What is sustainable design and how to use it to achieve the goals of innovation and sustainability

We hear more and more often about sustainable design or sustainable design. Too many times it has been connected to a beautiful chair made of 100% recyclable and recyclable cardboard. But it is not so. Let’s see what sustainable design is and why it is an important tool for achieving corporate sustainability goals.

From sustainability to sustainable design

In the late 1990s, the term “no-global” was born to mean a movement that criticized globalization in the economic sphere and the excessive power of the few multinationals. After the dramatic attack on the Twin Towers, the movement lost media attention and priority. In any case, some values ​​remained alive and continued to spread in the following years. Among these, there was a greater sensitivity to the exploitation of environmental resources and a sensitivity to social issues.

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An idea was founded and developed on this sensitivity, which thanks to the movements of Greta Thunberg’s generation has gained greater visibility in recent times: sustainability.

As the value of sustainability has grown in popularity, an inherent distinctive practice in design has also taken hold. For this reason, we now hear more often about sustainable design or sustainable design.

But, now misused, the term “sustainability” has often lost value, indicating a range of terms that are usually vague and refer only to the environmental aspect: respect for nature and reduction in the use of resources. The Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as a development that meets current needs without compromising future generations. As responsibility with the individual’s current and future needs is emphasized, implicitly, the definition suggests a systemic perspective.

On the other hand, sustainability addresses challenges such as poverty, climate change, inequality, health problems and environmental degradation. Therefore, areas such as economic, environmental and social have become the core or pillars of sustainable development.

What is sustainable design

The same problem applies to sustainable design: far too many times it has been associated with a beautiful chair made from 100% recycled and recyclable cardboard. Nothing could be more wrong: Design, already in its basic principles, reminds us that a good design is a long-lasting, durable, timeless design. It is well designed to fulfill its functionality throughout the expected life cycle of the object (a chair should not last as long as a rainy day. Instead, it should potentially hold its function for over 100 years).

Good sustainable design is a design that does not look to the present, but to the past: the entire production cycle, therefore the system of people and resources involved in production. As well as the future: where possible, the designer knows that his responsibility is not limited to the time of design of the object, but extends to the time when the product is to be used and disassembled.

What is sustainable design for

Sustainable design is an approach to design that goes beyond its user-centric vision and becomes system-centric. It means to design for

  1. Environmental area: this involves the design of products and services for the purpose of maintaining a balance in the system that allows resources to reintegrate;
  2. The social sphere: it means designing products and services that guarantee and ensure universal human rights. In addition, it implies that resources are available to all individuals. For example, communities should have access to resources to maintain their health and safety.
  3. The economic aspect it refers to the support of human communities to access the necessary financial resources to meet their needs.

The companies of the future must not only live up to the expectations of the consumers of the future, who are increasingly ecologically conscious. They will also have to face the challenges of environmental regulation and climate-related disturbances, which are linked not only to environmental phenomena but also to migration waves associated with the lack of resources. As social and climate trends converge to propel us into a new economy even faster than expected, organizations must pursue sustainable transformation and innovation or risk falling behind.

How to use sustainable design

For this reason, sustainable design supports organizations in achieving their social, environmental and climate goals by combining the best of design and development of products and services according to the criteria of good design with the sensitivity and foresight required by sustainable innovation.

Therefore, sustainable design indicates an approach that is used when designing a product or service. To follow the approach, the innovator must take into account the impact of the entire product or service life cycle.

  1. Product sustainability

    Weigh each production choice according to the product’s function. This means that you reflect on the time it has to meet the functionality: what does the product need? What will be its functionality? What will its production technology be? Design the product / service according to the processing methods and their impact. In this phase you will also have to design the product / service for its disassembly (eg how do I design a product so that it is easy to divide different materials and thus facilitate reuse of components / recycling of some materials and disassembly of others?)


  2. Expanding the boundaries of attentionAnd

    It is not enough to reduce the design to simple resource efficiency. We must think systemically and holistically. You do not have to think about the individual product (for example, how to design the car), but you have to think about the whole system (for example, the whole mobility system). The solution lies in rethinking the whole system to provide opportunities for the whole society

  3. Provide alternatives related to different contexts

    Sustainable design means providing future visions and then traveling in time and cognitive space to imagine what all the potential uses of the product and service will be and the interactions with it to evoke user experiences that change the person’s behavior towards a more sustainable .

  4. Empathy to persuade change

    The perception of the problem and the need for change is already high among people, but it is not at all enough to be sensitive and aware of the issues. We need to reformulate the way we behave, for this is also possible to change people’s behavior through the practice of design to feel empathy with people. Therefore, to better understand the behavior of the day, to evoke the behavior of tomorrow.

In general, sustainable design is more of a mentality to tackle, which requires an extended and systemic attention to the project: it is necessary to take into account not only the product, not only the person who will use it, but keep in mind the whole social system and people . So take a perspective that transcends “here and now”, but moves flexibly along temporal distances (past-present-future), spatial distance (here-near-me-away from me), social distance (me- others are similar to me – others far from me) and the hypothetical distance (if XXXX happened, what should we do?).

Sustainable design is a design approach

Sustainable design is an approach to design, therefore it is a mentality that requires an organizational reorientation of priorities and ways in which a project must be tackled. It is a tension that no longer reformulates the challenges of innovation in an economic or end-user perspective, but rather focuses on sustainable development that is able to guarantee synergistic and systemic quality of life, reintegration of resources and economic progress. Precisely for this reason, it requires a new set of systemic skills that allow us to look at all the actors involved and imagine in which scenarios the product or service will fit. Moreover, it requires a new conception of time. For a long time, where I design for today for a timeless design, where I design the solution based on the past and to imagine an application in the future. For many organizations it is not at all easy to change the time perspective, often we are forced to think about today and effect in the short term; instead, it is important to promote a vision of tomorrow and to take advantage of what is already known.

A case of success

Among the successful cases about this way of working there is Ecosia a search engine that unlike the most well known links advertisements linked to searches performed through the browser for replanting forest. In this case, the design approach is fundamental to understanding people’s habits and transforming the observation of habits into an opportunity for the environment. In fact, temporal logic is important as explained above. Ecosia activates replanting today, something that will affect in the long run. We all know that sending an email or doing an online search generates air pollution due to the use of servers, here considering the impact of these actions today, Ecosia decides to implement far-reaching actions that affect the future of people , helps replanting. This is achieved by considering all the actors involved in promoting a project that has a strong social impact.

Three books to learn about sustainable design

Here are some books that can help deepen the theme that is still evolving and growing today:

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