• Leo Russo

[Sustainability] 10 Tips on Sustainable Design

Sustainability can seem like a hugely complex arena - where do we begin?


The word itself can be more easily understood as a balancing of

social, environmental and economic impacts - or what french economist Passet termed “the triple bottom line”.


Something can’t be deemed sustainable (or not) because of just one measurement (like working conditions, carbon footprint, or value for money) but instead as the intersection of all these issues balanced together.


You could have a renewable energy powered factory which makes weapons from recycled metal - but the social impact of being an arms producer is so substantial that the whole thing can’t be justified as sustainable.


Air travel is currently hugely polluting, but has the potential within the next century to become emissions free: electric and renewably powered.


Soon, the public will want to understand how and why the things we produce and consume will change over the next 30 years. Yes, we have an individual responsibility to change our consumption habits and wise up to what we buy and do - but we also need to demand more from the organisations that have such a huge impact on the planet, more from the politicians that legislate on a multi-local level, and more from ourselves, in communicating and enacting positive change for our communities in every way we can. Everyone can participate in designing responses to these systemic problems that we face as a species. By looking at the world through this lens we can all gain more insight, and the motivation required to steer the world towards sustainability.


1: Be Meaningful. If you want to do good, solve real problems. Making whatever you want first, then thinking of a problem it solves afterwards doesn’t make much sense. Find what’s most meaningful to you in these hectic times. Meaning is different to everyone, but we know as individuals if we’re doing work that’s pointless or not. Never stop looking for problems to solve - the world is full of them. Design for design’s sake may well become extinct in our lifetimes! Ultimately, we are very lucky to do what we do.


2: Work with People + Places. Put people at the heart of your work, design in context and with sensitivity. It’s impossible to design by yourself. Those people who a project interacts with - the stakeholders - often understand the problems we try and solve much better than us. There is a shift from Designing for to Designing with. Partner up. Design in reflection of your local environment, whilst also remaining open minded, and valuing diversity. Many of the insights your project needs may well be at your fingertips. It would be tricky to design for Laos if you live in London - how can we understand the problems of a place we don't encounter often? We are usually most informed about the places we live, our locality. If you want to design for somewhere - get out there in real life and work with people to discover insights about the problems you want to solve. Take Fixperts, for instance: they provide a platform and framework for designers to find and solve a particular person's problems.


3: Think in Cycles. Design for a circular economy and consider your negative impacts. We’ve seen the plastic oceans, let’s make sure we don’t do that again. These days, everything is a system. So start thinking about things in systems - not as a piece of design in isolation. What are the materials I’m using and where did they come from? What happens at the end of my design’s useful life? Is it destined for oceans or landfills, or can I make sure it’s non toxic + recyclable/biodegradable? Maybe the pieces are somehow fastened together rather than permanently glued?


From before a project begins to after a project is released, and throughout its lifetime, we have to be thinking about how to not only mitigate negative impacts but by thinking in systems we can see positive impacts too. The bioplastic coffee cup becomes nutrients for the compost heap. The metal legs of a chair can become another useful product after the seat breaks.


4: Break it Down. Research may seem boring to some, but it’s the precursor to all acts of creativity. Research is inspiration - and if you do your research to explore all possibilities for a project, the answers will become obvious! Research can take the form of anything if you’re inspired by it: from podcasts and videos, to events and conversations. Approaching systemic problems like climate change means working from careful insights, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fun doing it. In fact, the more exploration you do and the more discoveries you make, the richer your pallet of tools becomes; and the greater your chances are of coming up with something brilliant...


Come to think of it, you're researching right now! Just make sure to record the insights you discover.


5: Communicate and Envision. Platform, network and build the change you want to see in the world, don’t just speak about it. We have to become business people, communicators and most importantly visionaries if we want to impact the world positively through our work. Use every tool at your disposal - talk to every person you can - to build a more powerful bridge between you and your goals. Show the change, live the change, and make a really big fuss about the change!


6: Observe Nature and Experiment. Life on planet earth has been around for almost 4 billion years, and in that time it’s been prototyping and testing everything. This amount of experimentation leaves no stone unturned. Survival of the fittest means survival of the most fit for purpose, not the biggest and baddest win. Through natural selection and evolution, the most complex and extraordinary things arise - how can spider’s silk be stronger than steel? How can clams make ceramic shells without heat? In nature, everything is locally manufactured and nothing is wasted, no toxic emissions are made and all parts of its ecosystem are fit for purpose. Some of the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be based on learning from nature. This field is called Biomimicry. Learning from nature has existed as long as we have, but in design, it was recently popularised by Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry.


7: Look far Beyond and Bring it Back Home. Design has never worked by itself. It is a cocktail discipline, a polymath’s pursuit. Interdisciplinary has been all the rage recently and for very good reasons. Collaborating with people who do entirely different things opens up entirely different possibilities. Skills are transferrable and we all too often look right in front of our eyes rather than all around us. The most profound contributions to environmental and social issues have come from new experiences and teamwork that didn’t previously exist. Scrap the status quo - we are in a design renaissance. Learn from and collaborate with scientists, playwrights, musicians, historians, dentists or whoever may be of interest.


8: Don’t Panic! Climate crisis can be overwhelming when you really look into it - but never fear - you couldn’t be in a better position than being creative and switched on. We designed our way into this mess and we can design our way out! Many problems may never be entirely solved, but let that be liberating. Anything and everything we do to contribute positively towards the world today can make a huge difference, there’s no time to waste and it’s never too late to change the way you work. We need each other’s help now more than ever before... so don’t just stand there - do something! If you’re in the business of planting trees, you don’t fret about where to start putting seedlings in the field because eventually a forest will grow either way.


9: Beware the Line of Compromise. There are some things you just can’t change! Being critical is just as important as being honest to yourself, and all we can do is try our best. Say you’re working on a project for a client campaigning to raise awareness on an environmental problem. You should be using recycled paper, but say your client won’t allow the budget to shift or you can’t source it in time - it doesn’t mean you should stop what you’re doing. The most important thing is that you’re working on the bigger picture. Make do and move on - but remember it for next time.

Any and all contributions to this era of sustainable design may be valid. Think in the grand scheme of things and be radical - weigh up your options and do all you can in a given context. Sometimes a wall will appear but that’s a lesson learned.


10: Practice Makes Perfect. Practice is the key to becoming a master at everything. I’m no expert, but after being interested in design for environmental and social issues for the last 7 years I’ve become way more optimistic. Change is happening at an alarming rate in a good way too, and the possibilities for creativity are really endless. The only way we can come up with breakthrough ideas is to keep practicing what we do best. Think of it in terms of music - It’s very difficult to play a new genre unless you master your instrument - and kendrick wasn’t born with the ability to freestyle effortlessly. These things take time and effort but our passion to face up to great challenges grows stronger with each step we take.



About me: I'm a designer and musician from London - my background is in Product Design and I graduated from Kingston University in 2019 with an MA in Sustainable Design.


Read more about my work at: harmonic-design.org


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