Design Is the Problem Cover

Design Is the Problem

The Future of Design Must be Sustainable

By Nathan Shedroff

Published: March 2009
Paperback: 319 pages
ISBN: 978-1933820-00-2
Digital ISBN: 978-1933820-01-9

Product design can have a tremendous impact on the world in terms of usability, waste, and resources. In Design Is the Problem, Nathan Shedroff examines how the endemic culture of design often creates unsustainable solutions, and shows how to ensure that design processes lead to more sustainable products and services.

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More about Design Is the Problem


If a sustainable world is to be less about stuff, and more about people, what should designers design? Nathan Shedroff challenges designers to focus on what the experience of a sustainable world can be like. I hope every designer will read this book: they’ll be inspired to learn that even as they stop creating stuff, there’s still a lot of work for them to do.

John Thackara, creator of the Door of Perception conference, author of In The Bubble

Our generation is paying for the mistakes—the design mistakes—of the past 100 years. Rather than trying to recycle materials and processes not designed to be so, we must redesign nearly everything to create a truly sustainable society. This is not only the challenge for our current generation of designers, but the opportunity for future designers. Nathan Shedroff shows us the path to this inevitable future.

Eric Corey Freed, author Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies

Nathan Shedroff has demonstrated a new discipline as a design deviant. He deviates from the norm of cause (perceived need) and effect (delightful fetish) to question whether we can design to fulfill experiences or true needs by crafting not what is simply less, but something different. This is an opening volley for the next new economy.

Ric Grefe, Executive Director, AIGA

Design is the Problem illustrates that, when done intentionally and thoughtfully, design can be the solution to our most pressing social and environmental challenges. The book is a comprehensive primer for anyone interested in redesigning not just products, but the way we do business, the way we address problems, and the way we envision and forge our future.

Simran Preeti Sethi, co-host/writer of Sundance Channel’s “The Green” and contributing author to Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: What is Sustainability?
  • Chapter 2: How is Sustainability Measured?
  • Chapter 3: What Are the Approaches to Sustainability?
  • Chapter 4: Design for Use
  • Chapter 5: Dematerialization
  • Chapter 6: Substitution
  • Chapter 7: Localization
  • Chapter 8: Transmaterialization
  • Chapter 9: Informationalization
  • Chapter 10: Design for Durability
  • Chapter 11: Design for Reuse
  • Chapter 12: Design for Disassembly
  • Chapter 13: Close the Loop
  • Chapter 14: Design for Effectiveness
  • Chapter 15: Design for Systems
  • Chapter 16: Innovating Solutions
  • Chapter 17: Measuring Results
  • Chapter 18: Declaring Results
  • Chapter 19: Conclusion


