color & materials matter. sustainability matters more.

Recent comments from a former student put me in mind of the following. Several years ago I attended an IDSA Conference in which the keynote, speaking about his successful career in automotive and kitchen appliance design, said that he did what designers are supposed to do: make money for their companies. Huh?!. Sell stuff and make money is what design is about? What a dinosaur! Didn’t he know that design was taking on the [then] new challenge of sustainability? That his re-design of a kitchen mixer made more cheaply and selling at the same price point, but in 12 different, highly desirable colors, was not a success according to new thinking?

Looking back, that speaker was probably the most honest person in the auditorium. Sales was his measure of value and he never used the words sustainable, eco- or environment-friendly. Most of his audience was familiar with, or may have used, eco-jargon, but most hadn’t bothered to learn what it meant, nor was sustainability called out in design briefs or part of design process. Fortunately, much work has been done in the years since attending that conference, and what we know about sustainability has research, practice and advocacy supporting it. From the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs], to industry-specific best practices and standards, the concept of sustainability has been defined and is being translated into actions. 

Does this mean that designers are now at the vanguard, scouting out, advancing, and preparing the way for ongoingness? Has design education re-written the curriculum so that every graduate is equipped with lifecycle thinking and emboldened with a planetary state of mind? Equally important, have design schools integrated sustainability into operations, governance, and the college experience? These are necessary and achievable undertakings that have been launched at many scales and in many locations. While individual action is important and empowering, it is the collective effort amongst designers, studios, colleges, and professional organizations that will amplify progress towards a lasting relationship with the earth.

Design it better. Get started…and don’t stop. Ever.

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Posted in Curriculum, Design, Education, from making to doing, Life cycle, Sustainability, Uncategorized

dear editor los angeles times: why recycling plastic will never be enough

Op-Ed: How can we fix our broken plastic recycling system? By Senator Tom Udall & Congressperson Alan Lowenthal to the LA Times / 21 February 2020

Dear Editor: We agree that the companies that make products containing plastic should be made accountable for the plastic waste they generate, and support Congressional legislation that requires that they “design, manage and finance waste and recycling programs” that are needed to recover and manage the plastics in their used products.

What isn’t mentioned is the other bookend to such a program: that we have to design and manage the plastics and other materials that go into the original products. We can redesign products and create more effective systems that use less plastic—or use other materials entirely—and we can increase the recoverability of plastic when the product is thrown away or no longer needed. At present, producers, consumers, legislators and municipal waste-management infrastructures exist in different orbits, comprising discrete parts of a fragmented production system. To solve the plastic crisis, we have to fix this.

The effects of this broken system manifest in global climate and health crises that grace the pages of global newspapers every day. Still, very little progress has been made. We must do more than rely on the efforts of companies and consumers who are peripherally committed to creating a more sustainable product landscape. Sustainable design cannot be an added benefit of the production cycle; it has to be a central tenet of the creation process.

We need both bookends—responsible design and robust cycling infrastructure—if plastics are to become a viable material…because right now, plastics get an F.

Laura Spence-Newhouse / consumerX

Heidrun Mumper-Drumm / ArtCenter College of Design


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Posted in Design, Life cycle, Packaging zombies, Sustainability

the case for a new design degree: bio-d

When I first began teaching ‘Design for Sustainability,’ I proposed the following equation: form + function + sustainability = comprehensive design. It was a formula for discussing a ‘new’ kind of design, and a means of distinguishing it from the ‘same old same old.’ This new math of comprehensive design added sustainability, and in total, made design more powerful.

In the same spirit, I find myself drawn to a renaming of the professionals themselves. I’ve been reading the book Biomimicry in Industrial Design by Carlos Alberto Montana Hoyos. In this book, his graduate thesis published in 2009, he refers to ‘bio-industrial design.’ Aha, I thought. The profession of design needs to be reminded of its purpose, which is, to make sustainable development possible. A name change might signal that purpose. A name that inspires a way of thinking and making. A name that aspires to a nurturing relationship between the earth and its human inhabitants. A name that calls attention to the necessity for such a partnership now. Maybe design curricula and the degrees that are awarded lead the way.

