How much room is there for a sustainable designer?

I’ll cut to the chase: I am interested in being an industrial designer, but I don’t want to be pumping out trash that doesn’t innovate nor has a long shelf life, and ends up being landfill. I really can’t dismiss the fact that I’d be making future trash, especially if the product doesn’t accomplish anything significant (just another watch, phone, etc.)

How do you see sustainability working in the future? It would be wonderful if all products were made with completely recyclable materials, but that’s still dreaming I guess.

Also it seems like designing a product that is durable/lasts a long time is out-of-style these days, mostly due to business worries. Which is a shame considering that with today’s tech. we could easily create items that last more than a few years.

The flipside that I’ve seen on this coin is that perhaps this is an opportunity to enter the industry and start a recyclable revolution, which seems to be happening somewhat with the whole green movement.


Any thoughts?

Look, it sounds like you are making a lot of bad mouth generalizations that are based in personal beliefs instead of facts.

If you think industrial design is about making trash, and your convinced of this fact already, than don’t bother. Have you looked around at all? Climate change and running short of resources are complex problems that require complex solutions. Making t-shirts from bamboo and recycling office paper aren’t going to do it. They are good things that everyone should be doing because its the right thing to do, but that alone won’t fix anything.

We aren’t going to stop making cell phones, nor should we. Very few people are going to get behind you as you lead them into a cave and abandon all modern technology. Cell phones are a problem because of their short lifespan, but there are other things that are bigger problems. Like plastic bottles and grocery bags.

Contrary to common belief, a product doesn’t have to be “innovative” or ground breaking or whatever buzzword we are using this year to be a good product.

Do you even understand what sustainability is about? its really not that great of a concept, and actually doesn’t jive with what you are describing. Sustainability means just keeping things the way they are right now. So I can still double bag all my groceries at the store, drive 20 miles to work for 2 buck a gallon, and consuming products at my current rate. Its about sustaining our current usage, keeping the status quo.

Now if you can only chose between continuing what you are doing or ramping up consumption, then sustainability is a good choice, but if you can chose between those two and also scaling back consumption, that would be closer to environmental stewardship.

first, theres no job description of Sustainablity Designer. just doesn’t exist.

there is however, increasing demand for designers who understand how to do LCA, can achieve a cradle to cradle certified result, or at least viably get ‘eco-something’ into the merchandise.

This knowledge and skill set is increasingly taught in ID schools everywhere.

Everything we do is driven by what people demand, whether by what they buy or what they want thier governments to regulate. We cannot force anything on anyone. study hard and look for opportunities to use what you know.

No. “Sustainability” means whatever process you are using is capable of being sustained indefinitely. Oil extraction is not sustainable because no matter how much you use, eventually the oil will run out. Making things from trees is sustainable, so long as you replace the trees you cut down. It’s a word that has become increasingly meaningless as it gets slapped on everything.

keifer- If you want to get into design and do things the way you’re describing, you almost have to go into business for yourself.

No. “Sustainability” means whatever process you are using is capable of being sustained indefinitely. Oil extraction is not sustainable because no matter how much you use, eventually the oil will run out. Making things from trees is sustainable, so long as you replace the trees you cut down. It’s a word that has become increasingly meaningless as it gets slapped on everything.

keifer- If you want to get into design and do things the way you’re describing, you almost have to go into business for yourself.

Hmm. And what would I learn from a ID degree that could help me in running a “sustainable” business? I’m trying to determine if going into ID, or at minimum getting an ID degree will be the right path for this.

The impression I’ve got is that it won’t really help, but is more tailored towards the traditional role of an ID.


running a business is an entirely different question. Unless you have a trust fund to start your business with, forget ID school.
What do you want to do, create video games or make electric cars or save the planet or all the above? If all the above, find a big university with lots of majors to explore and plan on 5-6 years for a Bachleors…

The first thing I think you need to do is change your attitude!!!

As a package designer we deal with this question all the time. Pretty much everything we design goes in the garbage after the product is bought. But without packaging products could not be consumed or sold.

What we have started doing is looking at the whole process. Here at my job we have the 4 R’s which are Reduce Reuse Recycle and Rethink. Rethink I think is the most important one that we have here. This means that from the very beginning we should think about where our package is going to end up after consumption. This meaning do I need to put the product in a bag or could I put it in a container that can be reused for another purpose, but then along with that how is it going to help the selling story of the product.