These common questions about sustainable design and their short answers are taken from Nathan Shedroff’s book Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. What is sustainability?
    Sustainability is an approach to design and development that focuses on environmental, social, and financial factors that are often never addressed. Sustainable solutions strive to improve the many systems that support our lives, including efficiently using capital and markets, effectively using natural resources, and reducing waste and toxins in the environment while not harming people in societies across the Earth. Sustainability focuses on efficient and effective solutions that are better for society, the environment, and companies. Sustainable organizations are often more successful when they pay attention to the details of waste and impacts, allowing them to function more cleanly, increase profit margins, and differentiate themselves from other organizations.
    For more information, see page xxi.
  2. Why does being sustainable cost more – or does it?
    Sustainable solutions don’t always cost more than unsustainable ones. Many solutions are focused on energy and material efficiency, and these actually cost less up-front. Because our economic system rarely includes all of the social and environmental costs and impacts of products and services of the items we buy, the producers of sustainable solutions try to compensate for these costs. Doing this can cost more up-front, but often costs less over time since these solutions may prevent problems later.
    For more information, see page 129 and 139.
  3. Is climate change proven?
    There is overwhelming evidence of climate change, leaving no doubt that the climate isn’t what it used to be. What’s at issue is whether this change is due to human activity or cyclic conditions in the environment. While there is no unequivocal proof that all of the changes are due to human activity, there is massive overlap between the evidence of climate change and the details of human activity. The majority of reputable scientists believes that an overwhelming amount of climate change is due to human activity, despite the lack of conclusive proof.
    For more information, see
  4. What’s a carbon footprint?
    One of the most important aspects of climate change seems to be the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulating in the upper atmosphere. Scientific models explain why this may have an impact on climate change and how serious this is to the environment and our way of life on Earth. One of the most prominent strategies for reversing these effects is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we send into the environment. A carbon footprint is a way of estimating the amount of carbon dioxide our activities generate, and by understanding this, we can find ways to lower these emissions. It represents the total amount of carbon dioxide our activities generate—from heating our homes to driving cars to eating and drinking to working and living.Carbon footprints are difficult to calculate exactly because there are so many variables. However, most carbon footprint calculators do a great job of estimating our personal or corporate carbon emissions by using averages. A great place to start estimating your carbon footprint is the calculator at Al Gore’s Web site:
  5. Are hybrids really better than other cars?
    Hybrid cars are certainly not a long-term answer. Hybrids are better than hydrogen cars or really big cars (like SUVs), and buying a hybrid car sends a powerful message to the automobile industry, as well as other companies and government agencies. However, in the long run, smaller gasoline cars are better for the environment overall, and electric cars are probably the best.
    For more information, see page 73.
  6. Is nuclear power a more sustainable energy option?
    Proponents of nuclear energy point to the reduced carbon dioxide emissions of generating electricity via nuclear power over traditional methods. But there are many other issues that need to be taken into account, including the amount of CO2 generated in the mining, transportation, and refining of uranium, construction of the plants themselves, dealing with the waste over thousands of years, and the abysmal safety record of the nuclear industry with regard to workers, miners, and the environment. These additional costs make nuclear power a much weaker investment than spending less money on efficiency technologies and alternative energies, such as solar, wind, wave, hydro, and other renewable sources.
    For more information, see page 28.
  7. What can I do to become more sustainable?
    Because sustainability encompasses so many issues across the social, environmental, financial, and political spectra, there are many things each of us can do to quickly build a more efficient, effective, and sustainable world. We can start by learning about the issues and then evaluating our impacts with carbon footprint calculators (which is quick and easy to do). Next, we can simply make better choices, starting small, by changing our behaviors to be more sustainable. One of the most important things we can do is simply to be more efficient, using fewer materials and energy in our activities. This might mean wasting less food, not driving when it isn’t necessary, turning lights and electronic equipment off when they’re not being used, insulating our homes to be more efficient, and so on. When we purchase new things, we can look for more efficient versions or ones with higher ratings. Buying locally-produced items is generally more sustainable and helps build resilient local communities. Most of these changes don’t even impact our quality of life much, and most sustainable solutions help us do more with less rather than just give us less overall.
    For more information, see and
  8. As a designer, what can I do to make the world more sustainable?
    First, designers can understand the breadth of sustainability and the strategies for developing more sustainable solutions. This is pretty easy (and is covered in this book). Next, designers can start using these strategies in their work, even if only a few at a time. We need to become advocates of sustainability issues for our own organizations and our clients, partners, and other stakeholders. We can address sustainability issues in our projects whether our clients and organizations appreciate them or not, making more sustainable solutions even when those around us don’t do so.Over time, designers can address more issues and integrate more strategies into their work naturally. This is easiest when all team members are aware of the issues and strategies and when sustainability becomes part of the process. Ultimately, sustainability is most powerful when it becomes part of an organization’s values and mission, but we don’t need to wait for this to begin in order to have an impact now.
    For more information, see page 266.


  • Chapter 9 (PDF)



The word conjures images of effete eccentrics imposing cuboidal-built environments, clashing color, tortured fashion, and over rated celebrity upon the jaded palates of urbanites with too much money.

This book is not about that. Nathan brings the competence of a mechanic, the mind of an engineer, the training of an MBA, and the pen of a poet to a topic long abandoned to people with delusions of adequacy. He talks about solutions, ones that deliver desired outcomes, and how to implement them.

