Perhaps the most important statistic in the world of sustainable design is this: the EU estimates that "80% of the environmental impact of products and services are determined at the early design stages".It means the main influences on the products and services we consume are dictated not just by how they are made, shipped and retailed but what they are and how they are designed to meet people's needs
It implicates designers in the creation of the positive or negative impacts of the stuff we buy and use, and I use the statistic widely to make my "design for sustainability" case. The statement is really powerful, but it's also misleading. It suggests designers are in the pole position on sustainable design, which in many cases they are not; their clients are.
Many programs and activities aimed to advance sustainable design to date have been well-intentioned, but ultimately flawed in failing to acknowledge this dynamic. The Designers Accord for instance, a global pledge to up our game on sustainable design, attained an impressive 150,000 signatures, though only 2% of these were clients. This assumes designers control the major decisions in design processes, which is rarely true.
As a result, the single biggest and most important thing that would drive sustainable design would be if clients start to specify sustainability properly and systematically in design. A few months ago, I set up and ran a session to unpack just these issues, called the UK Sustainable Design Roundtable. This brought together design and sustainability stakeholders, including big business and design buyers such as AkzoNobel, Kingfisher, Boots UK, Sainsbury's, along with charities Bioregional and WRAP plus design representation from Seymourpowell, DesignBridge and the UK Design Council.
We started with a simple question: "How do we change the way things get designed?" Discussions centred on the ways to advance sustainable design, which critically included system-players from the client and design side of the equation. We explored several ways to do this, including:
1. Getting sustainability into design briefs: a brief, usually prepared by clients for their designers, is the all-encompassing blueprint for a successful design outcome. Is sustainability coherently reflected or written into this?
2. Getting sustainability into design and innovation processes: most clients and designers have a structured design process guiding the successful creation and launch of new products and services. Where and how does sustainability fit into this?
3. Procuring design services sustainably: clients often manage and select their designers through formal rosters or procurement processes. Are they selecting designers on their sustainability knowhow?
4. Embedding sustainable design in corporate sustainability programs: does the clients' sustainability strategy set targets and goals for sustainable products and services to mandate design involvement?
Fascinating content its own right, but it really struck me that our barriers and enablers to advancing sustainable design seem far less about a lack of vision, knowledge or capacity and more about weaving sustainability into the nuts and bolts of how design practically happens. Notably clients own or control many of these factors too.
Rather ironically then, designers may not always be in the driving seat for the design of more sustainable products, services and business models. A good deal of this happens pre-brief, way before a designer ever puts pen to paper or mouse to mac.
If this sounds depressing to designers, my call is for a more united front on these issues. If we are really serious about driving sustainable design forward and scaling up the development of more sustainable products, the client-designer interface will be critical. When last surveyed, just 16% of UK designers stated sustainability was an important factor in them winning work with clients, so there's clearly considerable room for improvement.
Tackling this requires several things to happen. There's a clear need for a larger platform or programme on the client-designer intersection to sustainability, and we are currently scoping out a more ambitious follow up to the UK Sustainable Design Roundtable. We'd welcome thoughts and input in the comments section below.
Generally clients must get better at writing designers into their sustainable business work, to get real value out of the design world. Key to this will be engaging designers earlier around sustainability issues: in design projects themselves, in agency and partner selection or perhaps even bringing designer in to strategy development or target setting.
Designers too must do more to paddle upstream on sustainability, becoming more literate in their clients' sustainability priorities and where design adds value. The design world must wake up to fact that many of the big questions around designing for sustainability are usually strategic in nature.
Without some of this I'd question our ability to make much of a dent in that all important "80%". It would be naive to cross our fingers and expect designers alone to resolve all our sustainable design, product and innovation challenges. The majority of mainstream design will remain client-led and that means clients large and small – as much as designers themselves - will really drive forward sustainable design.