A great example of this is Patagonia and their long underwear. They have a business model for people to bring back there old long underwear and drop them in drop bins in the store to be recycled. This old long underwear is then used to make new underwear that is then sold back to the consumer. That then helps their selling story as it hits a nerve with their consumer.

I guess what I am trying to say is take a step back and really think about what sustainable means and don’t have such a narrow minded look at it. These are issues that Industrial Designers a dealing with everyday. And if you really look at what ID is, its all about problem solving. This is a problem and if there is an profession out there could solve it, it would be us.


While you are correct about oil not being sustainable, Sustainability is about keeping up current lifestyle rates. It has to do with finding alternative energy sources and the like so we can continue at current usage rates. People are attracted to sustainability because they can change their habits a little and continue living in a similar way.

Like I said earlier, Anything is better than doing nothing. For instance, I try to only ride my bike to the store three blocks away, and I try to avoid plastic bags like the plague when I’m there, usually taking my messenger bag with me. Now is this going to save the environment? no. Will it if everyone in the world did it? no it wouldn’t. But it is sustainable.

I think environmental stewardship would be the next step after becoming sustainable. Because it’s not actually enough to just recycle and buy locally, both sustainable ideas.

I agree. The word Sustainability really gets on my nerves because I don’t feel that people fully understand what it means. I agree that I can create recyclible products, reduce my waste and reuse different products in my house but this is not going to “Save the Enviroment”. A lot of the eviromental issues are much bigger than that and can not change over night Most of them are process and economic issues. (Example Oil)

dude. not even close. the concept of sustainability has nothing to do with maintaining current lifestyles or usage. We (the world population) is currently overshooting in almost every area. Over fishing, depleting finite resources, etc. The idea of sustainability is that you break even in what you do. Right now there is no real example of a sustainable business (read some of the interviews with Interface’s CEO, a visionary) hence the term green. A cell phone can be more green than another, but as of right now, neither of them are sustainable.

To get back to the OP’s question. I think the future of design lies in sustainable and LCA thinking, but that future is still fuzzy and being defined. No one really knows how to do it yet. It has very little to do with using recycled material (mostly just delays the trip to the landfill) and everything to do with the very complex issues of LCA and macro thinking. Which is nearly impossible to do when a co. is too concerned with meeting their next quarterly earnings report or making a price point for the wal-mart buyer.

its a tough issue but a (the) new and exciting frontier in design.

“One of the first and most oft-cited definitions of sustainability, and almost certainly the one that will survive for posterity, is the one created by the Brundtland Commission, led by the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The Commission defined sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[1] The Brundtland definition thus implicitly argues for the rights of future generations to raw materials and vital ecosystem services to be taken into account in decision making.”

I got that from googling sustainablity, and then picking the first article.

Anyway the important quote from that is:

meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It doesn’t require anyone to change habits, pretty convenient if you ask me, it just requires finding materials and energy sources that don’t compromise the future use of the planet.

I’m am totally not arguing that we as a planet are living sustainably right now, by any definition. We aren’t. What I am saying is that just searching for renewable energy sources and biodegradable materials alone doesn’t cut it. We need to also change behaviours. Sometimes I think if you can’t make something without mercury in it maybe you shouldn’t be making it. Who cares if you “can” recycle it, or if it lasts 100 times longer than x product.

I’m thinking of plastic soda bottles. Is it considered sustainable to recycle the plastic bottles? yes, I think in most circles it would be considered sustainable. However, what if you just bought one bottle and refilled it a few times? What if the one bottle you buy is not recyclable? what then? Is there a clear black and white answer to that question? no, just like there are no clear black and white answers to what are we supposed to do.

My advice, like I said earlier, if you don’t have an open mind as you apparently don’t ID isn’t going to work out for you anyway.

“meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[1]

that means you can’t develop something if it f’s up the future…its zero sum, black and white. some of that will be changing how people accomplish things, ie riding a train instead of driving.
so saying its status quo isn’t correct imo.
people love the idea, because its what we should be doing, but its gonna be a process. over time.

the confusion lies in the difference between what is better for the environment and the ultimate goal of sustainability.

some people care, others don’t or won’t until they don’t have an option. The idea the sustainability is connected with how people currently live is due (imo) mostly to the fact that its hard to get people to change. You have to start somewhere. Recycle that can, walk or ride your bike to the store if you can, care where and how the products you buy were made, etc. Will any of this be a silver bullet? no. Will it add up, yes. The idea that the individual doesn’t have responsibility or an affect on the system is naive. Saying there is nothing you can do b/c its too big of an issue is a cop out.

