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How to become a sustainable designer: dig where you stand

May 5, 2021

By Zoe Lester, Product Designer at Idean UK

Design for sustainability can be intimidating. We think we need to understand it all before we can put a foot forward. But just like anything, it can be learnt and practised.

As designers, we create the world around us but we’re products of our surroundings too. We perpetuate learned behaviours and become, however unconsciously, a creator and destructor at the same time.

On one hand, we help customers have a better experience, but on the other, we participate in extractive behaviours in terms of resource or by designing addictive behaviours. How can we solve this?

As designers we are both creators and destructors.

Understanding that we are part of the problem and the solution is the path to becoming a sustainable designer.

By choosing the path of continuous growth and reflection, we can take the necessary time to step back and reflect on these behaviours. By developing our reflective skills, we make smarter decisions that consider the multitude of consequences that could come from a single decision.

Change ultimately starts with addressing our own behaviour first - to dig where we stand - then lead others

I’ve put together three exercises you can do now and repeat in the future to help you shift your practice as a designer. Whilst this exercise is focused on design as a practice, it can also be used by anyone making decisions that might shape the way others behave. The ultimate aim is to create more sustainable behaviours and frameworks to use in our own lives and then in what we design for others.

Making way for a new kind of leadership

Arguably, the leadership we have encountered up until this point has lacked the foresight and prudence necessary to respect the planet’s delicate equilibrium. Industrialisation has been a period of intense extraction from the earth’s resources and has created a business model which is focused on growth as the bottom line.

It’s clear now that we need to be looking at the triple bottom line: considering money, people and planet while embedding redistributive and regenerative approaches into business and the economy.

We need to be looking at the triple bottom line: considering money, people and planet.

Ecuador is leading by example by being the first country to incorporate ‘Pachamama’ meaning ‘Nature’ into their constitution, stating that ‘it has the right to exist and persist to maintain and regenerate its vital cycles’. By taking a systems-thinking approach we begin to understand that while extracting resources in one part of the world may lead to growth and increased GDP, it can create inequality and climate change in another. But we’re currently not measuring this impact as core to our economic prosperity. (Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth, 2017).

We require leaders who understand the need for equilibrium thinking and can demonstrate empathy. That way they can make small positive changes over time as opposed to one-off displays of effort or token gestures.

Prudence and foresight are key to responsible decision making. It’s the practice of self-reflection that will develop the skills we need to make tough decisions in the quiet of our own mind and in the face of resistance. Ultimately we need to learn to lead ourselves before leading others.

Box-ticking is no longer enough

Truly effective sustainable design starts with behaviour change. It’s not effective because it is called ‘sustainable’ but because it’s an approach, embedded into the system and continually refined over time.

For example, whilst green-powered cars are a step in the right direction, we need to consider their embodied carbon – everything that went into making it in the first place. What we should be thinking about is designing cities where public transport is accessible to everyone or where people can live a more ‘local’ life where they don’t need a car.

In a similar way, we need to find this structural change in our own lives. Whilst switching to energy-saving light bulbs or recycling diligently are good behaviours, they do not require us to fundamentally change our behaviour. We need to examine our lives holistically and ask ourselves if our day-to-day behaviour is congruent with our core values. Are we buying new ‘things’ when we could be using the time to develop a new skill, read a book or start a garden? If we are already making these changes in our lives, what has this given us in terms of time back and contentment of mind? How could this experience lead others?

Tony Fry writes on the relationship between design, unsustainability, and politics. In his book ‘Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and a new practice,’ he argues that we need to shift from ‘sustainability; as a checkbox exercise, to ‘Sustainment’. ‘Sustainment’ acknowledges the need for an iterative approach and focuses on embedding behaviour change over time rather than accepting quick solutions.

To create real change we must redirect our approach towards knowing that the task is a continual labour, intrinsic to our being and the price we pay for our own existence.Tony FryDesign theorist and philosopher

In order to regain control and shift our behaviour towards ‘sustainment’, we must practise self-reflection as opposed to using tools like eco-calculators.

That’s where my exercises come in. They can be done in 15-30 minutes but can and should also be repeated daily, weekly, monthly, annually and over a lifetime. Take your time, this skill can be learnt and gets easier with practice. The below are just an example. Download the PDF to get your copy of the three complete worksheets.

Exercise 1

My annual footprint

Start by reflecting on your lifestyle. Take 5-10 minutes for this exercise. It’s less about accuracy and more about acknowledging where your time, energy and money are going. Consider:

  • Where do you buy your toilet paper?
  • How many toothbrushes do you get through?
  • What is unsustainable about your behaviour and what can you do about it?
  • What are you already doing about it?
  • Do you grow your own vegetables?
  • Have you changed the way you holiday, thinking more local and taking fewer flights?

Think about what you could do to redirect your current habits towards a better quality of life for yourself, others and the environment as a whole.

My annual footprint example

Exercise 2

The self-sustainment canvas

How closely do you live in alignment with your core values? Becoming a sustainable designer is about recognising that all aspects of your life are interconnected:

  • How do you motivate yourself and those around you?
  • Do you have a community of friends / relationships that feed you and you for them?
  • How do you feel about the values you hold about equality, global war and the needs of others?
  • Are you eating good food, taking care of your mental health, are you physically fit?

Give this section 10 - 15 minutes but know that living in alignment with our core values is our life’s work and this is just a starting point.

The self sustainment canvas

Exercise 3

Designing the designer

Looking at your previous reflections, what needs to change in terms of career, business and lifestyle for you to become more sustainable by design?

What are your long-term aspirations versus the things you can start today? Break down long-term goals into smaller habits to make the things you can start today simple and achievable.

What sets us apart from other animals is that we can imagine first in our minds and then create. Utilise this gift and design your path on paper first.

Designing the designer

Download worksheets PDF

Choosing the path of a responsible leader, the gardener

These three exercises should help you to map the space between where you are and where you want to be. By identifying the actions you need to take, you can see yourself in the relational picture, understanding that you can be both part of the problem and the solution.

Ultimately the act of reflection, followed by tweaks and changes over time, is what shape us and makes the longest-lasting change. Developing this skill in ourselves will help project the same approach in our work.

This ‘inside out approach’ allows us to explore our aspirations, personality and motivations. It lays the foundation for dealing with external achievements such as running an organisation or following a certain career path. In undergoing this process we are inevitably choosing the path of a responsible leader: a person who has done the work to align internal and external ambition which ultimately creates a successful approach to life.

This is the metaphor of a leader as a gardener. The gardener is someone with the capacity to recognise the whole system. They see the good and the bad. They know the real work is in preparing the environment, clearing space and nourishing the soil. They are not responsible for making the plants grow but can create the optimum environment for their success. As designers and decision-makers we can garden our lives as well as our work and processes.

And so I share this secret with you because sustainable change requires everyone. If we can all stop to reflect, be conscious of the systems at play, the triple bottom line (money, planet and people) and design to regenerate, we can collectively create the economy of the future and live a fulfilling life as we do it.

Wherever we are, that’s where we start. We dig where we stand.

To download the full exercise and get your three sustainable designer worksheets, click the button below.

Download PDF

Product Designer, Idean UK

Zoe Lester

Zoe is a Product Designer who believes we should take responsibility for what we put into the world. Her approach to iteration over time and feedback loops has helped shape her career in digital design. Ask her about sustainable design on zoe.lester@idean.com.

Want to talk about what we as a studio are doing to be more sustainable? Or how we could work together to bring a more sustainable practice to your organisation? Reach out to Dan O’Connell, Product Director at Idean UK.

Read more from the team on sustainability