guide to the web-based impact assessment tool, designers have more sustainability resources available now than in times past. And while construction design has been historically the major proponent of sustainable design with the USGBC’s formidable LEED certification, and architects the most frequent occupation to be coined “sustainable designers,” the term is now recognized globally for all design, as it relates to the environment and society, and as such is inclusive of all design professions.

As the importance of sustainable design has become more obvious, to not only those in the design industry, but to the business world – whose successful future relies on adopting sustainable policies and practices – there has been an increase in blog articles and posts regarding tips on how to consider sustainability for a design. While these articles are well-meaning and often touch on some very important principles of sustainability, I feel they are a tad deceptive.

While not difficult, sustainability, by its very nature, is a complex and dynamic process. It cannot be defined in an article promising to provide “Ten Steps to Guarantee the Sustainability of Your Design” or “5 Surefire Tips for a Green Design.” While this type of article will make a search engine happy (and the blog owner, if their goal is higher search rankings), it is a true disservice to the user who might be looking for insight into how to work sustainably. These “how-to” articles often focus on end-of-life options in the design process (recyclable, reusable, biodegradable, compostible), materials selection (using recycled materials or certified options). These list-type recommendations generally lead to linear design thinking. If you are able to check some or all of the items on these lists, you will have a greener design solution had you not employed any of these concepts. But you will not have a truly sustainable solution. You will simply have created a “less bad” solution – something better than the status quo, but not sustainable in the truest sense.

To create a truly sustainable solution to a design problem you must take a systems approach.

Sustainability relies on holistic and cyclical natural patterns. You must look at the entire project as a system – as opposed to its individual parts – to determine the most sustainable solutions. This means that each client, each project and each solution will be unique. In this approach there really can be no “step by step” guide to the process, as it will always be organic and unique. This is not to say these blog posts do not contain concepts and principals that are important to the process – they most certainly do, and the basic tenants of sustainability remain the same: reduction or elimination, end of life scenarios, social considerations. But these items as a list do not consider the whole system.

A good example is the common advice to “design backwards.” In this context the idea is to consider the end use of the product and where it will end it’s useful life … will it be recycled, reused, or end up in a landfill? It’s an important consideration when designing for sustainability, but it is not the only consideration in the life cycle of the product. We must look carefully at both where the product comes from and where it will go. It is important to view any project or product from its origin to its demise.

Where did it come from and where will it ultimately end it’s useful life?

The origin of the product should be tied as closely as possible to the end life of the product, the ultimate goal is to create no waste. To reach this sometimes lofty goal there are several frameworks we can use to access the elements of the project. In the book “Cradle to Cradle,” William McDonough and Michael Braungart provide a very clear image of what Systems Thinking looks like in product and systems design. In the C2C system framework there exists technical nutrients, which are materials that can be cycled back into the system to create new products, and biological nutrients that can be safely returned to the Earth. Careful planning and research is necessary to determine what materials could be appropriately reintroduced to the system itself or back to nature as a nutrient.


C2C is just one example of an existing framework, or set of principals, that are useful tools for applied Systems Thinking. In previous posts, I mentioned the Natural Step Framework, which is a wonderful starting point in guiding sustainable project perimeters. There are other equally effective frameworks, principles, and guidelines that can be applied to projects to guide sustainability efforts. It is believed the precautionary principal has an origin dating to 1930s Germany and essentially states that precautionary measures should be taken even if a potential threat to human health or the environment has not been fully established scientifically. In 1982 the UN General Assembly adopted the World Charter for Nature  which invokes the precautionary principle.  The Hannover Principals come into being as general principles of sustainability for the 2000 World’s Fair in Hannover Germany. They were created to provide a guide for designers, government officials, planners, and those involved in setting design priorities for humanity, nature, and technology. The Ceres Principles were developed in 1989 as a code for corporate environmental conduct that is publicly endorsed by companies as a mission statement to environmental commitment. The Principles of Ecology by Fritjof Capra establish clear guidelines for Systems Thinking that concentrates on the networks, connections and cycles that create the web of life. There are more examples … plenty more.

My point is this… If you are wholeheartedly interested in creating sustainable products, systems or services you should employ Systems Thinking. There is no “one size fits all” solution for the sustainable design process. Honest eco-design must be developed through study and research, through investigation and exploration… and through observation. Observing nature and human behavior should be on the top of any sustainable designers “list”.


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