Designing sustainable processes

Sustainability is a broad term. We as designers can play a large role in creating an eco-friendlier world.


Sustainability is a broad term. In this post I talk about environmental sustainability issues. We as designers can play a large role in creating an eco-friendlier world.

When people think of design, they tend to think of artifacts. I think these artifacts are important, but merely a result.

We need to design the design process, production process and people’s behavior. This post is about the processes and artifacts. I’ll talk about behavior change in another post.

As a soon-to-be father I have enough reason to worry every now and then. Not only do I worry about my girlfriend and son’s health during birth. I also ponder about the consequences of my generation’s consumerism behavior and how that will affect the circumstances in which my son will live the latter part of his life.

These days, people in well developed countries together use more energy than is sustainable for the world’s entire population. Only when we manage to innovate our solutions in a greener and more eco-friendly way, this climate crisis can be solved before it will show its darkest side. Energy usage is not the only problem. Other subjects like pollution and excessive resource consumption need to be tamed as well.

Environmental problems

In the introduction above I addressed three problems that need to be tackled. Speaking of environmental problems, these are the main causes of the non-circular system.

Cause Effect
High energy usage, co2 production Climate change
Pollution Toxicating ourselves and other life on this planet.
Excessive resource consumption. Consuming more resources than nature can produce, we’ll run out.

We designed this straight-line growth model

Designers played a responsible role in these causes and effects. We created this consumerism world ourselves. Annie Leonard talks about this in The story stuff, a viral 20-minute talk which I’ve pasted below.

Annie’s point is simple and straightforward: the world economy follows a straight-line growth model based on planned obsolescence, while the world itself prefers to work in a circular symbiotic relationship.

‘Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.’
Victor Lebow, Retail Analyst (Price Competition in 1955)

Designing sustainable solutions

In order to design and build sustainable solutions we need to keep in mind a few markers that can help us bring structure in the process. We should:

  • build products that last;
  • create things that can be repaired;
  • make stuff that can be recycled or reused;
  • not use toxics during our production process;
  • use green energy since natural resources are scarce.

Build to last

We’re talking about sustainability here, and how we can make people behave sustainable. Did you know that for years (and even now) many companies deliberately create products that have a short lifetime? Personal computers have long been deliberately designed for replacement every eighteen months.

Planned obsolescence

Bruce Sterling wrote a great piece about this in his book ‘Tomorrow now’. He explains that the short lifetime was not only in the interest of the people who make them, but also the managerial and programming classes that use them. If computers lasted forever and were simple to use, the high-paying jobs in e-commerce would immediately migrate to India (that’s actually happening right now, and computers do last longer).

Websites die even faster than computers do, the average life span for a website on the internet lasts 40 days. Did you know that these websites are saved on servers all over the world sometimes for years? We often think that information on the internet is clean, but these websites are stored in server parks that are run by stinking diesel engines.

Repair instead of replace

This reminds me of a great story that I heard at the awesome design for conversion conference last year in Amsterdam. Paul Hughes told and sketched a story about a 150 year old architectural design solution on the Oxford University grounds.

Oxford University sustainable design solution

On the terrain of the Oxford University in England you can find numerous beautiful monumental buildings. One of these buildings, a 150 year old hall needed to have its ceilings renovated. The ceilings contain huge oak beams, about 100 in total. These oak beams would cost the University more than 100.000 British Pounds each!

There seemed no solution at hand, nobody knew what to do. The complete investment, including the renovation itself would be much too costly to do.

During one of their housing counsel meetings, which also includes gardening and forestry issues, one of the foresters started to grin. The counsel listened to his story. He explained that the architect of the huge 150 year old hall had also designed a huge oak forest not too far from the Oxford University terrain. These oaks were planted to actually replace the oaks in the ceiling of the Oxford University hall.

A beautiful example of sustainable design.

Recycle and reuse

When a product’s lifetime has come to an end in it’s normal intended form we can find new purposes. As a designer we can think about that second lifetime already when designing for it’s intended first lifetime. This second lifetime can go for the product as a whole but also as seperate parts. Just like the Oxford architect did.

We can design products that give purpose to products that ran out of time. Ubuntu, for example, is designed to endow older less powerful machines with a modern operating system.

A great example of repairing instead of replacing would be a mobile device that allows the market to move from changing old devices (throwing them away) to simply replacing their skins and parts. Did you know that 426.000 mobile phones retire from a really short life only in the USA?

Nokia’s Homegrown project

One of Nokia’s advanced design teams today called ‘Homegrown’ tries to change this with their Remade project. This is long term research project looking at how Nokia can help people make more sustainable choices. The team is exploring specific environmental and social issues including recycling, energy and how to make the benefits of mobile technology available to more people.

Remade’s father and Homegrown’s project leader Andrew Gartrell pushed design beyond just aesthetics. He considered covers, key mats, and displays but also engine, connectors, and other components. They discovered that a typical mobile phone contains around 44 of the 117 elements currently known to science. Andrew’s approach was to de-construct everything and rebuild it from scratch using recycled materials and sustainable technologies.

It’s made entirely from nothing new, using a cleaner engine, and made to last. They call it ‘Waste turned into a thing of beauty’.

Think outside the toxic box

Many companies promise green and toxic-free products. Greenpeace released a new list of electronic manufacturers and their green habits. Nokia, Apple and Sony Ericsson are in a so-called green zone. These companies scored best in terms of energy, avoiding poison and taking responsibility for their waste collection and processing equipment.

How green are electonics companies?

Apple excels in the elimination of toxins. All units of the company are already free from the harmful materials, PVC and brominated flame retardants. These toxins provide much pollution as the devices are discarded, especially in many developing countries where electronic waste is dumped.

HP produced a laptop that is substantially free of toxins and presented two new laptops and a desktop without PVC and brominated flame retardants.

These companies show that it is actually possible to create toxic-free products. It’s only a matter of thinking differently and investing in their design and production process.

Natural resources are scarce, use green energy

During a regular design project lots of e-mails and documents go from one to another. For years now I see e-mail footers with messages like ‘Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail’, I had one for a very long time. I like these footers, a simple reminder and not disturbing at all.

It’s not that we shouldn’t print our e-mails at all, sometimes it’s just handy to print them. You can easily change your printer setting to economy, which means 2-sided printing with two sheets on each side.

Designers should inform

We as designers (in my case of digital products) can play a role in informing our clients about their responsibilities. Not many clients think of energy usage of the hosting servers which their website uses.

There’s quite a lot of green hosting providers around that use green energy and use toxic free servers in their server parks. From my own experience I know that not many hosting companies are open about their energy usage. I consider they may actually have something to hide.

Placing high quality images on your web servers take an enormous amount of rack space. Keeping these racks running takes a lot of energy (and more racks as well). Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to downscale images a bit, (most of the times images are downscaled by the server when loading the web page which makes the high resolution file useless anyway).


Environmental Sustainability and Interaction – CHI 2007, April 28 – May 3, 2007, San Jose, California, USA.
Main photo by Gaetan Lee on
The wasted years by Jill Ettinger
The story of stuff by Annie Leonard
Tomorrow now – Bruce Sterling, 2002
Ecomama for refreshing my memory on the Oxford oak story
Near Future Laboratory about Nokia Homegrown

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