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We Can All Be Sustainable Designers

April 15, 2021

IIT Institute of Design students
On the role of designers in addressing climate change

With Earth Day and a related ID conversation approaching, ID students Rosanna Lederhausen (MDes + MBA 2022) and Anand Nagapurkar (MDes 2021) consider how designers can work toward sustainability both tactically and systemically.

In recent years, the responsibility of solving climate change has increasingly been shifted to the individual. But the burden of solving such a complex problem should be received on the macro-level — and addressed by the systems we live in, the communities we are involved with, and the work we do. We know this, and, as designers, we can contribute to the systemic and cultural changes that can make great impact.

Although the term “sustainability” can be unhelpful (due to there being no regulation in the definition, how it is used, or what it actually means in the context of climate change), we will use this term in addition to “circularity” (the practice of creating products, services, ideas that continue to live on past their original use) to discuss how we as designers can rethink our practice in pursuit of working with the planet rather than against it.

Sustainability is a buzzword, just like design thinking (or whatever it is our parents think we do all day). But we can leverage this momentum to drive deep rooted systems change.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for tackling this problem. We need to rethink multiple variables, in many situations, to stretch ourselves to rethink our world. Below are a few ways in which we think designers can begin their journey of including sustainability in their design practice.

Mindset matters

Working toward sustainability begins with the mindset that circular design is holistic and begins wherever you begin your process. It is not an afterthought that is lumped at the end of a proposal. By opening up to this mindset, you realize that environmental issues are interrelated to all aspects of life including social justice, global health, equity, and more.

Once you have established this mindset, every opportunity at work can lead to solutions for a more equitable, sustainable future. Your mindset can also alter your project goals, and that is great! You might begin a project with one idea, but by thinking critically about communities and the planet your goals might pivot. But don’t forget that great solutions come from aligning your goals with your newfound mindset of reducing and rethinking old methodologies.

In our own design practices, and at IIT Institute of Design, we can reframe our mindsets within the goals of our courses. In product design, we have shifted from building as a way of testing to building with the intent of long lasting use. Our mindset has taken us so far as to rethink how we ideate. We often find ourselves using the scraps of our classmates in order to reduce the amount of waste created from prototyping. How can you rethink a similar process in your line of work?

Be bold

How can we be bold and push the boundaries of our industry, field, or even our own design process? Is there a real reason to keep the status quo? If we don’t pause and think about how we are designing and what consequences our end product will have, what value are we really adding?

Going back to our experiences in the Foundation semester, many cohorts of students in product design classes use foam core to build their models. In the industry and in schools across the nation that is how models have been made for decades. For those that don’t know, foamcore is made of polystyrene foam sandwiched between pieces of kraft paper on either side. This past year, we questioned this material choice and moved to chipboard. Although a bit more difficult to work with, it has pushed us to innovate our own concepts, hone our craft, and spend countless hours perfecting how to create a corner radius. Continuing to question, rethink, and test new materials is a major step in the right direction.

In your work, where can you question material choices?

Rethink the physical

This last year has shown us that a lot of work can be done online. And a lot of work can be accomplished with fewer resources, less flights, and less stuff. Leaving aside work that needs to happen in person and the fact that our energy consumption and online habits are linked to other forms of carbon emissions, we see a few big changes that we hope will stick in your practice. We can use Miro (an online whiteboard that has been the saving grace of this pandemic), we can avoid virgin paper, we can consider when and what we need to print, and we can prototype with found materials like cardboard from our apartment buildings. And if we need to use sticky notes, recycle them.

Move towards planet-centric design

As stated above, one person can not solve climate change. We can’t rely on people alone to change the course of broken systems, however we can use our many skills as designers to tackle sustainability. By moving from a Human Centered Design (HCD) approach to a Planet Centered Design lens, we can use our frameworks, methodologies, and toolkit as designers to meet both our climate and business goals.

Planet Centric Design is a methodology for designing products, services, and ways of working that enhance real environmental, social, and economic sustainability — we call this planetary value.
—K. Dimai and J. Casaca Lemos, Impossible

During ID Associate Professor Weslynne Ashton’s Designing for a Changing Climate course, we were able to gain a deeper understanding of the complicated science behind climate change as well as the systems thinking within indigenous practices that have been applied for centuries. By looking at the problem of climate change from a holistic, systems-oriented, planet-centric perspective, we were able to decipher what elements of the problem we could impact, where there are the most opportunities for change, and what stakeholders would be impacted in order to put the planet first.

Be part of systemic change

We have a unique opportunity in this current era. We can use the tools that design and systems thinking has given us in order to rebuild the systems around us. We can apply systems thinking to explore avenues of circular change in the fields we work in.

Sustainability is a buzzword, just like design thinking (or whatever it is our parents think we do all day). But we can leverage this momentum to drive deep rooted systems change.

As designers, no matter your role or position, you have the ability to advocate for using the principles you have learned to rethink all projects with an equitable, sustainable lens.

When we talk about behavior and sustainability … individual behavior is part of that. We can all be better about turning lights off; we can all be better about taking out the recycling. But if you’re designing conditions that can create the potential for behavior change, designers are often the ones responsible for setting those conditions. Built-environment decisions affect human behavior, but those are all designer choices. They’re part of that system.
—ID Associate Professor Ruth Schmidt

Systemic change can feel hard, but if we decide today that we are ALL sustainable designers we can change the past methodologies and rebuild our world to be better for the planet and thus its inhabitants.

Related event: Join writers Rosanna Lederhausen and Anand Nagapurkar with ID faculty Weslynne Ashton and ID alum Brandon Schauer on Tuesday, April 21 at noon—the day before Earth Day—to discuss How Can Design Address Climate Change? in a Zoom conversation. Register here.

This post was originally published on Medium.