‘Human-centered’ design, as currently practiced, is problematic. For the convenience and delight of the ‘user,’ we create products that are cheap and desirable but create environmental and social damage through their production, service, and after-life. To support these consumption patterns, we have moved from participating in the global ecosystem into an age of human domination: the Anthropocene. This ‘Age of the Human’ calls us into a position of responsibility. Scientists have identified nine planetary boundaries (graphic below) beyond which lies irreparable impact with unknown consequences. Moving forward, we need to create a balanced symbiotic relationship between human activities and our ecosystems. Crafting this relationship will require both collective global actions and bespoke individual efforts. As designers, we need to embrace this challenge and broaden ‘user-centered design’ to considering all of life.
At Above, we design and engineer experiences and services that often involve consumer electronics. In the past years, we have been exploring processes to align the design and manufacturing of these often hyper-obsolescent products with our mission to drive positive change. Recently, we spent three weeks with students at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design and explored an approach to sustainability that some would consider upside down. Instead of rethinking the system from the ground up and proposing new models of ownership, usage, and service — we started with the product. This article is a mix of lecture material and learnings from the first half of this class.
Enough talking, we need to act.
Currently, there is a lot of talk in addition to guides and frameworks for sustainable development. The COP24 climate conference culminated in just talking about what needs to be done to implement the Paris Agreement. Companies like Nike or IDEO have released Circular Design Guides, but it’s unclear how these are affecting their actual business and design practices outside of some experimental products.
While we need high-level plans to align around common goals, they also tend to be abstract and generic. To bring them to life, it’s essential to give people on all levels and disciplines the responsibility and space to actively interpret these ambitions in their context. For designers, this translation requires cross-functional integration with fields like sustainability theory or systems science to turn plans and guides into solutions on the product and service level that we design on a daily basis.
Re-engaging with the means
Designers and consumers alike have become obsessed with the experience and aesthetics of products while the mechanisms that create them have become increasingly opaque. Hermetically sealed products with tamper-proof screws and warranty seals prohibit users from any interaction not explicitly designed for them. Product owners become powerless consumers. For products to become more than just black boxes, we need to reclaim the means and stop obsessing over the ends *. If opening a product is not discouraged, but actually designed for, we enable users to repair or even reconfigure them for purposes that might lie beyond our imagination. Communicating the resources spent on manufacturing and ideal after-life treatment allows consumers to make responsible decisions. Instead of hiding components and processes that make up a product, we need to consider them as part of the ‘experience.’
We have long believed that the increasingly rapid obsolescence of our electronic products could be compensated by recycling. In Europe, around 35% of electronics are recycled, so designers should intimately understand and consider this process. We got a fantastic opportunity to visit the Stena Nordic Recycling Center, where 90 tons of e-waste goes through state-of-the-art treatment processes every day. It was eye-opening in many ways. For example, we found that many products that are meant to be sustainable can, in fact, be hard to recycle. Designers might be proud of using bioplastics, but recycling facilities have trouble separating it from regular plastics, rendering whole chunks of material useless. Understanding and designing the entire journey of our products, especially the interplay between manufacturing and the end-of-life phase will help us make better, more sustainable products.
“We need to fear the consequences of our work more than we love the cleverness of our ideas.” — Mike Monteiro
Recycling is somewhat of a last resort in the circular approach. Most sustainability guides prefer repairing, refurbishing, and repurposing since these schemes retain more of the work and resources invested in a product. In a series of short exercises, we asked the students to redesign the product they had taken apart for different purposes to gain hands-on experience with these practices. First, they explored how to give their objects a prolonged personal value by designing interactions that form an emotional attachment between owner and product. The next day, they repurposed the same product’s components to serve in a sharing model. We chose these exercises because objects with emotional value and objects for sharing lie on the extremes of the ownership spectrum. Designing for each usage model has different constraints and requirements.
Each of the groups worked with a different product, and while they were all cheap, they were built quite differently. During the exercises, we saw a variety of opportunities to increase a product’s potential for repurposing. For example, comprehensive labeling of the test points that most electronics have for debugging gives curious owners entry points to ‘hack’ them. One of the biggest disappointments was the lack of any openly available documentation or affordances to reprogram embedded microchips. More open designs would allow people to not just modify and iterate on the existing hardware, but change a product’s embedded logic (and backend-logic) and lead to more sustainable and resilient (connected) products.
Values to Design by
Shared values like honesty unite us and allow us to trust each other. Most cultural values we live by are practiced almost subconsciously across social settings and contexts. Whenever we are faced with new situations, creating new outspoken values can be a powerful tool to drive collective progress. Especially in new contexts that go beyond established legal frameworks we need values to guide us to long-term sustainable practices. That’s why the students formulated four sustainability value statements that would inform their principles and decisions when working on their final briefs (read more in part 2). The process of creating these values allowed us to question, discuss, and align what sustainability means to us as individuals and designers.
Ask not just ‘How might we?’ but also ‘At what cost?’
In a recent interview IDEO CEO Tim Brown stated that: ‘if we made the oath to do no harm as designers, we would likely never do anything new.’ He instead argues for the responsibility to act and learn when we find out about unintended harmful consequences of our work. While we agree with his mindset of responsibility for products beyond purchase, we do believe that designers should consider possible negative longer-term effects of well-intentioned solutions.
“Too many consider environmental issues to be an obstacle for development. But the conflict between financial growth and ecological sustainability is nothing but a mental construction” - Carl Folke
Limitations and responsibilities are not an inspiring starting point. Designers should be able to take risks and engage with the unknown. Luckily the design process has always been about the balance between creativity and limitations. Which constraints and values we apply sparks our creativity and shapes our products. If we consider not just experiential and financial factors, but also include ecological and social aspects, we will inevitably end up with products that are built with sustainability in mind. We need tools and processes that help us navigate this complex space effectively to not just design for sustainability, but be sustainable by design.
During the second half of this class, we tried some of these methods to work on a brief that challenges not just how we make things, but what we make in the first place (article coming soon). This article only covers a small portion of the opportunities and challenges that lie within ecological sustainability and design. We are still finding new questions, methodologies, and challenges when working with these problems. While none of these thoughts are final, it is still important for us to share these things so we can learn from each other. If you are interested in these topics or have feedback on something we wrote, we would love to hear your thoughts!
Written by Felix Heibeck. Article and class are a collaboration by Victor Johansson, Johanna Tunlid & Felix Heibeck