January 11, 2023
7 min read

Why Today’s Industrial Designers Must Become Tomorrow’s Sustainability Leaders

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Most industrial designers understand the relationship between their profession and its impact on the environment. They understand how things are made, their waste, their value, and the inherent right for an object to exist. It is therefore imperative that designers make an urgent and prescient decision about what, why, how, and to whom industrial design serves. With this, industrial design thought leaders can educate the masses, lead by example, and represent the forefront of the next groundbreaking era of product innovation.

As consumers and regulators increasingly place an emphasis on sustainable design, industrial designers need to stay ahead of the curve — way ahead of the curve. From cutting-edge new technologies and manufacturing methods to the advanced capabilities of Industry 4.0, the future of sustainable design is one which includes more functional, durable, and aesthetically-pleasing products, with minimal environmental impact.

While certain technologies and manufacturing processes may still not be widespread, how can brands leverage sustainable design practices today? Is it the localization of manufacturing? Platformization? Design for disassembly? Carbon footprint programs? Material innovations? We believe the answer involves all of the above…and more. All have proven to be strategically enacted in major product categories and developed en masse.

Imagine a world where future generations are trusted to take care of the planet in a global society that is fair, prosperous, places extreme value on the limits of natural resources, and takes great care of the world in which they live. Also imagine that “that world” begins today — with a radicalized approach to product strategy that fights outdated design methodologies, product strategies, and over-consumption habits that characterize the industrial age of the past century.

Imagine, again, that the ideal scenario for a cleaner tomorrow can begin with your very next product strategy meeting or a simple napkin sketch.

Sustainable design: not just a buzzword

Sustainable design is an increasingly urgent topic, but also one that, in many instances, is lacking in effective leadership with definitive and actional direction for industrial designers. In the past, the focus of the design was mainly on aesthetics and function, with little attention paid to the environmental impact of products and manufacturing processes. However, as awareness of the need for sustainability has grown, more and more designers and manufacturers are incorporating sustainable principles into their work.

Sustainable design is much more than just using environmentally-friendly materials. It encompasses a holistic approach to design that takes into account the entire lifecycle of a product, from its raw materials and manufacturing processes to its use and disposal. According to the design philosophies of industrial design icon Dieter Rams, sustainable design is good design; it involves creating products that are functional, durable, and aesthetically pleasing while minimizing their environmental impact.

Sustainable design is a sophisticated and modern product strategy.

How many smartphones does the world really need? How much does “incremental innovation” enhance the human experience? What if all of that creative capital were diverted to solving environmental challenges?

One of the key ways in which sustainable design can be impactful is through product strategy. This begins with reducing the number of parts in a product, simplifying its design, and extending its lifespan through careful planning and design. By reducing a product’s part count, designers can not only save resources, but also make the product easier to assemble, repair, and recycle. Simplifying a product's design can also make it more user-friendly while extending its lifespan can reduce the need for frequent replacement and disposal. 

Another example is the concept of product platformization, which allows companies like Tesla to design and create several focused products from a single chassis or core platform. By concentrating on building market share and increasing the longevity of their products, they can minimize excessive waste and free up resources, including design talent, for future projects. Product platformization is ultimately about bringing value to a product strategy blueprint rather than volume.

Sustainable Design in Tech

By now, we all know about the Nest Learning Thermostat, Tony Fadell’s simple, elegant device that allows users to control the temperature in their home from their smartphone. It learns the user's schedule and preferences over time and automatically adjusts the temperature to save energy. By using advanced algorithms and a sleek, minimalist design, the Nest thermostat reduces the number of parts and features, while still providing a valuable and user-friendly service.

Sustainable Design in Architecture

An example of sustainable design in architecture is the ModuTile interlocking floor tiles, designed by Brandon Perelman. These tiles are made from recycled materials and can be easily assembled and disassembled without the need for tools or adhesives. This means that they can be used in a variety of settings, from home gym floors to trade show booth floors, and can be easily reconfigured or replaced as needed. The modular design of the tiles also makes them easy to recycle at the end of their lifespan.

Sustainable Design in Furniture

A third example of sustainable design is the Herman Miller Aeron chair, designed by Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick. The Aeron chair is made from recycled materials and is designed to be easily disassembled and recyclable at the end of its lifespan. It also features an ergonomic design and adjustable components, which allow it to be customized to the user's body and preferences, and to accommodate different postures and activities. This ensures that the chair can be used for a long time, reducing the need for frequent replacement.

In the near future, sustainable design will continue to be an increasingly important part of the industrial design and manufacturing landscape. As consumer demand for sustainable products grows, designers and manufacturers will need to find new and innovative ways to incorporate sustainable principles into their work. This may involve creating and using new materials and technologies, such as bio-based plastics, and adopting new approaches, such as circular design.

Sustainable design is a mindset that begins at the napkin sketch

To stay ahead of the curve, brands and entrepreneurs must start incorporating sustainable design principles into their work, led by design leadership, now. An effective sustainable design strategy will mean starting over at First Principles to set up a roadmap of system flexibility, product evolution, product storytelling, and ultimately, business sustainability for the future.

This may involve conducting or commissioning life cycle assessments (LCAs) to understand the environmental impact of their products, or exploring new materials and manufacturing processes that reduce waste and emissions. Additionally, designers will need to stay informed about the latest developments in sustainable design and be willing to adapt and innovate in response to changing consumer preferences and market conditions. In some organizations, this has involved the creation of new dedicated roles with sustainability-based KPIs (key performance indicators) folded into a designer or design team’s expected performance.  

In order to create truly sustainable products, designers and manufacturers will need to think beyond just the materials they use. They will need to consider the entire lifecycle of a product, from its raw materials and manufacturing processes to its use and disposal. This will require a holistic approach to design, which takes into account not only environmental factors but also social and economic factors. This is where the role of the industrial designer evolves beyond traditional definitions and into a new groundbreaking frontier with rules and processes that are yet to be written. 

One consistently successful method that brands have put this into action with is through the concept of a circular economy, which involves designing products and systems that are regenerative and restorative by nature. This means designing products that can be easily repaired, refurbished, or recycled at the end of their lifespan, and using materials and processes that are renewable and non-toxic. By adopting a circular economy approach, designers and manufacturers can create products that have a minimal impact on the environment, and that can be used and reused in a sustainable way.

Seek to nature for the ultimate inspiration

In nature, extraneous materials are not used to build or evolve. To design products, services, and business models for the future, we need to look past the past and design for the future.

Sustainable design is a crucial part of the future of industrial design. Good sustainable design requires the creation of products that are functional, durable, and aesthetically pleasing while minimizing their environmental impact. By adopting a holistic approach to design, and using tools like the circular economy and biomimicry, designers and manufacturers can create sustainable products that benefit both people and the planet.

So, the burning question is: are you a brand or a designer ready to educate the masses, lead by example, and represent the forefront of the next groundbreaking era of innovation?

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