Sustainability in the design process

Author: Emily Eichenlaub

Illustration von einer Glühbirne, Blättern, Weltkugel und Mensch auf grünem Hintergrund

Sustainability has become indispensable in a world threatened by climate change and other ecological challenges. This also applies to the design process because a product's sustainability is ultimately decided here. Therefore, Companies, designers, and strategists have a responsibility to think in a new and different way — beyond mere user-centricity to planet-centricity. But how can this be achieved?

User-centricity is not enough

In recent years, many companies have integrated design methods, such as design thinking, into their innovation processes, thus giving user-centricity a broader scope. While in the past rigid and long-term plans often dominated, new products and services were developed without the involvement of users. A design-oriented, iterative approach that focuses on users was a quantum leap for many companies. In many markets, the associated customer orientation and focus are now a prerequisite for surviving in a competitive environment. However, with a view of current ecological challenges such as the climate crisis and increasing scarcity of resources, as well as the associated need for sustainable approaches, user-centricity alone is not enough. This is because it recognizes people only to a limited extent in the role of users or consumers and too typically ignores important aspects such as the ecological impact of design decisions.

Responsibilities of designers

Around 80 % of the ecological impact of a product is already determined in the design phase, as the statistics of the EU Science Hub show. This demonstrates how much influence designers have on the sustainability of a product. If we look at the life cycle of a product, we see that the central course is already set in the early product development phase. Through their far-reaching influence on the sustainability of a final product, designers, therefore, bear a great responsibility towards society and the economy. Their challenge is to balance the needs of users with other relevant demands of the public and nature in a meaningful way.

From user centricity to planet centricity

But how can such approaches be developed and understood as an opportunity?

To approach the topic appropriately, a special focus should be placed on the climate goals. The climate goals to which the UN General Assembly has committed for the next nine years include 17 other sustainable development goals in addition to carbon savings. To achieve these, new digital products should be developed with a “planet & human centred approach”.

Some designers and strategists have already developed very effective frameworks in the context of sustainability to manage the complexities that come with increased sustainability requirements. These frameworks each have a different focus and concentrate on a particular aspect of sustainability, such as the ecological footprint, or look at sustainability from a broader perspective, such as in various rating systems.

The Sustainable Layers of Effect framework is used to fully anticipate the intended and unintended impacts of an idea being explored. This allows the team to identify areas where they should reduce negative behaviour and increase positive behaviour. Another framework is called “Sustainable Personas”, where personas (potential users) and their attitudes toward sustainability are particularly highlighted. This image is not so much the result of wishful thinking of a “green user”, but takes real needs into account. This makes it easier to develop questions for long-lasting innovations.

Such progressive and innovative methods support designers and strategists in developing sustainable designs.

Sustainability as an opportunity for companies

A stronger focus on the planet is not only enormously important for the future of humanity, but also offers new opportunities for companies. With the right positioning strategy, they can stand out from the competition. It can also attract many new employees, as the importance of meaningful and sustainable activities is constantly increasing. In addition, new business areas open by using sustainability as a “business opportunity”. Corporate culture can be redirected into sustainability, ultimately contributing to a more sustainable world.

The planet-centric mindset at IBM iX

At IBM iX, we are already working with a planet- and people-centric mindset and have already established key tools and processes that incorporate the environment into many projects and processes. This systematic and transparent approach enables a broader lens for design. With this broader view and new design-oriented tools to address sustainability issues, our frameworks enable profitable services and products that are also sustainable. Through interactive training, such as Sustainable Design Thinking, employees are made aware of the issue and receive targeted training.

At the beginning of a project, for example, it can be determined which of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (e.g. gender equality, sustainable consumption and production, climate protection measures, etc.) will be focused on during the project. Subdivide these goals into the protection of rights and fairness, optimization of resource use and decarbonization to set the intention of action and to create measurable goals and plan for the long term.

Rethinking makes us fit for the future

The planet-centric revolution must take place – and if a project is not designed with our planet in mind, then the purpose of the project should be controversial anyway. This is especially true for designers and strategists, who play a key role in product development and significantly influence how sustainable a product is in the end. However, this change in thinking does not happen overnight; rather, it is a continuous process in which we must learn how to deal with current and future environmental challenges. But it is a path that employees in companies must take because they not only have an economic responsibility, but also a social and ecological one.

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