Energy Strategy for the EcoFridge collaboration between UC Berkeley Engineering and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México Design students
"I don't know about this whole sustainability thing, anymore," a student said to me recently. "No offense. It seemed cool for a while. But a lot of the stuff I see is weak."
These days I spend a lot of time with students and brand-new grads. They're fired up to make an impact, and are impatient with solutions that don't directly take on big issues like e-waste and energy scarcity. Many of them know what greenwashing is, even if they don't know what it's called. Young designers have been vaguely led to believe that designers hold the power. But when they set out to create green product solutions, they often fail—it's just not work that can be done alone.
Waste is money. Wasted materials, water or energy indicates a design failure on some level. Better solutions are both technical and creative: they're high-performance and beautiful, while guiding people to conserve. So even if your school never taught sustainable design, nothing's stopping you from taking this on yourself.
Make friends with engineers
Performance is an engineer's main priority, and is the key to their creativity. Meet your engineering partners halfway. Familiarize yourself with their language. Learn how to analyze product impacts. Get savvy about understanding energy and greener materials. More importantly, though, find a way to collaborate that inspires engineering to push the boundaries of performance.
Many of the best sustainable design student projects I see come from interdisciplinary teams. A colleague and I recently coached a team of students who were designing a new refrigerator. Half of the team was made up of UC Berkeley engineers, the other half product designers from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The engineers investigated technologies like thermal battery innovations, essential for creating a high-efficiency appliance. But they were developing a mass-market product, not simply a new technology. The designers focused on user behavior, cultural context, aesthetics and ease of use. To succeed in the Mexican market, any environmentally friendly technologies had to be affordable for everyone. The biggest waste in fridges, though, isn't necessarily solved by new technologies: it's in addressing the huge amount of cold air that pours out when the door is held open. The team's final design incorporated an insulated window and quick access tray that allows users to ponder, and then to pull out the food they use most, without opening the full door. All of this keeps the fridge closed longer, which saves energy by preventing the cold air from escaping.
Technical solutions can be dreamed up by scientists and clean tech engineers, but the viable projects incorporate beauty, form and human factors. Consider the BioLite stove, which addresses the in-home air pollution problem faced by half the world's population. In aggregate, this is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Their HomeStove reduces fuel consumption by half, cuts smoke emissions by more than 90 percent, and improves the health of the whole community by nearly eliminating black carbon soot.
Tell stories with numbers
Stories that tell us where and how things are made: these are our currency. On one end of the spectrum, we're seeing the dark side of electronics manufacturing revealed at offshore factories like Foxconn. On the other, companies like PACT sell nontoxic, low-carbon products, with an open view into their products' lifecycle. These narratives change the way we experience design.
Bruno Pieters' Honest By garment line takes product transparency to an unusual extreme, showing off the source, price and impact of every single material in a coat. From safety pins and Egyptian threads to Italian polystyrene, every part is accounted for. Pieters' product run is tiny, but it gives us the opportunity to ask: how can transparency transform what people will pay for a product?
Interface has been moving towards reporting full product transparency to its flooring customers. Clients have become savvier about what goes into the products that go into their homes, creating a ripple effect throughout the home design and construction industries. Architectural firm Perkins+Will has developed a transparency protocol for their designs that applies a precautionary principle to selecting building products.
Also, designers can now estimate the amount of energy or water it takes to make something. Tools like Sustainable Minds or (full disclosure—my employer) Autodesk's Eco Materials Adviser will give you basic capabilities to assess impacts in the design phase, well before a product gets made.
Design for Humans
Design researcher Dan Lockton has made an exhaustive study of how to understand and adjust behavior, with an emphasis on social and environmental benefit. Lockton's free, downloadable Design with Intent Toolkit is full of provocations for rethinking a product's interface, such as "How simply can you structure things, to make it easier for users to do what you'd like them to do?" This is where design can excel: make it easy to switch a computer into a low-power state; make it obvious how much water is being used to fill a bath; or eliminate the option of having a TV remain in standby, "vampire power" mode.
You can design for more complex behavior, too; designing for product lifetime can help slow waste streams and allow recyclers to recover valuable materials. By providing product teardowns and guides on how to fix most common electronics and mobile devices, iFixit's entire mission is encouraging repairability and long life for electronics, all of which is determined by the way that they're designed.
Using design principles from our Sustainability Workshop, ID students around the country revisited some of their projects to make them easier to take apart, repair or recycle. Lightweighting and design for disassembly reduce the material inputs in John Turner's outdoor tool set so that the redundant elements shared by three garden implements are streamlined. David Markus' Liter of Light project incorporates waste materials (plastic water bottles), fiberoptic cables, LEDs, and parabolic lenses to create an ceiling lamp with environmental benefits—recycled content, low operating impact, recyclability/disassembly of valuable materials at end of life.
I signed up to study industrial design in 1997, in a fit of inspired frustration. I'd freaked myself out on tours of landfills and road trips through forest clear-cuts. Squinting into the future, the design community seemed like it secretly held the reins. I believed that ecological design could change the world—all we seemed to need was the will, and some better data. As a student, I worked on projects that hooked into ecology in obvious ways: salt marsh conservation, degradable food packaging. Looking around at the time, there wasn't much to see. Bamboo furniture, and a meltscape of recycled plastics: sustainability seen only through the lens of picking greener materials. "You'll never find work if you're interested in the environment," said one well-intentioned teacher. And that's the main difference between then and now. Engineers develop the technology for green products, and design makes them sing. For this generation of designers and engineers, this is the work worth doing.