There is too much making and not enough designing.

– Ezio Manzini

Design for Sustainability

Design for Sustainability is much more than resource efficiency. It considers and achieves principles of sustainability including:

  • interdependence within whole systems
  • social equity and the common good
  • individual well-being
  • human aesthetic values
  • diverse and thriving local communities

DfS is design with the purpose of creating sustainability. Sustainability is often tacked onto the design brief with other competing objectives – like profitability, customer satisfaction and market share – often leading to compromise and trade-offs. DfS is a different approach where sustainability is a meta-objective overarching the others. In this case profitability and market share can’t overshadow sustainability, indeed they enhance it.

It is a whole system approach that considers the impacts of designs in global space and time. It is multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary and can be applied broadly in all fields including:

  • architecture, interior and landscape design;
  • urban design and planning;
  • engineering and clean-technology;
  • communication and media design;
  • industrial, product and fashion design;
  • process, service and system design.

To date sustainable design has generally been a reaction to global environmental crises by focusing on resource efficiency. Whilst efficiency is important, growth in goods and services is consistently outpacing efficiency gains. As a result, the net effect of sustainable design to date has been to simply improve the efficiency of rapidly increasing impacts. This is what McDonough and Braungart call being ‘less bad’.

Efficiency is described as ‘doing things right’ then effectiveness is about ‘doing the right things’.

Doing the right things

There are many ways designers can do the right things. Many of them are summed up in the “Hannover Principles” developed by William McDonough Architects for EXPO 2000 that was held in Hannover, Germany.

Hannover Principles

  • Insist on the right of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse, and sustainable condition.
  • Recognize Interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend on the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognizing even distant effects.
  • Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement including community, dwelling, industry, and trade in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.
  • Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems, and their right to co-exist.
  • Create safe objects of long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creations of products, processes, or standards.
  • Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, to approach the state of natural systems in which there is no waste.
  • Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.
  • Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled
  • Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers and users to link long term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.

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Design for Sustainability basics


The Shweeb is a pedal-powered monorail system. It is a tourist attraction in Rotorua but the company has proven the potential for this design to be used as a sustainable urban transport system and conse-quently Google awarded Shweeb a development grant of $US1 million in September 2010.