We live in a society of consumption. Our voracious and seemingly endless appetite for more, better, bigger, and easier is leaving our planet overrun and creating an environment that may not be able to sustain human life.
As designers, are we partially responsible? Are we helping or hurting?
The common and understandable perception is that designers just make more stuff the world doesn't need, but this is unfair. Good designers—conscientious designers—work with sustainability in mind. They know they need to create products, services, and environments that make sense for clients, and work for and with our earth. In other words: Profitable sustainability.
How is it to be done?
A simple—but not sufficient—answer might be to design more environmentally friendly products and processes. This might be called the "diet chocolate cake" approach: Keep doing what we are good at and giving people what they want, but somehow do it less harmfully. At the other end of the spectrum is the abstinence approach: Plead guilty to the charge that designers spend a lot of time designing "elegant landfill" and stop doing it. The great designer Dieter Rams, for example, called for a less wasteful approach in his monograph, "Less But Better."
A Better Kind of Better
I think we need better—but not necessarily less—design. Indeed, designers need to strive for a better kind of better. The days of prevailing in the marketplace by producing a better thing or a better service—more desirable, easier to use, easier to manufacture or deliver—are passing. The winners now will be those who provide customers with the best total experience. People want great experiences and will pay for them. OnStar's innovative way of offering GPS directions to drivers is a good example.
Using a GPS (global positioning system) system to find your way to the airport is definitely better than getting lost and missing your plane. But dealing with the GPS display can be complex and stressful. Often, stopping at a gas station and getting directions from a friendly local is easier. OnStar realized that instead of providing the best (most sophisticated and expensive) technology, it could provide the best (least stressful) experience. So with OnStar, there is no display or complex keyboard to deal with. When you push the single OnStar button, you talk to a real human being who—unlike expensive and confusing LCD displays and keyboards—naturally understands your wishes.
The operator then handles the sophisticated technology at the core of the OnStar system (they know how so you don't have to) in order to provide the directions you need, and can as well make hotel reservations and send flowers for you. Here the experience is paramount: The business model, the interaction design, and the technology are all informed by the vision of delivering a better experience. And the profits for OnStar are actually higher because the systems installed in each car are both less expensive and less wasteful (there are no displays and keyboards to discard), while generating an ongoing revenue stream.
Have I forgotten about global warming and sustainability? Not at all. If a great customer experience also happens to reduce waste and consumption, so much the better.
A few years ago, Continuum helped Procter & Gamble (PG) develop the Swiffer cleaning system. The Swiffer is a truly great success from a business standpoint, both as a customer-delighting experience and as an example of profitable sustainability. Cleaning the floor with an old-fashioned mop and detergent is a messy and unpleasant job that uses many gallons of hot water and great amounts of detergent every week in millions of homes around the world. The water, the energy needed to heat that water, and the environmental impact of dumping the detergent into the waste stream are terribly costly, and all for a job no one likes doing anyway.
Cleaning a floor with a Swiffer uses almost no water at all and the only disposable waste is a sheet of paper and a few squirts of cleaning agent.
However, you know and I know that the Swiffer would not be selling so well (and sparing us so much environmental impact) if people didn't like swiffing better than mopping. Our "commission" from P&G was to design a better floor-cleaning product. But the mission we gave ourselves was to design a better floor-cleaning experience. Because we succeeded in that—swiffing is much easier than mopping and gets the floor much cleaner—we were able to boost P&G's profitability, increase its customers' satisfaction, and make a small contribution to the sustainability of our planet.
The Swiffer is a good example of "profitable sustainability." Designing a superior experience makes it possible to increase profit and decrease mindless waste simultaneously. To put it bluntly, making customer experience a pillar of sustainable profitability is a better alternative than sustainability by enforced abstinence.
The Cost Hurdle
Designing a superior customer experience is also the way to overcome what appears to be a serious flaw in many sustainable technologies; namely, that they still cost more than the toxic alternatives. But does this objection really make any sense? The entire modern world economy is based on the obvious fact that people want—and will gladly pay for—much more than they actually need. I don't know what the cheapest car in the world is, but it isn't the market leader. More typically, a product category is led by the coolest thing around; witness the iPod in all of its ever-smaller and cooler incarnations.
Can designers applying their ability to create cool things help to make emerging-but-not-yet-cost-effective renewable energy systems the thing to have? Take solar energy. It isn't really the cost that keeps some people from going solar; they simply don't want their homes disfigured by ugly roof panels. Other would-be adopters may be uncomfortable about appearing holier-than-thou to their neighbors.
But there already exists a photovoltaic material that can be embedded in roofing materials and is practically invisible. If this were fully developed and marketed, there would be quite a few customers willing to pay extra for a "green" power source that didn't make them look weird. Bringing such an innovation successfully to market is less a matter of bringing down the price than of designing a compelling customer experience, all the way from selection to installation to finished look and feel. Of course, this would require designers to research the various motivations of pride, concern, and embarrassment.
Conversely, it may come about that those ugly solar panels become a status symbol themselves. (I'm sure they are in some neighborhoods.) After all, the Prius is not a particularly cool-looking or beautifully designed car. But over time it has become a kind of status symbol, identifying its owner as a conscientious citizen of the world. Here again, a well-designed customer experience (self-respect and the respect of others) is the foundation for both profitability (Toyota (TM) can't keep up with the demand) and sustainability.
Bigger Playing Field
There's a literary trend these days of rewriting the classics from different points of view; telling the story of the Trojan War in Helen's voice, for instance. It's a wide-open field and there's no danger of being sued by Homer or Shakespeare. Designers might do very well to take this approach to the panoply of inventions and innovations that have already been developed—the car, the computer, the credit card, the answering machine, the washing machine, the drive-in, the airport, the air conditioner, and on and on—but this time taking into account the psychological, emotional, social, and ecological factors that weren't on the minds of—or given priority by—engineers, designers, or customers at the time these innovations were first conceived.
Designers now have an ethical responsibility to avert the destruction of the planet on which their children and grandchildren must live—this is the same responsibility any of us has. Designers also have a professional responsibility to help their clients' profitability in the short and medium terms by designing products that cost less to produce and are more desirable. Finally, designers have a long-term fiduciary responsibility to their clients; the degradation or destruction of the environment is in nobody's long-term interest.
We can fulfill all these responsibilities by adopting a 21st century definition of "better" and then going about our business of designing better products and services, applying a new kind of "cool" to a rapidly overheating world.