Contemporary influences on design practice


23 Mar 2015 09 May 2017

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"There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few... by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed...

In this age of mass production when everything must be planned and designed, design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself). This demands high social and moral responsibility from the designer." Victor Papanek (1985)

Design for sustainability is part of the bigger picture of sustainable development, a subject which has received considerable media attention in recent years due to a range of world wide crises which have manifested themselves as political problems: climate change, famine, disease and poverty.

The evolution of sustainability

Is been described as a series of three waves, with peaks and troughs of activity, that contribute to the momentum we see today (SustainAbility, 2006).

The first wave occurred in the 1960s and 1970s with the birth of the Green Movement and the rise of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, which focused on driving change via government policy and regulation.

The second wave occurred in the 1980s, set off by a range of economic crises (brought on by the collapse of the Berlin Wall) and environmental catastrophes (from Bhopal to Chernobyl) which prompted a range of legislation and environmental, healthy and safety standards. At this time NGOs used a number of high profile business transgressions to catalyse public debate and drive regulatory and market responses. The concepts of auditing, reporting and engagement within business entered the mainstream (SustainAbility, 2006).

The new millennium saw the start of the third wave of sustainability. Unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere had led to a growth in anti-globalisation, often in the guise of anti-Americanism. The first World Social Forum, organised in opposition to the World Economic Forum brought together activists and NGOs from around the world, campaigning on issues such as trade justice and debt, and increasingly united on issues of water scarcity and exploitation. In the wake of another set of high profile business fiascos such as the Enron debacle, corporate governance and liability became a hot issue for top management and for financial markets. Meanwhile, businesses started to explore new partnerships with NGOs, for example Greenpeace and Shell shared a platform at the Johannesburg Summit, also Greenpeace formed a joint venture with Innogy to create the Juice wind power brand, which recently began to feed power generated by a huge offshore wind farm into the national grid (SustainAbility, 2006).

Since the late 1960s when Victor Papanek (1971) first blamed the design profession for creating wasteful products and customer dissatisfaction, there has been a growing feeling in many environmental circles that design and manufacture is responsible for many of the man-made stresses imposed on the planet. A fact that is well illustrated by the fact 80 % of products are discarded after a single use and 99 % of materials used are discarded in the first six weeks (Shot in the Dark, 2000). Though this trend is expected to start to change with the introduction of new product focused environmental legislation, the fact still remains that mainstream product de­sign draws on scarce resources to create and power products which often have little or no consideration for impact on society and the environment.

Defining Industrial Design

Throughout the nineteenth century, the term 'de­signer' was vague and ambiguous, referring to a wide range of occupations: fine artists, architects, crafts­men, engineers and inventors (Sparke, 1983). By the twentieth century the profession of design had de­veloped into Industrial Design as we know it today, existing in design teams and governed by manage­ment structure (Sparke, 1983).

Within industry, industrial designers tend to either work 'in-house', as a function of a larger organisation or as independent design consultants within a design consultancy that services a variety of different clients (Lofthouse, 2001). Within both of these capacities industrial designers can be involved in the design and development of both consumer and industrial goods (Lofthouse, 2001). This report focuses on consumer products. Within this sector, industrial designers can serve a wide range of industries such as pharmaceuti­cals, packaging, and electrical and electronic domestic products, as such their outputs can vary enormously in terms of their nature and complexity.

Design for Sustainability Emerges

The concept of design for sustainability first emerged in the 1960s when Packard (1963); Papanek (1971); Bonsiepe (1973) and Schumacher (1973) began to criticise modern and unsustainable development and suggest alternatives. The second wave emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s and coincided with the green consumer revolution. Writers such as Manzini (1990); Burall (1991), Mackenzie (1991) and Ryan (1993) began to call for design to make radical changes. This wave continued to gain momentum towards the end of the 1990s and early 2000s as design for sustainability became more widespread. Though there has been a long history of designers being mo­tivated and interested in improving the environmen­tal and social impact of the products they produce, there has been a lack of opportunity within the in­dustrial context with case studies only starting to emerge from electronic and electrical companies in the early 1990s when companies such as Philips, Elec­trolux, IBM and Xerox began to promote the work they had done in this area. Although large industry commitment to integrating environmental and social issues into product development has continued to be on the rise there has been little evidence of wide­spread opportunity for this type of holistic thinking, in the commercial design industry.

Design for sustainability issues are currently rarely addressed in the design brief (Dewberry, 1996; Lofthouse, 2001) and as such it is often difficult for designers to have the opportunity to engage with environmentally and socially responsible design in a professional capacity. This report aims to change this situation and encourage a more widespread ap­proach to design for sustainability.


In the past environmental and socially responsible design has not been specifically encouraged through design education and training. This is now changing - for example in the UK programmes such as STEP and Sustainable Design Awards developed and run by the charity Practical Action are set up to encourage sustainability awareness in young designers working at National Curriculum key stage 3 and 4 (ages 11- 16) and A-levels respectively. Similarly projects such as DEMI (design for the environment multi-media implementation), and the pioneering work of the Centre for Sustainable Design, Goldsmiths College, Loughborough University and the setting up of a Toolbox for Sustainable Design (Bhamra and Loft­house, 2004) - which aims to help other lecturers develop sustainable design courses - have helped to change this situation.

