• Chris Sherwin

Embedding Sustainability in all Design

In the second in the Guardian series on sustainability and design, Chris Sherwin then Head of Sustainability at Seymourpowell explores how to get sustainability into each and every design project

Here's how the majority of design projects work. A client writes a brief, clearly laying out a set of requirements for the project they are commissioning. This brief can contain: customer needs and profile, technical specifications, budgets and manufacturing recommendations, in other words all the essential ingredients of a successful design.

The brief provides the rules to work to and then a checklist to measure your designs against at the end. The designer's job is to balance these technical, commercial, brand and customer parameters. You can exceed the brief, but certainly never under deliver. So if this is the all-powerful blueprint for successful design, why not embed sustainability in it to ensure it happens systematically?

Here lies the first challenge of sustainable design - getting sustainability into the design process, so it is part of the normal way we design, whether through briefing or some other mechanism. The good news is that, in our experience, sustainability is now visible in client briefs. The bad news? It's not in all briefs and as of yet, is not a default consideration in design. Just 14% of designers say that green issues were an important factor in them winning or delivering work for clients.

Sustainability is just good design

'Good design is sustainable design' announced the UK Design Council's strategic plan in 2008, but I believe we must go one step further, not only making sustainability part of good design, but of all design. Mike Barry from Marks & Spencer echoes this in setting a target to get sustainability inside every product the retailer sells.

My previous article explained how designers shape the next generation of products and services that are critical to the sustainability of the UK economy. Factoring social and environmental considerations into the design of future products can ensure we hit our long-term targets for carbon emissions, resource efficiency, waste reduction, and reduced toxicity. Historically we've targeted specific sustainable products within a portfolio (an eco-range), or high impact products. This only spotlights a contradiction in a company's portfolio; why design sustainable products next to unsustainable counterparts? There are also cases of the risk impacts reduced in one product category being cancelled out by spiraling impacts in another.

100% of designs must encompass sustainability

One example of a sustainable design is Bimbo packaging, primarily designed for the user benefit of eliminating the ineffective packaging tie, which also has environmental benefits. Another is Replenish, the household cleaning refill that saves you money and reduces the inconvenience of running out.

If sustainability in all design is the goal, then the client-designer relationship will be crucial to delivering this. Here are three ways to make sustainability a default in design:

• Design briefs

Getting the briefing process right is an obvious first step. We've seen sustainability written into briefs in such unspecific ways that it will be of little use. This risks it being sidelined or dropped off the priority list. The more specific clients are in briefing, the better the results will be.

Many advocate lifecycle assessment (LCA) or other product footprinting as an essential or mandatory part of design, which companies such as Levis, Danone or Kraft reportedly do. While in principle this may be effective, a broader set of sustainable design tools may be needed.

• In design processes

Individual products or projects are usually part of a strategic portfolio, which is carefully managed and can be another point of influence. Companies such as DSM, which aims for 80% of pipeline from sustainable product by 2015, and IKEA, with its goal of 90% eco-improved products by 2015, are building sustainability systematically into design. If targets are set to move the portfolio towards sustainability, the projects and products will follow.

• Through design persuasion or stealth

Designers cannot control briefs or what clients do, but they can influence. That kind of creative disruption is often why clients turn to designers – because they think differently, stretching the client and the brief beyond what they see today. Why not do this on sustainability, either through persuasion or stealth?

Given that the dynamics of power resting with clients, industry programmes and design standards can help, such as WRAP's excellent Product Sustainability Forum, looking to unify the way we design products across different industries.

Next generation design

All this may sound like good housekeeping, rather than the imaginative, creative, inspirational processes normally associated with design. But even if its not glamorous, it can certainly be effective. In future, doing design without sustainability being, at the very least, a consideration in the brief or process, will be as inexcusable as designing dangerous or unsafe products is today.

Avoiding sustainable design considerations now could also mean building-in future environmental or social risks for the very clients that designers are serving, or even for the next generation of users. That really would be 'off-brief' and the exact opposite of the added value service that clients have come to expect from good design.


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