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Sustained by Design

Sustained by Design is a project by three graduate students at the IIT Institute of Design (ID), a school focused on design research and strategy.

The arguments for sustainable design have convinced many to take up this cause, including us, but knowing why to engage in sustainable design left us wondering ‘how?’ The intent of our project is to answer “How can designers engage in sustainable design?” To help answer this question we talked to sustainable design experts from across the industry about their process. We found that there were a myriad of tools for engineers and scientists and even for industrial designers but a dearth of resources for design planners who work in the early stages of the design process. Having had a dialogue with other design planners who encountered similar challenges and having conducted an array of secondary research, we developed three big hypotheses that drove us toward developing our own set of methods.

IMG 1345 fixed 620x431 Workshop 1: Design grad students and faculty prototyped using tools for generating sustainability concepts.

First, we believe that everyone has a role to play. The current design process is a hugely collaborative effort, and if sustainability is going to succeed, we need everyone on board from management to design and engineering. Looking at the overwhelming array of current tools, many are for either engineering or organizational strategy. The engineering tools look at sustainability from an inputs and outputs problem--one that can be solved through careful accounting that can diagnose problems so that engineers can optimize a product or process. This is a valuable approach, but adapting this approach to abstract design problems is difficult. Moreover, planners--like the ones graduating from ID--are not industrial designers or engineers and generally do not work on optimization problems. Instead, their job is to design new directions; consequently, they need different tools.

Second, we believe most sustainability tools are object-centric; in order to reframe the problem in new ways, we need tools that are idea-centric. As mentioned previously, current tools are great at refinement of existing objects and processes, but they do not really help one reconsider what to create from the beginning. How can we make better decisions while still in the nascent stages of design? By appropriating the tools of user-centered design, we think there is an opportunity to reframe products, services, and experiences in a more sustainable way while they are still in the concept phase.
Finally, for sustainability to really succeed we need to move beyond evaluation and incorporate a creative element. Just as current tools are focused on refinement, they are also evaluative and not generative in nature. We do not think it is sufficient to point out the problems. Designers rely on a variety of tools (skills, frameworks, knowledge and experience) in their creative design process. The tools at their disposal affect the outcome of their design. We would like to augment a designer’s toolkit by integrating sustainability throughout every stage of their process, from research through concept generation.
IMG 1408 620x465 Workshop 2: Design grad students interested in sustainability prototyped using research analysis and concept generation tools.

To test our hypotheses, we developed a set of tools, consisting of frameworks and reference cards, to help design planners engage in sustainable design. These tools were tested in workshops run on design problems.

The User-Centered Product Life Cycle (UCPLC). The traditional product life cycle consists of the following: extraction, manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal. The expertise of user-centered designers lives in a subset of that process: from the point a product is “delivered” to a person, to the phase in which a person “uses” a product, and ultimately to the point a user “disengages” with a product. We have termed these 3 stages--deliver, use, dispose--the User-Centered Product Life Cycle. For user-centered designers who specialize in designing for user desires, the User-Centered Product Life Cycle presents a unique opportunity to fuse their traditional skills with principles of sustainability. Combining these skills is beneficial to sustainable design as any product that eschews an understanding of the user will likely falter.
IMG 1470 620x465 One application of the User-Centered Product Life Cycle was for a system card to help organize concepts.
Environmental Impacts (MEWET) and Eco-Positive Design Criteria. In order to help design planners identify potential environmental impacts of their concepts, we identified five high-level categories of impacts that planners can consider: materials, energy, water, emissions, and toxins. By deconstructing user behaviors to reveal impacts, design planners can incorporate that understanding to create Eco-Positive Design Criteria that address both user intent as well as potential environmental consequences. While this analysis doesn’t give designers a quantitative measure of what impact to focus on, it does give them an intuitive sense of how sustainability issues are connected to their user criteria.
IMG 1473 620x465 18 approach cards, with supporting case studies, to provide inspiration during concept generation.
Approach Cards and Life Cycle Strategies. As inspiration, we extracted a set of sustainable design approaches from a variety of sustainability case studies. The Approach Cards are meant to act as fodder for thinking about sustainability, especially for those who have not been previously exposed to these concepts. Moreover, these approaches are tagged with any set of three high-level life cycle-based strategies: eliminating loops, extending loops, and closing loops, which correspond to the phases deliver, use, and dispose respectively.

Through the aforementioned methods, we aim for concepts generated in the workshop to address both user criteria and environmental consequences systematically from the onset. If the team chooses to further develop any of the concepts, they can evaluate them through Life Cycle Analysis tools such as Sustainable Minds. Ultimately, the goal of these methods is to foster the conditions within which designers can apply their ingenuity to sustainability problems and produce more concept directions that are viable, desirable, and sustainable.

P1020292 620x414 Workshop 3: Design and sustainability professionals prototyped using research analysis and concept generation tools.

Project Information

Fall 2010
Homer Ong, Ksenia Pachikov, Owen Schoppe

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