Use Design Principles to Build a Sustainable World

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain the principles that incorporate sustainability in design.
  • Follow best practices for sustainable design.

The scale and complexity of the challenges we face as a global community can seem overwhelming. The questions of where to begin, how to engage, and what to do both professionally and personally can be hard to answer. 

Design principles serve as a way to answer these questions. They function as guidelines that can be adapted to whatever context we’re working in. 

Designers interested in working more sustainably should always seek to: 

  • Tell clear stories, resist abstraction.
  • Design with intention, consider consequence.
  • Design for full product lifecycles, consider sources, uses, reuses.

Let’s explore those principles in more detail.

Tell Clear Stories, Resist Abstraction

So much of sustainability is about being intentional about relationships. Relationships with each other, with the planet, between workers and employers, between society’s haves and have-nots. Often the qualities and consequences of those relationships aren’t entirely clear. 

Take climate change: Since the 1980s, when scientists began increasing the urgency of their warnings about the risks of climate change, the world has emitted two-thirds of the total greenhouse gases that have brought on the climate crisis. This means, in response to those scientific warnings, the global economy has more than doubled-down on the causes of the problem.

Graph of CO2 emissions from 1850 to 2015 showing an accelerating rise with markers for when the major work of international climate treaties was doneRate of CO2 emissions accelerating: despite clear science and multiple international treaties, carbon emissions have risen precipitously


As a global community we haven’t translated the stories in scientific data into terms that speak clearly enough to nonscientists. The atmosphere, a ton of CO2, emissions, all these terms can be hard to grasp because they exist at an abstract remove from our personal experience. Can we do better at making terms like degrees of warming less abstract and more personally relevant? Can we pull the science of climate change out of white papers and into people’s hearts? 

Luckily, designers are storytellers. Brands use design to communicate who they are—the profile of a car communicates how it will handle, software interfaces communicate what’s important, what’s less important, and what’s possible for the user. 

Design has always been about telling stories about the benefits of having a relationship with a brand. Because design is used to communicate the benefits of products and services and to reveal the stories behind business data, it’s also uniquely positioned to reveal how those products have an impact on our environment and on the communities that manufacture them. When we tell clear stories, we can: 

  • Make risk real. Climate change, the global water crisis, significant environmental regulation, and increasing consumer demand for businesses to be a force for good—these are all risks every business faces. How might those risks show up in the dashboards, reports, or product roadmaps? How could they be more visible, more real, more relevant?
  • Reveal relationships. Supply chains are full of people and communities, but the tools we use to manage and track supply chains often hide those people and places. How might we shift the way organizations think about their supply chains from abstract inputs and outputs to real people and places we are impacting in positive or negative ways?

Examples of telling clear stories and resisting abstraction include: 

  • Microsoft embeds a price for carbon in all of their budgeting and resourcing activities. This internal fee is used to fund the company’s shift to renewable energy.
  • The phrase Black Lives Matter is an example of taking the complex challenges of systemic racism and extrajudicial police violence and stating both a problem and a solution in a simple three-word phrase.
  • When companies partner with NGOs to reduce the social and environmental impacts of their supply chains, a strategy for generating the political will to act is to physically take company executives to the base of their supply chains so that they can see clear cut forests, emptying reservoirs or inhumane working conditions firsthand.

Design with Intention; Consider Consequence

Intention is at the core of design. It makes the difference between an effective and delightful product and a product designed mainly to minimize cost, that is inconsiderate of the user’s needs. Companies that value design understand that the thoughtful intentionality that good design brings to user experiences, products, and services leads to relationships that are more effective, delightful, and meaningful for customers. 

Designing for sustainability brings this same intentionality to a wider set of relationships than end customers, and it considers the consequences of the design choices we make. 

When designing with intention, be sure to:

  • Scan for consequences. It’s tempting to think about the products we design as interacting only with our customers, and any consequences of our design being limited to the effect we’ve designed for that customer. It’s critical that we think about consequence more broadly and include people and places impacted beyond our customers. Everything we make emerges out of a web relationship with the people who help make it and the communities and places they live and work in. Considering the broader consequences of our impact on these relationships can be done during the design process with a simple tool called a consequence scan, an activity that is increasingly being seen as an important activity in the agile development process. At key stages of the design process simply ask your team:
  • What are the intended and unintended consequences of this product or feature?
  • What are the positive consequences for our customers and our business do we want to increase and amplify?
  • Can we anticipate any negative consequences for our customers? Can we anticipate any negative consequences as a result of our design for people (or places) beyond our customers? How might we mitigate those?
  • Think of all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Think of your product and your user as being part of ecosystems. What parts of the world do your product materials come from? Whether physical or digital, what people and communities are part of the production process? What responsibilities do you have toward those people and places? How can your design serve both your customers’ needs and those of these other stakeholders?

