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Design is the Problem April 10, 2011

Posted by ebloodgood in Uncategorized.

At its heart, Design is the Problem is about accountability. Multiple parties, including product marketers, procurement managers, process engineers and senior executives have a hand in determining the make-up of a product or service. Designers however have a unique opportunity to ensure that this collaboration results in a sustainable outcome. Thus Shedroff’s work is a refreshing call to action that is difficult to ignore and nearly impossible to refute.

Shedroff argues that designers have “created some solutions that have hurt people and the environment in a myriad of ways.” He quickly brings readers, even those who may have been skeptical, on board with compelling examples of commonplace, damaging design models. Makeup and stilettos worn by many women and pushed by the fashion industry as sources of beauty, are shown by Shedroff to be exactly the opposite. Makeup clogs pores and causes skin problems while high heels create discomfort and long-term health problems. It is hard to argue with this logic, which immediately draws readers into considering what other everyday behaviors and products are deeply embedded but yield undesirable consequences.

As a student of energy and clean technology at Haas, I was immediately reminded of the inefficiencies embedded in our electricity generation and transmission infrastructure. I work part-time at a manufacturer of distributed generation technologies, where the company’s goal is to help move the industry away from the centralized generation model, characterized by massive power plants sending electricity out over thousands of miles of electric wires that create transmission losses, environmental disruptions and eyesores. The distributed approach, consisting of localized, renewable energy generation was perhaps best advocated by Amory Lovins in his 1976 paper “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?”. Shedroff is clearly familiar with this view, as he discusses the benefits of decentralized designs several pages later (and also includes a foreword from L. Hunter Lovins, who co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute with Amory).

This starting point of questioning the rationale for existing designs is an excellent take-off point for the bulk of the book, which reviews existing frameworks for incorporating sustainability, and proposes specific guidelines that designers can follow to improve sustainability. The review of existing frameworks is comprehensive and covers Natural Capitalism, Cradle to Cradle, Biomimicry, Life Cycle Analysis, Social Return on Investment, The Natural Step, Total Beauty and the Sustainability Helix. The array of approaches can be overwhelming, and so Shedroff’s synthesis in the “Putting Them All Together” section is a highly valuable resource for quickly grasping the key points of multiple disparate methodologies (pictured below). That being said, a designer seeking to directly apply any of these frameworks would require further study beyond the summaries provided in this book.


Following this comprehensive review, Shedroff proposes a number of specific measures that designers can take to arrive at more sustainable solutions. These include Design for Use, Dematerialization, Substitution, Localization, Transmaterialization, Informationalization and Designing for Reuse and Recycling. Some of these techniques, such as the “less is more” approach to dematerialization, are fairly intuitive. However, others are deeply insightful and provide new associations between sustainability and design. For example Shedroff draws a clear, inverse relationship between meaning and consumerism – the better products, services and experiences address our values and desire for meaning, the less likely we are to consume them in excess, or replace them with the latest fad. Thus more meaningful designs provide a novel path to sustainability.

Shedroff’s guidelines for sustainability create a valuable toolkit for any designer who is thinking about creating more sustainable solutions. Their logic and elegant simplicity may leave some readers wondering why each of these approaches has not been fully adopted and implemented by now. This is one area of the book that I felt could use more depth. For example, most would accept that recycled materials are preferable to virgin materials. In fact, a chart that compares the full cost of many common materials (Table 6.1) reveals that recycled glass and aluminum are cheaper than virgin alternatives. But clearly not all manufacturing processes substitute recycled aluminum for virgin aluminum and recycled materials are not as ubiquitous as you would hope. Shedroff does note that designers are faced with constant tradeoffs (i.e. recycled materials may sacrifice durability or performance), and those tradeoffs are where the really difficult design decisions are made. Further insight into these decisions and some data that would be useful in informing them, might have added to the depth of the discussion on tradeoffs.

The final section of the book demonstrates how these principles of sustainability can be readily incorporated into existing design processes. For designers, this is probably the most useful section of the book, in that it provides a road map to sustainability that is compatible with such common corporate activities as strategic partnerships, brand differentiation, risk mitigation and product development. Ultimately Shedroff is highly convincing that sustainability is both imperative and achievable, and that designers have a responsibility to ensure that their design process reflects this truth. Non-designers such as executives, product managers and consumers, can also learn a great deal from this book about the sort of sustainable practices they should be looking for in their products and services.