A simple framework for sustainable design

As a designer, you may wonder what you can do to ensure that your contribution results in sustainable solutions. How do you navigate constraints such as time, budget, resources, and legislation that may limit your efforts? How can you balance your vision with the needs and expectations of clients, users, and other stakeholders to achieve sustainable outcomes? Furthermore, individual designers can’t anticipate or control all the consequences of their actions on complex systems, in the long term. And it is acceptable that not all designers may be willing to disrupt or challenge the status quo, even if it would be beneficial.

Addressing these challenges is not easy, as it requires complex systems-level and perspective thinking. In a previous attempt, I proposed the eliminative design manifesto, which encourages designers not to design everything that can be designed and accept elimination as a valid solution. However, implementing this approach can be challenging and time-consuming.

Therefore, I propose a few simple practices that fit well into the normal design process to help designers who want to create truly sustainable changes. Although the framework I suggest is based on only a few sources and may not reflect the diversity of design thinking literature and practice, also I haven’t tested it yet, so I don’t have evidence that it works, it is intended to stimulate conversation and generate genuinely workable solutions.

Before describing the simple exercise to help you create sustainable solutions, let me briefly discuss the sources that inspire my thinking. Although knowing these sources can aid you in applying the practices I propose, it’s not necessary to introduce them to others involved in the exercise. The first two resources will help you think about complex systems without getting lost in them.

Viveka Turnbull Hocking’s model outlines three systems that designers and design thinkers must consider and address when developing designs.

The natural system includes all living and non-living things that exist independently of human intervention. Designers must respect and protect this system as much as possible since it is both the source of inspiration and resources for design, as well as the recipient of its impacts and consequences.

The artificial system, on the other hand, includes all human-made objects, environments, processes, and interactions that constitute our culture and civilization. Designers must constantly innovate and improve this system to meet human needs and desires.

Finally, the thought system includes all human cognitive processes, such as perception, imagination, reasoning, emotion, and communication. Designers must creatively challenge and expand this system to explore problems and possibilities through various methods and tools.

These three systems are interrelated and interdependent, forming an ecology for a design that requires a holistic and systemic approach.

The second resource that can help you think in systems without thinking in systems comes from the design philosophy of Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa. It captures the essence of the above line of thought in a stunningly simple way. As Fukasawa said,

“Design is all about finding out what is the best relationship between people, things, and the environment, and finally, embodying it into the object. The goodness of this relationship creates small happiness, which is a sensual harmony resulting from living thoughtfully and improving the quality of our lives.”

The following two resources can help you to enhance your long-term perspective.

The first is the ‘Three Horizons’ concept outlined in Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl. This foresight tool structures our thinking about the future by describing three patterns or ways of doing things and how they evolve over time.

Horizon 1 represents the current dominant system, characterized by business-as-usual practices and short-term thinking, while Horizon 2 represents the transition zone between old and new, driven by disruptive innovation and visionary leaders. Horizon 3 represents the emerging future aligned with our highest aspirations and values, characterized by long-term thinking and holistic solutions.

Navigating from Horizon 1 to Horizon 3 through Horizon 2 fosters resilience, adaptation, and innovation, and highlights that different horizons coexist at any given time.

Combining three horizons with three systems to design sustainable solutions

Margaret Boden’s three types of creativity offer another tool for perspective. Combinational creativity involves creating new combinations of familiar ideas or elements and is useful for finding solutions in Horizon 1. Exploratory creativity involves generating new ideas by exploring a space of concepts within certain rules or constraints, suitable for Horizon 2 thinking. Transformational creativity involves transforming the space of concepts itself by changing or breaking rules or constraints and can lead to Horizon 3 thinking.

By leveraging these different types of creativity, you can expand your thinking and create innovative solutions for the long term.

To apply these insights in your design process and achieve sustainable solutions with your team, I suggest the following approach. The goal is to minimize disruption while maximizing impact in the right place.

It’s important to introduce this perspective at the appropriate time in the project, after the initial exploration phase when stakeholders have gained some understanding and sensitivity to different points of view before committing to a solution. This timing allows you to avoid resistance to the perspective that might arise if introduced too early, while also allowing for greater impact than if introduced too late.

The approach consists of two steps that are straightforward and easy to understand. First, when the first possible solutions emerge, ask the participants to consider the following three questions to improve their solutions one by one.

How does this potential solution

  • impact the natural system? What measures can be taken to minimize negative effects?
  • fit into and improve the artificial system? How can it be optimized for maximum benefit?
  • reflect and challenge the thought system? What new insights and perspectives can it offer?

This simple exercise can help project stakeholders approach problem-solving systematically without resistance, as it encourages them to improve the quality of their initial ideas. While this may lead to new problems arising, this presents an opportunity to find innovative and sustainable solutions, which require perspective thinking. To ensure you find sustainable answers to these new problems, ask the team the following simple question:

What changes do we need to make now to ensure a desirable future?

In conclusion, as a designer interested in creating sustainable solutions, there are several challenges to navigate, such as time, budget, resources, and legislation, as well as the complexity of systems thinking. However, there are simple practices that you can apply in your design process to achieve sustainable outcomes, such as considering the natural, artificial, and thought systems, leveraging different types of creativity, and navigating the three horizons of the future.

By applying these insights in your design process and introducing them at the appropriate time, you can improve your solutions while minimizing disruption and maximizing impact in the right place.

The simple exercise I proposed can help you to approach problem-solving systematically without resistance and generate innovative solutions for the long term.

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