Redefining Design for Sustainability

6 min readJan 2, 2021

Designers are typically appropriated by corporations to enhance the enterprise’s position in the marketplace by way of enhanced product
or branding aesthetics; their work functions for the commercial profit of wealthy institutions, and in that way loses its ontological power to transform the public’s relationships.

Today, as corporations become more savvy to public interests in sustainability and environmentalism, designers are increasingly being asked to portray as, or incrementally change products to become, “green” to further drive competitive edge; “green” generally meaningefficient and distinguishable to consumers by brown-green color schemes and nature-based imagery.

This poses two significant problems to designers: first, the manufacture of products based on continuing economic growth is inherently unsustainable, as it promotes increasingly faster consumption cycles and with them greater emissions and waste levels. Secondly, “green” to a designer offers no real meaning or significance that allows them to connect with the user; this further drives design away from its potential to create cultural connections. In many designinstitutions, the new integration of sustainability curriculums follows the corporate trend of new materialities and new aesthetics rather than a demonstration of real sustaianability in the marketplace; this sets sustainability up for a dangerous fallacy in which its true meaning is never recognized, but rather is progressively dug deeper below corporate manifestations of new product distinctions.

To reverse this trend and reinvigorate design in its potential for change, several new approaches are suggested.

The first is greater stakeholder integration into product development; this is done through “co- design,” in which the community for which the product is being designed is actively included in the design process, thereby avoiding designer imposition onto a community’s culture.

This is especially effective through the use of small, nonhierarchical teams, and/or through equal communication with different specialists in the community, such as the leader, small enterprises, producers, and the general public.

The designer must be especially sensitive here in order to view issues holistically and with a strong sense of experience; this will help
him or her in enabling other participants to design. Co-design may also be used in conjunction with local government, in order to address social services or fiscal challenges. In any case, the end goal is actually the gradual dissolution of designers within the process — the key is to transition from designing for communities, to designing with them, to ultimately letting them design by themselves; in this way, the value and subjects of design are changed in congruence with the process.

Similar methods of creating user-led design processes can be done through implicit behavioral encouragement, just as many aspects of products today — such as planned obsolescence — encourage unsustainable behavior. Design can encourage user involvement by allowing user alterations or recreations after a product is sold; this is known as hacking, crafting, and quiet activism from the ways in which products can later be manipulated by users. The key is to make designs accessible through the facilitation of basic needs
by clear communication and the prioritization of simple mechanics that are functionally intuitive. Design is then “enabled” and the process becomes a less predictable entity; over time, design “seeds” behavioral cues throughout the market and encourages paradigmatic shifts in hidden ways.

Hacking and crafting are also explicitly encouraged through open design, where designs are available for free distribution and modification through downloading, Creative Commons, and publications; the digital open source movement is already exemplary of this.

Educationally, the goal would be to integrate sustainability with design in a way that is natural and inherently enhances the end results — rather than becoming an add-on that lacks real contribution. To be able to consider the first-hand impacts of injustice, co-design gives designers the potential to learn from the communities they work with; from this, the design process becomes an opportunity for interdisciplinary envisioning centered on basic needs and core values.

In reaction, design activism seeks to inculcate change through greater social awareness for distant cultures and realities. Its initiation requires considerable imagination and determination on the part of a new generation of designers to seek a voice for themselves outside of traditional commercial duties.

To be successful, design activists will have to combine methods of consensus and dissensus in their work, seeking at once to build new capital for the present-day and while also asking what sort of society is truly desirable. The difference toapproaches between consensus and dissensus lies within how much the design act is contesting existing capital and seeking paradigmatic change; dissensus may take the form of disruptive aesthetics, political interventions, and creating friction in the social sphere. Design which thinks outside the box can offer new directions for progressive society and unite distant sectors of users, markets, and producers — a role that is considerably different from commercial design.

On the global scale, design can become design altruism, which is philanthropic in nature and done for developing countries or underprivileged communities; participatory and co-design are especially recommended in these situations to avoid the imposition of Western ideals on international peoples. In this case, it may be effective and even ideal to integrate designers into the governance process, where their role is to propagate democratic ideals rather than assistprofit-centered organizations.

Ultimately, the new role of design is an integration of all of these methods — humanitarian design, participatory design, and accessible design — into a multifaceted understanding of sustainable design.

While the spaces for this integration remain limited, there are still opportunities for emerging designers in academic design labs, public and private think tanks, artistic and environmental funding agencies, and entrepreneurial endeavors. Design clinics which embrace co-design also provide strong platforms for gaining experience while working with different communities in the design process. In addition, the DESIS network, made up of schools, companies, and non-profitorganizations, provides a starting point for designers seeking to connect with others working in sustainable and social design.

In the new paradigm, design will turn from a simple service role of product development into a holistic approach to contemporary global issues. Design thinking which uses the abilities to observe, articulate, synthesize, and envision can recreate current situations into preferable ones. These skills can also be applied to address sustainability in the realms of resource use, transportation, safety, labour, consumption, and waste by providing a service to develop new ecologies.

Design research, driven by academic inquiry, can integrate scholarly investigations with theory and development; strategic design, alternatively, can integrate socioeconomic visions into real-world initiatives. This combination of imagination, intuition, and taste is real “design-driven innovation,” and it will become the new way to asking how things can change.




Designer and writer integrating multimedia design with systemic change