Design is the Problem Blog

The Future of Design Must be Sustainable

Posts written by Nathan Shedroff

  • The Presidio Model

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    This year, I’ve been working with Presidio Graduate School (the new name for Presidio School of Management) to develop an online introduction to Sustainable Management. The course won’t be available until the end of the year but out of this development has come a further clarification of the many disparate parts of the sustainability agenda. In particular, and in collaboration with we’ve organized Hunter Lovins and Nicola Acutt, we’ve defined a new organization of these elements into a more clear model I’ve been calling “The Presidio Model.”

    This isn’t “official” yet but it’s been such a helpful way to characterize this field that I’ve begun to use it to teach with already. No doubt, there are still several details to work-out but I thought I’d share where we are so far. The part in green is really this Presidio Model and the rest represents what I add, specifically, around sustainable design (though it also should help other professionals understand how to make sustainable change happen in their organizations).

    Sustainability Principles:
    Systems Perspective:

    • Diversity = Resilience
    • Centralization & Decentralization
    • Competition & Cooperation
    • Social, Cultural, Economic, and Environmental Vitality
    • Multiple Stakeholder Engagement

    Customer-centric Engagement

    Sustainability Frameworks:

    • Natural Capitalism
    • The Natural Step™
    • Cradle to Cradle (this includes both Stahel’s original approach and McDonough & Braungart’s later one)
    • Holistic Management

    Sustainability Tools:

    • Sustainability Helix
    • LCA (Life Cycle Assessment)
    • Total Beauty™ Metrics
    • Biomimicry Design Spiral
    • SROI (Social Return on Investment)
    • Blended Value

    (This is actually the tip of a very long list. Some tools are industry-specific, others are metrics, and there are many new ones being developed all of the time).

    Sustainable Design Strategies:

    • Design for Use & Meaning
    • Dematerialization (Materials, Energy, & Transportation)
    • Substitution (Energy, Materials)
    • Localization
    • Transmaterialization (Products into Services)
    • Informationalization (Physical Products into Digital Products)


    • Design for Durability
    • Design for Reuse


    • Design for Disassembly
    • Closing the Loop
    • Design for Effectiveness


    • Redesign Systems

    This is largely represented in the book (Design is the Problem) but there’s some fine-tuning in the model that’s not represented in the book. In particular, the model differentiates between the 8 frameworks in the book and splits these into 3 frameworks and 5 tools (all in the list above). Other than this distinction, the information in the book is the same. I’m hoping that on the next printing of the book, we can easily make this distinction.

    Strategy, Sustainability, and the Future: TheNextCards

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    I just got my deck of The Next Cards, a set of business stories as an oversized deck of cards and keyed to an innovative business strategy process that flows from sustainability trends. I’m blown away. In fact, there’s much more to TheNextPlays than just the cards. They’re merely a starting point for organizations interested in managing their strategies.

    The cards are a little deceptive because they’re so clear. They really pack a lot of thinking into an accessible tool that connects to a larger strategic process, a network of experienced organizations, and even a set of face-to-face workshops and larger strategic engagement. However, the cards are still a good way to start and, by themselves, can help people and organizations think and plan for the future.

    HP eliminates excess laptop packaging

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    HP’s entry to the Walmart packaging competition is an original approach to packaging. Instead of shipping the laptop in a box with foam inserts, they propose to ship the box, and all the dongles and other parts in a messenger bag. These are shipped three at a time in a simple cardboard box.

    Now, I definitely have questions about solution. For example, is the messenger bag’s construction and material impact less than that of the box and foam inserts? I think not–by a large margin. If people actually use the messenger bag, and don’t purchase one of their own (or discard their old one), then it definitely saves some materials and energy. However, most people already have a perfectly good messenger bag. What are they supposed to do with it?

    Perhaps, this works best for new laptop owners (as opposed to those upgrading)?

    What do you think?

    Sustainable Minds Tool

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    It’s still only in beta but if you’re looking for an easy-to-use tool to assess the environmental impact of your product, Sustainable Mind’s latest tool is fantastic. It’s still evolving, of course, as you would imagine. Over the next two years, expect it to be flushed-out for even more industries and categories. However, it’s really the thinking embedded into the product that is its biggest asset. This tool follows the Okala Curriculum closely so that it’s as much a tool to use to orient your thinking and planning in developing new products and services as it is a tool to assess impacts.

    In fact, for designers, this is one of the few tools that can actually be used effectively during the design process, not only at the end of the process when you have a manufactured item.

    Webinar slides on Slideshare

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    Today, I posted the slides from the Design is the Problem Webinar onto the site Slideshare:

    Some of the diagrams in the slides are updated from those recorded in the webinar. These reflect a new arrangement of the three domains of sustainability: social, environmental, and financial impacts. Hopefully, these will be put into the book itself at the next printing.

    Also, you’ll see in the slides and the webinar a new arrangement of the frameworks. This comes our of work ‘Ive been doing with the Presidio School of Management. The information in the book is still correct and current, but I’ve split five of the eight frameworks into a new category of “tools” since they don’t so much represent a fully unique perspective for approaching sustainability.

    Designing Through a Depression

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    Allison Arieff’s commentary in the NY Times yesterday, Designing Through a Depression, has spurred a nice conversation about the role design plays in both the causes and the recovery from an economic downturn.

    Perhaps, the most important design project of the next decade will be to redesign the economy for a post-consumer model and experience. As some of the commenters have pointed-out, we can’t have a lot of hope for longer-lasting products when the market still rewards continuous turn-over and replacement. We need wholly new models and while this isn’t the usual domain for designers, it puts design skills to good use. We need collaborations between enlightened and daring economists as well as designers.

    My Great Advisors

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    Now that the book is out, I wanted to thank my advisors who have helped me guide the material. I am fortunate in having some world-class thinkers and practitioners in both sustainability and design on this team:

    John Thackara, Visionary
    Eric Corey Freed, Organic Architect
    Ric Grefe, AIGA
    Hunter Lovins, Presidio School of Managemnt and Natural Capitalism Solutions
    Simran Sethi, Journalist
    Chris Choate, NorCal Waste Management

    Interview on Core77

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    Just two days ago, Core77 published an interview with me regarding the book. Allan Chochinov is one of the most conscientious writers in the entire design world. He read the book cover-to-cover more than a month ago and his questions reflects a deep understanding of both design and what the book is saying.

    What does this have to do with User Experience Design?

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    Or, for that matter, with creating software?

    These are two, common questions I get and they’re important ones–that has several answers:

    • First, one of the most important design strategies for sustainability is to make things useful, usable, clear, and meaningful. UX people are already oriented to doing this, though in the book we describe some elements (like Meaning) that are fairly new to most. As such, UX folks are already increasing sustainability because when we do our jobs correctly, we meet peoples’ needs without requiring more and more solutions to be developed.

    • Next, even though many of us are typically only responsible for the software side of the experience, these are still completely intertwined with devices since all software has to run through some kind of physical, sensorial interface. This means that in order to design a complete solution, we need to get involved or (at least) consider the physical side as well. This gives us an opening to champion sustainability design strategies to our peers working in products and other physical device.

    • In addition, we often need to make our case to peers, customers, and bosses in their language and to their issues. Understanding sustainability across the domains or social, environmental, and financial impacts helps us make our case more convincingly. It also requires us to understand a broader perspective than only the things we happen to touch and it allows us, ultimately, to better coordinate with our peers in delivering more successful, enjoyable solutions as well a more sustainable ones.