For Design To Create Change, We Must All Become Designers

funny designers cartoon illustration

Image via Tom Fishburne of Method

Design is a powerful agent for positive social and environmental change. But, for design to achieve that, the intention must be broadened. It cannot be just designing something we experience in the present; it must be considered across past and future, too. In a recent post here on TreeHugger, I talked about design as intention rather than object. If intention defines the design exercise, then it will be those with the talent to design with the broadest intent who will create our generation's design icons. And those icons won't just be tangible objects, but anything that creates positive impact. Consider these two examples: Last week, I went surfing in a Matuse wetsuit. Matuse's suits are not made of traditional neoprene, but of a "Geoprene" rubber derived 99.7 percent from limestone. I found the suit very warm (and surprisingly dry) for its weight, and I had peace of mind that it was made from an abundant natural resource. This is a great example of broader design thinking. It's not just higher performance than a traditional wetsuit, but it has a past (because it's made from limestone). And with a little engineering, could have a future, too (think wetsuit take-back & recycling).

That's a physical example, but importantly, there are compelling examples of non-physical goods designed in this holistic way. Two years ago, I faced a conundrum at my business, Method, when trying to decide how to spend limited dollars on our carbon strategy. Our carbon strategy has always been:

1. Reduce first.
2. Produce renewable energy second.
3. Offset all the rest.

Historically, however, we had spent all our money on offsets. To align our investment with our intention, we engineered a financial solution. We would pay our offset provider for two years in advance, and if in that time any of our manufacturing facilities made a verified emissions reduction, the offset provider would write check to that manufacturer for the amount we paid for the offset in the first place. Now I could walk into my manufacturers and not only ask them to reduce, but pay them to do it.

In this case, the design output was not a product, but a financial instrument. It's a great example of redefining design nonetheless. What I find so exciting about this lens on design is what it portends for who the designer becomes and what he or she can design. Suddenly, everyone must think like a designer, and everything must be designed. Design has never been just the domain of the creative. And with this perspective, design -- or, rather, "design redefined" -- becomes the responsibility of all who want to create positive change.

Where have you encountered broader design thinking in your life, either through objects and goods or more abstract examples? I'd love to read your comments below.


More on sustaianable design thinking
Greener by Design 2009: Putting Designers in the Center of Cradle-to-Cradle Thinking
10 Ways Design Can Fight Climate Change
Is Healthcare in America Green?

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