Defining a new area of design expertise

Defining a new area of design expertise

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  • Christoph Baur Usability Engineer, designaffairs

As consumers around the globe begin to get serious about sustainability, making it a bigger priority in their product and lifestyle choices, sustainability principles are becoming increasingly prominent in the design process. With ‘greenwashing’ increasingly frowned upon, it’s important to get sustainability fundamentals right. Here’s how we are doing it at designaffairs – for ourselves and our clients. 

To establish a sustainability mindset—a deep understanding of how the choices we make in the design, resourcing, production, use and recycling of products and services impact the environment, society and the economy—it is important for design agencies to do more than just theorise. We all understand the basics, but until we experience them it’s hard to internalize the fundamentals and apply them for ourselves and our clients. 

Baking sustainability into your culture

Sustainability is steadily growing in importance at designaffairs.  

Within the agency, it has become part of our culture—we live it, from making Fairtrade coffee choices to separating our waste, using eco paper in our printers and doing regular ’clean-ups where we walk the streets together and pick up waste. The mountain of cigarette butts, metal bottlecaps and packaging waste we confront on these trips keeps our awareness high. It influences our personal purchase and lifestyle choices, and how we resolve challenges for our clients. There is no doubt that it impacts our outputs as an agency.  

In our consulting business, bringing the idea of sustainability to our clients can require persistenceFor many of our more established clients, it is a new factor to considerThey often need to be taken on a journey to understand the opportunity and the longterm value of making sustainable choices. I believe that it is the responsibility of every design agency—even in the face of disinterest and resistance—to ensure that their clients are fully aware of the impact of their decisions and the opportunity they have to make different choices. 

Getting ahead of the curve

Many of our clients have been doing the same things for years and when they approach designaffairs it is often with the goal of just implementing incremental change. This is when it is vital to present organizations with new, agile thinking, changing their mindsets about how we, as a design agency, can work together with them to find new solutions that can leapfrog them and their products into a more sustainable future. 

The sustainability journey we take our clients on may include an end-to-end lifecycle assessment; an assessment of regulatory directives; exposure to new materialsproduction and business models; and how innovation can improve outcomes. Instead of incrementally addressing key problem areas, we help our clients review the opportunities from different perspectives.  

For example, we help our clients find opportunities to innovate by making use of design thinking—that’s identifying potential solutions by understanding needs from a customer perspective. A user-centric approach is, to my mind, absolutely essential. We need to listen to users as we bring products to market. For example, right now, customers want sustainable solutions. If we can provide them, it improves sales—the customer is happy, the client makes more money, the environment is better off, and the economy thrives.  

We also help our clients look at how the business could profit from producing more durable products. And an increasingly important area is looking at how to find value in secondary markets and add value in circular economies. This requires deeper thinking—for example, not just rethinking material sourcing or production methods to lower the organization’s carbon footprint, but rethinking design to enable componentization of the end-of-life product for ‘next-cycling’, a cradle-to-cradle concept. 

While government regulation is sure to drive sustainability, nobody likes being told what to do. Nor will mere compliance ensure ongoing competitiveness. In an era of innovation-driven disruption, there is significant advantage in getting ahead of the curve. 

New thinking and ‘listening’ inform sustainable choices

A lot of the ‘new’ thinking that companies rely on design agencies for comes from observing and understanding how people are using products and how they are thinking about these products. The rapid changes in our societies must be factored into the choices companies are making today. For example, new mobility trends are making sharing rather than buying a vehicle a more attractive choice for the younger generation.  

Changing societal values; concerns about our climate emergency and finite natural resources; economic and political instability—all of these are prompting investors, customers and employees to question long-held beliefs, notably the assumption that growth at any cost is acceptable, says FjordI agree. This is once-in-a-lifetime chance to innovate in business models, services, and products around new definitions of value. 

Making sustainability a primary design factor

I believe design agencies have a very important role to play in helping their clients make sustainable choices and in forging the next generation of sustainable products and services. 

New thinking, new business models, and new measures of value and success are needed.  

  • What if the whole world used compostable shrink wrap for grocery produce 
  • What if recycling was part of everyone’s design strategy? 
  • What if use of ‘green’ materials was legislated? 

It’s time to drive awareness and build sustainability into design. 

This comprehensive sustainable design checklist can get you started. 

Join me next week as I look at the processes and tools designaffairs applied to help an eco-tech client create a design template that reflect the company’s core principles—namely, sustainability. 

The people behind our thoughts

Related examples of our work

In 2019 we explored wonderful Iceland. More information on how this relates to our work will follow soon.

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