So here it is. No longer simply Industrial or Product Designer, but Bio-Industrial Designer. Bio-Product Designer. Bio-Graphic Designer. Bio-Transportation Designer. There is power in language, just as there is power in bio-design.


Posted in Curriculum, Design, Education, Sustainability, Uncategorized

it takes more than optimism to be a designer…it takes doing

I have always understood design to be a creative and optimistic endeavor. Those who think, create and make are usually responding to a desire to address a challenge. They make something useful and necessary. They create to improve, to inform, to make something better. In some cases, they imagine something completely new and different. This takes optimism.

I’m channeling this inner optimist as I struggle to make sense of the recent election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. To be an optimist, a designer, I have to be able to imagine a world in which good ideas have a place to be. A place or context where my efforts, and those of all creative endeavors, can be focused.

What is this future where ‘climate change does not exist?’ What is the context of a non-renewable energy tomorrow? How do I reconcile my study of environmental issues and deep concern over the consequences of non-restorative patterns of consumption with what is being said by the Trump team?

The answer is: I don’t. And that gets me to the point of this post. Nothing has changed. What we know about the world is still true. What we need to do however, is do more. Continue to make, certainly. But also incorporate into our making the best practices as we know them to be. No more com-promises or ‘half-promises.’ Car efficiency standards? Check. Renewable energy standards? Check. Clean production, product take-back, zero-waste? Check. Check. Check.

Posted in from making to doing

an acid test for design

Reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert made me aware of something potentially as disruptive as global warming. In addition to enhancing and accelerating climate change, carbon dioxide is changing the pH of the oceans. Last fall, Jessie Kawata and I had the opportunity to speak with Dr Jerry Schubel, President and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. During that ‘Coastal Conversation,’ we proposed that design is a critical component of any adaptation action plan, particularly in addressing sea level rise. Now I realize we underestimated the role of design…..since there is no ‘technology fix’ to ocean acidification, how can we apply design thinking to fundamentally change the systems that produce and release carbon dioxide?

Posted in Design, Education, Sustainability

life cycle thinking is something you can see

sustain i c o n s 1.0 Everything we do effects some aspect of sustainability, and though we don’t always talk about it, we do think about it. To help you share your ‘life cycle thinking’ with others, I’ve created a set of sustainicons that you can use to visualize and highlight your thoughts and ideas. It’s only a start. The keyboard-based system is shown in the sustain i c o n s 1.0 pdf, and some examples are shown below. If you have ideas for more, please send them along and I’ll add them to the list.

Interested in biodiversity? Add the biodiversity sustainicon to your signature: {+}.

Are you a great recycler? Highlight your practices with a recycling sustainicon: ///>//>/.

Do you use renewable energy sources or have a solar array on your roof? Use the renewable energy  =(+)= , and solar energy sustainicon =(o)=.

Are you a designer that has used sustainability strategies in your work? Have fun with the bio-inspired system, [{^}], zero waste system [0], and design using one material [1] sustainicons.

Concerned about the presence of potentially harmful chemicals in the environment? There’s a sustainicon that visually describes how a chemical (in this case Mercury) moves from a man-made system into the environment: [Hg]>{Hg}.

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Posted in Sustainability, Uncategorized, Visualization

form + function + sustainability = design

It’s great to be a designer, especially today when the comprehensive thinking, making, doing toolkit of design is just what is needed. If we are hoping that development will be sustainable, then design is going to have to create it. If products and services need to be re-imagined and re-done so that they don’t cause adverse harm at any stage of their life cycle, then design has to get smarter about how design and the environment are interlinked and interdependent.

This is a difficult and exciting undertaking, but first design has to take on the challenge. It begins by recognizing that sustainability has to be part of every design outcome. Hence the equation. Simple addition that can change the world we design.


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Posted in Design, Sustainability, Uncategorized