Examples of designing with intention and considering consequences include: 

  • Imagining what design decisions might have been made at the start of the social media era if the consequences of the exponential spread of disinformation had been considered.
  • For all of its promise the Fourth Industrial Revolution (the blurring between physical, digital, and biological worlds) is full of potential unintended consequences. These include privacy breaches, rapidly growing opportunities that exacerbate the economic consequences of the digital divide, and exponential complexities making it difficult for users to comprehend the systems they’re interfacing with and, as a result, making uninformed decisions.
  • Efforts to consider stakeholders not just shareholders include Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price slashing his own salary and raising all of the company’s employee’s salaries to a living wage (many employees’ salaries increased from from a $30K to $50K with the goal to get to $70K by 2024). Or businesses and the wealthy lobbying for higher tax rates in order to invest in the countries that are the source of their revenue.

Design for Product Lifecycles: Consider Sources, Uses, Reuses

Your product doesn’t start and end with your core user. Neither should you. It’s easy to focus simply on getting your user through a purchase or a business decision, but it’s no longer sufficient. We know that our products and services have impacts both before and after they are used. And we know that the relationships affected by these impacts are critical to helping business be more sustainable. 

So it is critical that designers, and the companies we work for, consider the impacts we have at the base of our supply chains and at the end of our products’ use. 

  • Extend your journey map. You create journey maps for your customer. They typically start at prepurchase or consideration, and end with purchase and use. What if you extended that map? Is there a possible reuse or life extension phase for the product/experience you’ve designed? How will the product be disposed of? How would you design it to be as easily and effectively recycled as possible? Or what if it wasn’t disposed of at all, but instead returned and repurposed? And as you look at the journey map ask your team,“How can we minimize waste and environmental impact throughout this whole journey?”
  • Make sustainability a product parameter. Just raising the topic will activate new thinking within the design and product teams, spark ideas, and get designers problem-solving. This goes the same with business parameters. When discussing the business goals for a design, cross-check them with your company’s or client’s sustainability goals. Look for opportunities to support them with your design.
  • Be more like a forest. Wild places don’t make waste. They are circular systems that use inputs and outputs for different purposes. If you’ve taken the Trees to Combat Climate Change trail, you know that trees support the health of the soil they grow in and capture CO2 and clean particulate pollution from the air as they grow. Wetlands treat the water that runs through them by using any natural waste as nutrients. What would it look like if you designed more like a forest? Aspire to that. And while you’re at it, can your business join’s mission to ensure the conservation and restoration of one trillion trees within this decade and, by doing so, pull carbon emissions out of the atmosphere while offering shade, improving biodiversity, purifying our air, preventing soil erosion, cleaning our water, and adding grace and beauty to our communities?

Examples of designing for product lifecycles include: 

  • Prana formed the Responsible Packaging Movement with over 50 other companies and committed to removing all plastics from their consumer packaging by 2021.
  • The rise of misfit produce companies like misfitmarket and imperfectfoods reduces food waste by delivering blemished produce direct to consumers.
  • Take Back and Producer Responsibility Laws in the European Union have radically increased recycling rates for consumer product packaging at retailers and reduced consumer electronic e-waste.

Sum It Up

In this module, you learned that defining the relationships business has with society has been a long-standing challenge for leaders through history. These leaders have sought to shift society’s norms about which relationships should be given priority and how those relationships should be defined. Designers are increasingly questioning whether our role should be to design only for direct relationships with core users or if we should consider our design’s impact on a wider set of relationships. 

Sustainability asks us to balance benefits for businesses, shareholders, employees, partners, communities, and the environment.

It has become increasingly clear that there’s urgent work to be done to ensure that businesses balance their responsibilities to all of these stakeholders. Effective design, relationship design, is at the heart of this work.

This module gives you examples and exercises you can use to apply sustainable design principles to your work. Designers love a good challenge. We’re excited to see what you can do. 


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