OCTOBER 18, 2018

Designers Should Lead on Climate Change

Greg VanderPol, Ross Mitchell


 “…Twelve years to limit climate change catastrophe…” warns a recent UN report.  Coupled with the dire state of global inaction in the face of climate change, it’s increasingly apparent that businesses need to make sustainability a matter of practice and policy, not just “corporate responsibility” lip service.  And designers may be the best equipped to lead a change in industry practices.   

Designers are ultimately responsible for shaping the products and experiences that consumers interact with.  Through such shaping, designers directly influence consumers in a very personal way.  This creates consumer expectations about what is appropriate for a product, brand, category or experience.  Take, for example, Apple.  Amongst all the ways that Apple has influenced culture, they’ve clearly raised awareness and the value of design in general.  But this has inadvertently led to the proliferation of poor environmental practices, including wasteful packaging.

As poor as Apple’s packaging sustainability is, it has also inspired profligate imitation from other companies across industries.  Due directly to Apple’s design leadership, there has been a proportional increase in expectations generally (how many times have designers heard, “make it like Apple”) leading to an increase in what are fundamentally unsustainable practices.  How much of that is Apple’s responsibility? Does that make Apple’s packaging good design or bad?


At the same time, designers also reflect and often reinforce consumer expectations.  Formally or informally, most design groups integrate human centered design principals on some level. Design decisions are rarely made without an understanding of the consumer.  This is generally a good practice, however there are clearly times when reflecting current customer needs actually works against innovation.  Apple notoriously does not user test.  Henry Ford had his famous saying about faster horses.  Consumers may know what they want, but on aggregate, it’s only a vision of what they know.  What this leads to inevitably is the question of what the designer, in their unique position, can and should do to change consumer expectations. 

 Designers should lead the creation of a different, less destructive set of consumer expectations.  While in many circumstances, consumers legitimately value a “wow” unboxing experience, this can be accomplished without excessive or wasteful packaging.  Ultimately, that is a design choice and not a consumer one.  Designers can and should explore new ways of shifting the cues in what constitutes a “wow” unveiling.  Companies often see sustainable practices as being either less optimal or more expensive.  Yet, this is often not the case.  Companies can explore material reduction strategies for example.  Done correctly, and with a sensitivity to design, a product’s overall quality can be maintained while improving both its environmental footprint and reducing cost.

 In some circumstances, integrating sustainable practices may not offer as obvious business advantages though.  But what better challenge for designers to solve?  Through Tesla, Elon Musk transformed the electric car from the most niche of vehicles into the most desirable.  Changing consumer expectations to value sustainability implicitly should be the designer’s moonshot.


On a broader level, there are a number of ways that companies can start taking sustainability seriously.  Shipping and logistics, factory optimization, material selection, sourcing strategies and a number of other factors can and should be looked at.  Essentially these are just like any other innovation problem, and can be addressed using the same tools that work for other innovation problems.

 Just as innovation thrives best when companies adopt innovative practices and principles as a matter of company culture, sustainability also thrives in companies that incorporate it into their organization.  Is your company doing anything to encourage less commuting?  How about all of those disposable cups in the break rooms?  Despite the undue influence of a number of deniers, climate change is accepted scientific consensus. And as extreme weather – most recently Hurricane Michael – becomes more common, climate change will increasingly become a part of the public consciousness.  Demographic differences in how Americans of different ages view environmental issues indicate that a shift in public attitudes is imminent. 

 Is your business positioned to anticipate the shift?  Setting aside questions of morality, it is imperative that businesses also consider how they contribute and adapt to climate change in order to stay profitable.  For example, changing weather patterns may lead to increased floods in a part of the world critical to your supply chain. We know the impacts are potentially even worse.  Indeed, more action now means less adaptation later.  Regardless of how well the world is able to self-correct and address climate change, business will have to deal with it.  Companies should treat this like any other innovation problem (perhaps the most important one?), and commit themselves to a transformation program towards more sustainable business practices as well as a robust set of strategies for anticipating how their business will be affected by climate change.