Research in the field of design for sustainability is now well established, though it can still be consid­ered a new area. Most of the developed nations now have some form of active research into design for sustainability, covering issues such as: implementa­tion of legislation, eco-innovation, corporate social responsibility, product service systems, eco-redesign, impacts of user behaviour, design for disassembly and reverse manufacturing.


Challenge for Design

Part of the challenge for designers is for them to fully understand the breadth of the agenda and appreciate what can be tackled under the umbrella of design for sustainability. Within the design community there is a general lack of awareness of many issues relating to sustainable development. Designers need to under­stand and even communicate to their colleagues that design for sustainability is about more than recycling or using recycled materials.

Design for sustainability offers a new and broader context for designing. Birkeland (2002) encapsulates this by presenting a new vision for design which is:

  • Responsible - redefining goals around needs, social/eco equity and justice.
  • Synergistic - creating positive synergies; involv­ing different elements to create systems change.
  • Contextual - re-evaluating design conventions and concepts towards social transformation.
  • Holistic - taking a life cycle view to ensure low impact, low cost, multi-functional outcomes.
  • Empowering - fosters human potential, self-re­liance and ecological understanding in appropri­ate ways.
  • Restorative - integrates the social and natural world; recultivates a sense of wonder.
  • Eco-efficient - proactively aims to increase the economy of energy, materials and costs.
  • Creative - represents a new paradigm that tran­scends traditional boundaries of discipline think­ing.
  • Visionary - focuses on visions and outcomes and conceives of appropriate methods, to deliver them.

This report aims to reverse the trend of design con­tributing to global environmental and social prob­lems by inspiring and empowering me to make a dif­ference. It hopes to enlighten about the sustainability generally and show how better design can improve things. By considering the environment and society when you are designing you are able to offer your cli­ents truly good design that meets their requirements and those of an increasingly fragile planet.

In accordance with this report, I consider emergent in actuality the guide accomplished by Lunar Elements in july 2008. It represent a tool designed to help all designers, no matter what their level of experience, design more sustainable products.

The designer's field guide to sustainability- an overview of sustainable product development and the product life cycle - Lunar Elements (2008)


Question the premise of the design

Consider other approaches to the problem at hand

Make is less complex

Simple, elegant designs are often the least impactful

Make it more useful

Multiuse products can reduce consumption and in­crease convenience


Reduce material variety

This can increase recyclability and can decrease man­ufacturing energy

Avoid toxic or harmful materials and chemicals

PVC, polystyrene, lead and BPA for example

Reduce size and weight

This reduces emissions during shipping

Optimize manufacturing processes

Powder coat vs. paint. Pressure form vs. RIM

Talk to your manufacturers about low energy, low waste alternatives

Design packaging in parallel with products

A green product in a wasteful package should be avoided whenever possible


Design for Upgradeability

Make standard internal components accessible and self explanatory

Create durable and high quality designs

Make products people want to keep...and make them last

Design for life after death

A secondary use for a product adds value and helps reduce waste


Make it modular

More easily repaired, and recycled

Maximize recycled, recyclable, renewable, and biodegradable materials

PET, Polypropylene, HDPE, Wood, Steel, Aluminum and PLA for example

Minimize fasteners

Fasteners add weight, material variety and assembly/ disassembly complexity

Don't use paint

Painted plastics are less likely to be recycled


  • Bhamra, T. A. and Lofthouse, V. A. (2004), 'Toolbox for Sustainable Design Education'. Available at: (Loughborough: Loughborough University).
  • Birkeland, J. (2002), Design for Sustainability: A Sourcebook of Integrated, Eco-Logical Solutions (Sheffield: Earthscan Publications).
  • Bonsiepe, G. (1973) 'Precariousness and Ambiguity: Industrial Design in Dependent Countries' in Design for Need Bicknell, J. and McQiston, L. (eds.) pp. 13-19 (London: Pergamon Press, The RCA).
  • Burall, P. (1991), Green Design (London: Design Council).
  • Dewberry, E. L. (1996), EcoDesign - Present Attitudes and Future Directions,
  • Heskett, J. (1991), Industrial Design (London: Thames & Hudson). Industrial Design Society of America (1999), IDSA web site. Available at:
  • Lofthouse, V. A. (2001), Facilitating Ecodesign in an Industrial Design Context: An Exploratory Study, Doctoral Thesis (Cranfield: In Enterprise Integration Cranfield University).
  • Mackenzie, D. (1991), Green Design: Design for the Environment (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.).
  • Manzini, E. (1990), 'The New Frontiers: Design Must Change and Mature', Design, 501, p. 9.
  • Packard, V. (1963), The Waste Makers (Middlesex: Penguin).
  • Papanek, V. (1971), Design for the Real World (New York: Pantheon Books).
  • Papanek, V. (1985), Design pentru lumea reala (Bucuresti: Editura Tehnica)
  • Ryan, C. (1993) 'Design and the Ends of Progress' in O2 Event: Striking Visions,
  • Schumacher, E. F. (1973), Small is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People Mattered (London: Sphere Books, Ltd.).
  • Shot in the Dark (2000), Design on the Environment: Ecodesign for Business (Sheffield: Shot in the Dark)
  • Sparke, P. (1983), Consultant Design: The History and Practice of the Designer in Industry (London: Pembridge Press Limited).
  • Design for sustainability Sustainability (2006), Trends and Waves. Available at:


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