A New Model for Green Design

A radical document, supported by industry organizations, major designers and leading consultancies, aims to set a new standard for sustainability in design

Valerie Casey was on a cross-country flight—her third that month—when she had a crisis of conscience. The designer, who then worked at frog and is now at IDEO, had just pitched a packaging project to one of the world's largest delivery services, a company with a so-so environmental record. The film An Inconvenient Truth was still echoing through her mind, and yet she felt unsure of how to even begin a conversation about sustainability with her clients. In her frustration, she wrote what she called a "Kyoto Treaty" of design.

Just over a year later, her screed has evolved into a more formal set of principles now called the "Designers Accord," which has been signed by thousands of designers and counting. Its six-member advisory board includes Paul Hawken, best-selling author and founder of the Natural Capital Institute; IDEO CEO Tim Brown; and others. The Designers Accord has emerged at a time of increased interest in and demand for sustainable products, services, and business practices, but in an era of ongoing uncertainty about how to define or measure greenness and growing consumer impatience with corporate "greenwashing." While it is far too early to estimate its impact, the agreement has the potential to quite dramatically change both the practice of design and the business practices of the thousands of companies who work with design consultancies.

The Designers Accord is both a small nudge and a radical step. It's a nudge because many designers and studios already practice many of the principles outlined in the accord: Undertake a program to educate your teams about designing sustainably, initiate a dialogue about environmental impact and sustainable alternatives with each and every client, measure the carbon/greenhouse gas footprint of your firm and pledge to significantly reduce that footprint annually, and so on. (For a complete list of the principles and more information about the Designers Accord, go to designersaccord.org.)

A Paradigm Shift for Design

"One of the firms I spoke with last week told me that they are already doing most of the things in the accord, and that signing up would simply help them commit to taking sustainable practice all the way," says Allan Chochinov, editor-in-chief of the design site Core77 and another Designers Accord board member. "If you look at most of the principles outlined in the Accord, they're not particularly onerous, and will in a very pragmatic way increase the skill sets and awareness on both the design firm and the client side. This creates a kind of partnership toward positive change."

Despite the fact that many of the principles themselves are fairly simple, the Accord marks a paradigm shift: First of all, designers across the industry—including leading studios such as IDEO, SmartDesign, Continuum, and frog—have signed up, and the two big professional associations in the U.S.—the AIGA and the Industrial Designers Society of America, which together represent more than 22,000 members—have endorsed it. While Casey counts more than 3,500 signees now, the number has been growing rapidly, with several multinationals and companies with internal design teams signing on.

For clients this is significant because it means that sustainability is going to be part of the conversation regardless of what studio they're talking to. Core77's Chochinov draws a comparison to LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), the rating system introduced by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2000. "Today, you can't have a conversation with an architect without the question of LEED coming up," he says. "The accord will make sustainability part of the design conversation."

New Constraints to the User-Centered Approach

And, stresses Chochinov, it makes it part of the conversation early, which is important. For instance, if the project team considers issues of sustainability in the prototyping phase, it might search out greener materials or a more efficient battery. While it's hard to argue with such incremental improvements, the Designers Accord aims for more than, as Casey puts it, "business as usual with better materials." By bringing sustainability into the conversation from the outset, the Accord is intended to spark thinking about new behaviors and new business models. Think ZipCar, a company whose impact depends not on greener cars, but on greener behavior of drivers and more efficient use of resources.

For designers, the Accord brings new layers and constraints to the user-centered approach most of them employ today. "It will be another set of inputs," adds IDEO's Brown. "But we've found that sustainability is highly complementary to our human-centered innovation process." He says it also encourages designers to look beyond the artifact and consider the larger system.

Casey points to the example of a toothbrush that IDEO designed for Oral-B several years ago. "They were very successful measured by the metrics that were paramount at the time—marketplace performance and human-centered design. A+ all around," she says. But the co-molded plastic handles that scored high points for ergonomics don't look so good in terms of materials usage, not to mention all those disposable toothbrushes that end up in landfills.

Redesigning Behavior

How might IDEO approach the project now? "We would probably not look at the toothbrush form factor, but consider redesigning the entire hygiene ritual or bathroom experience," says Casey. "So we'd consider the negative effect of disposable products and the water wasted. We might focus on motivating people to turn off the tap while they're brushing. What if a simple water monitor was in place in all bathroom redesigns—a reader attached to the standard low-flow valve that brushers could "game" against their previous usage or against their partner. If you were to focus on the product itself, I can imagine a toothbrush with disposable heads. Or maybe a toothbrush with an onboard irrigator that would distribute just-in-time hydration through squeezing. At the very basic level, we could consider material alternatives and manufacturing processes. And packaging!"

As Casey freely admits, not every client is going to be open to a radical rethinking of their business. The Oral-B product line manager probably just wants to get a new toothbrush to market pronto. But when design consultancies are brought in by C-level executives to focus on strategic innovation, there is more opportunity to think beyond the product in ways that lead to new business models.

While this more eco-driven approach is significant, it's the second part of the accord that promises to have the biggest impact—on the studios, their clients, and ultimately consumers. Signers of the accord promise to break the traditional secrecy of the industry by sharing what they've learned about sustainable design. "By pooling our resources, this should mitigate the investment" that each firm would need to make in sustainability research and training, says Casey, who says that as a student at Yale she was influenced by research done by her professor Barry Nalebuff into "co-opetition."

Protecting Client Intellectual Property

"This is significant because knowledge remains the biggest obstacle to sustainable design," says Ric Grefe, executive director of the AIGA. "A couple of years ago I might have said that the clients just weren't ready to talk about sustainability. But that's changed dramatically. The challenge now is what happens during any paradigm shift: You need to make this quantum leap in the knowledge base."

Casey envisions an open Web platform where signers of the accord can share information and best practices. Because of the nature of industrial design and the need to protect the intellectual property of clients during the design phase and to some extent even after a product launch, the platform will be less like Linux or other open-source software projects in which all of the code is public and more like an archive of sustainability case studies covering everything from materials sourcing and effective life-cycle analysis methods to issues such as how the firm started the sustainability conversation with its client and what learnings it was able to transfer to other projects. "We are talking about sharing high-level learnings about methodology and process, much as the management consulting industry does," says Ideo's Brown.

"We can share what we discover in a general sense without needing to divulge specifics of client work," adds Grant Kristofek, a sustainability champion at Continuum. Kristofek is aware that his firm's involvement with the accord could alienate some clients who aren't open to discussions of green design, but says that signing was an easy decision. "It's the right thing to do. It makes good business sense. And green design is better design," he says.

A Bottom-Up Approach in the U.S.

It should be noted that the accord isn't binding, so it's relatively easy for companies to sign. There's nothing to stop a firm from formally adopting the accord but failing to live up to its principles. And a client could hire the design company without wanting to hear its sustainable rhetoric.

That said, if successful, the Designers Accord will catalyze the sustainable design movement in the U.S., which, while clearly gaining momentum, still lags behind that of Europe, where stricter government regulations have required companies to focus on environmental issues for some time. But ultimately, the bottom-up movement taking shape in the U.S. may lead to more innovative solutions than Europe's top-down approach, which encourages designers and engineers to focus on meeting specific requirements rather than considering new and different ways of doing things. The kind of change the accord hopes to spark is rarely brought on by regulation. It spreads through communities of people passionate about an idea answering a call to arms.

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