There is too much making and not enough designing.

– Ezio Manzini

Design for Sustainability

Design for sustainability is an approach that put the well-being of people and the sustainability of the environment first.

To date, sustainable design has generally been a reaction to global environmental crises, and focuses on resource efficiency. Whilst efficiency is important, growth in goods and services is consistently outpacing any efficiency gains. As a result, the net effect of sustainable design has been to simply improve the efficiency of rapidly increasing impacts.

Sustainability, when it’s considered at all, is often tacked onto the design brief with other competing objectives – like profitability, customer satisfaction and market share – and this often leads to compromise and trade-offs. Design for Sustainability is a different approach where sustainability is the key objective overarching the others. In this case profitability and market share can’t overshadow sustainability, indeed they enhance it.

To design and create sustainability there are two key questions to consider:

  1. Are you doing the right things?
  2. Are you doing the things right?

Doing the right things

Before you start thinking of doing any design you need to decide if what you are wanting to do is the right thing.

People argue about what the right things are, and this is not a place to discuss moral philosophy. However, when it comes to sustainability and well-being, it is quite clear what wrong things are. For instance, if you are in business to drill for oil, sell cigarettes, or design and manufacture handguns, styrofoam containers, plastic water bottles, or any sort of useless junk then you are doing the wrong thing.

The ‘right things’ support:

  • individual well-being
  • human instrinsic values
  • social equity and the common good
  • diverse and thriving local communities
  • healthy environments
  • environmentally sustainable production and consumption

Anything that harms or degrades the environment, or anything that harms or degrades people, is the wrong thing. If you simply designing things to be less bad, they are still going to be bad, and that’s unsustainable.

Having a ‘critical sense’, as Ezio Manzini calls it, is the ability a designer (or anyone) has to know what is right and what is not. Before designing anything it is important to answer some straightforward questions honestly and sincerely, for example:

  1. Is this design really necessary? Why?
  2. Who does it really benefit? How?
  3. Who and/or what does this design harm?

Doing things right

Assuming you are designing something that is right (useful and harmless), a designer will then concentrate on designing it right. This is where design factors like energy and materials efficiency come in. Other factors that make something more sustainable are durability, recyclability and source of materials.

Design for Sustainability is a whole system approach that considers the overall impacts of designs. It is a multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approach that can be applied 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.

Design for sustainability will incorporate the following key principles:

  • thinking in systems – deciding how things relate to their larger system
  • dematerialisation – get more ‘service’ from less product
  • renewable, natural materials – using harmless materials and processes
  • biomimicry – work with nature by being like nature
  • cradle-to-cradle – think of materials and components as being in a ‘nutrient’ cycle

Click here to read more about the Design for Sustainability basics

Passivhaus: a sustainable design