His focus is the design of a world that works; as he says, “Don’t do things today that make tomorrow worse.” Good advice. This book presents a systems approach to crafting answers to the really big challenges, including how to meet human needs on a plan et on which all major ecosystems are in decline, and it’s a race to see which will melt first, the Arctic or the economy.

Most of us, if we think about design at all, consider color, or perhaps shape. But reflect that every human artifact was designed by someone. This person made deliberate choices about the utility of the object, the materials used to make it, the manufacturing process chosen, the length of its useful life, and what would happen to it after it was no longer needed. Consciously or by choosing to ignore opportunities, we have created a world in which half a trillion tons of stuff is pulled from the Earth each year, put through various resource crunching activities, shaped (at great energy cost) into a form, and then thrown away. Of all this stuff, less than one percent is still in use six months after sale. All the rest is waste. At the moment of conception of an idea, a design, a thought of a product or a process, 80 to 90 percent of the lifetime cost of that widget, program, or pickup truck was committed.

Investing in how designers think, in how we all approach a new idea, is thus crucial if life as we know it is to thrive on this planet. Nathan has given us the mental model to begin that exploration. He does so with a soft touch, but a ruthless honesty. One of my favorites of his lines is, “Get over the guilt or shock or outrage or embarrassment or disagreement now, because none of it will be useful. We have a lot of work to do.”

It is almost axiomatic that designers are arrogant and indulgent. Nathan is not. He delivers an outstanding primer on the precepts of sustainability, the challenges facing the world, and pragmatic answers in a playful and accessible manner. This book should be part of any curriculum on design, innovation, business, environmental studies, marketing, public policy, engineering, organizational development, and the now rapidly emergent field of sustainability.

It should be on the desk of CEOs of all companies that make or deliver anything. It will be required reading for all of my students, and a frequently recommended treat for the companies with whom I consult. It should be the next book you buy.

L. Hunter Lovins
Author of Natural Capitalism and Sustainability
Chair, Presidio School of Management


If it takes a village to raise a child, it surely takes a community to write a book. While I am listed as author, I couldn’t have written this book without the support of many people.

To start with, I have to thank Lou Rosenfeld, Marta Justak, and Sue Honeywell who physically made this book possible. They’re the main folks at Rosenfeld Media who signed, edited, and designed the book. In particular, Lou took a chance on a very different topic for one of his books that not all of his advisors thought fit well with the rest. It’s a tribute to his commitment in not only creating a new kind of publishing company but also to his personal interest in sustainability.

I also need to express a deep gratitude to the entire community of faculty, staff, and students at Presidio School of Management, where I received my MBA in Sustainable Management in 2006. This is where, for two years (and three since), I learned about sustainability, studied examples, and built new ones. In particular, Hunter Lovins, Maggie Winslow, Paula Theilen, Nicola Acutt, Dwight Collins, Paul Sheldon, and Bob Dunham taught me more than I ever thought possible about our future. Although there are many students whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with and even teaching, my core study group, Holly Coleman, Meg Escobosa, and Ruth Katz got me through my two years with humor and a lot of great food. (We weren’t self-named “Eating for Six” for nothing.)

My co-professors at the University of California, Berkeley, Sara Beckman and Alice Agogino, welcomed me with open arms into the course they have been teaching for over 13 years and helped me learn how to be a better teacher of design and sustainability. Together, their students and mine at CCA have created some wonderful solutions in the two years I’ve taught with them.

My friends and family also made this book possible. I’ve ignored them all too much while sequestering myself this year to get four books out at once. My mother, Phyllis Shedroff, brother Daniel and his family, friends, Laurie Blavin, Nathalie Kakone, and their daughter Amelia have taken the brunt of this neglect. I also wanted to thank my friend Eric Friedman for making sure I didn’t completely ignore fun and relaxation with trips to Sea Ranch or merely walks in the Marin Headlands.

Also, I appreciate the many people who allowed us to use their photos and diagrams to help explain how sustainability and design can change the future for the better.

I’m sure there are others, including the many authors I’ve read within this domain and my friends’ mothers, Norma Laskin and Gail Solomon, who always appreciate being mentioned in my books even when they didn’t know about them.

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