Now as designers and professionals who are involved in developing products (along with everyone involved) we have a responsibility to help people with those choices.

btw…and this is gonna sounds mean…but that’s what the internet is for, right?

I got that from googling sustainablity, and then picking the first article.

you don’t actually mistake that for knowledge and understanding of an issue, do you? page rank is not a viable argument.

Beats me, I don’t have an ID degree. (If it’s teaching you how to design stuff, it can’t hurt, can it?) I’m trying to build a sustainable business, although I’m probably not there yet by the purest definition of the word. Nor is it anywhere near big enough yet to replace my normal design work.

And no, it doesn’t take a trust fund. Trying to create a business by starting out huge is usually not a very good strategy. Look at Nau- $20 million dollars spent in year one, then done. In addition to environmental sustainability, you need economic sustainability. You don’t want to be in a position where you are dependent on securing financing (especially venture capital) to continue your day to day operations.

i was bummed to see what happened to Nau, but then I read up on the details and they blew through a wad of cash in a year. Then no one would lend them money, over leveraged.
Not too smart.
Sometimes things just take time, no matter how hard you want to grow fast.

Well, years ago in philosophy class we discussed the way people will attack the way arrived at a conclusion and the creditability of your sources when they don’t agree with you. So I don’t feel offended or that it was mean. I said that not to lend credibility to the argument as though the site that says the word most often is the most credible, but to show that there are others who feel similarly about the opinion. I am sure you don’t need to tell me about credibility of websites or how search engines work. It is however easy to find supporting information to my argument. Thats all.

I didn’t say there wasn’t anything you can do. It just bugs me to see over simplization of problems, because then the overly simple, not very well thought out solutions seem like solutions. Sort of like Ethanol? hey we need something different to burn in our cars, lets burn alcohol from plants, sounds like a good idea right? O wait its actually not a very sustainable solution once we start looking into it. Too bad no one looked into it until it has already been enacted.

I don’t know what to do, and no one else does either, and I think that is the most frustrating for all of us.

i know that came off as dickheadish, but it just struck me as goofy.

on the flip side, if we waited to do anything until it was perfect, we wouldn’t ever get anything done. we are going to make mistakes, corn based ethanol is a good example. but if it gets us to 3rd or 4th generation bio fuels, than it wasn’t a mistake. A lot of times progress is painful.

one of my biggest frustrations is the silver bullet mentality on one side and the its not perfect on the other.
it became clear to me pretty quickly when i started paying attention to environmental issues, that its all interconnected.
its not about climate change or the pacific garbage patch or lack of clean water or agri-business, its all the same issue.

my wife got upset with me at one point b/c she felt that I had to approve everything now. But I see it differently, once you care about your impact, the issues become apparent. You can break down things to the smallest unit and then make ‘simple’ choices from there. If you aren’t presented with a choice then move forward.

as a designer I am frustrated b/c the choices are limited to nonexistant at the moment. but that’s why its important to care and why i think its the future of design

to chime in to the OP’s question from a different perspective, think another way about how the value of design can effect sustainability and environment benefit:

that is, a well designed, non-disposable product can add value through design, last longer and take the place of 2 or 3 “temporary” products. while it goes without saying that somethings like high-tech gadgets will always be out of date because of the base technology, a good chair, or piece of housewares if designed well can last longer through smart material choices, and hold more intangible value for the consumer. ie. better design = less product turnover = environmental effects.

as an example, i have a big collection of original midcentury products (furniture, kicthen appliances, electronics, etc.) that not only still work (such as a blender from the 50’s) but hold more value than any new cheapo plastic appliance you could buy at a local department store. these designed objects have not only lasted me more than twice the normal lifespan of a typical similar product, but were in use for at least 40 years before i ever acquired them!

cradle to grave design solutions are only one aspect of design sustainability. if the product never goes to the “grave” it’s a whole 'nother set of factors that come into play.



so we agree lol. gotta love the interweb.