The Role of Designers in Driving Sustainability

Sustainable Design

This blog is based on a presentation called The Role of Designers to Drive Sustainability, delivered by Denise DeLuca, Director of MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design program, for Sustainability Drive 2021.


There are so many of us working to drive sustainability. We come from business and science, consulting and engineering, education and advocacy, urban planning and government. One discipline that is underutilized — and arguably underdeveloped — is design. Why is that important?


Everything is designed

When many people hear the word “design” they might think of fashion design, interior design, or architecture. Those are all examples of design — and so is the device you’re reading this on. If you’re indoors, the lighting and furniture and floor covering in the room are designed. Your refrigerator and stove and pots and pans are designed, as is all of the packaging and some of the food in your kitchen. Your heating and cooling and electricity — and the power sources and grids that fuel them — are designed. The transportation systems you use and that delivery the products that you buy are designed. The list goes on. 

Why is this important?  Because almost all of the sustainability issues we’re grappling with are caused by the things that we make, how we make them, how we use them, and how we dispose of them. And all of these things are designed. Our world is unsustainable by design. 


Most sustainability impacts are determined at the design stage

It is estimated that over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product.  Designers decide what materials will be used to make a product which, in turn, determines what raw materials need to be extracted and transported and processed. Design decisions also determine how things are manufactured and, by extension, where they are made — which may require several factories around the world and transportation of parts among them. Designers decide the look and feel of a product, which may require the use of chemical colorants and coatings, some of which end up in wastewater and waterways. Again, the list goes on.


Why our designs are unsustainable

Most designers work within a linear economy where “take, make, and waste” is the assumed model. This is where — perhaps without thinking about it — designers create a demand for raw materials that are taken from nature, often destroying it in the process. They assume — again, without intention — that their products will be made in factories that emit greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the air and water, and that ruin the neighborhoods in which they operate. The linear economy also assumes that we can toss out what we don’t want whenever we want to, without consideration of where that waste ends up or the impact that it will have. 

In our economy, manufacturing — the “make” of “take, make, and waste” — often relies on what is referred to as “heat, beat, and treat” processes.  We use fossil fuels to heat materials to hundreds or thousands of degrees.  We use more fossil-fuel-derived energy to crush, mix, roll, cut, rivet — beat — materials into desired shapes. And we often rely on treating materials or products with toxic chemicals to achieve the desired design performance.

That’s just the environmental side. Since our designs demand more resources than are locally available and abundant, we seek them elsewhere, which is one of the leading causes of conflicts and wars, which ruin countries and cultures and generate endless streams of refugees. 

We’ve designed urban landscapes that are unhealthy, unsafe, unnatural, and inhumane. We designed products that compel our children to stay indoors and play with enticing man-made devices rather than playing outdoors in nature with each other. Parents end up raising the next generation of consumers.


What (sustainable) designers can do

Designers have a unique ability to imagine what does not yet exist, and then to make what they imagine come to life. Why is that important?

You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

~ R. Buckminster Fuller

Designers have the ability to imagine and build the new sustainable models that can make our existing unsustainable models obsolete.

Before thinking about what they will design or how they will design it, sustainable designers ask why. They look at design challenges using a variety of lenses, and then apply multiple kinds of thinking — like biomimicry thinking, human-centered thinking, and systems thinking.  

Once they understand the why, the needs, and the context, they dive into their sustainable designers toolbox. There they can choose from a multitude of sustainable design strategies such as dematerialization, product-services systems models, re-usability, and equity. Things as simple as an office chair, a piece of leather, or a ketchup bottle are expanded and broken-down and analyzed before they are redesigned using frameworks such as The Natural Step, Biomimicry, Cradle-to-Cradle, SDGs, Circular Economy, and Regenerative Design.  


What does sustainable design look like?

Sustainable design can look like a shoe that is made from all natural materials grown on farms that regenerate the soil and respect farmworkers, made in factories powered by renewable energy and committed to just working conditions, and that can be composted and returned to the soil at the end of their useful life.

Sustainable design can look like a building that generates all of its own power from renewable energy, collects all the water it needs from rainfall, treats all of its own waste, and entices residents to take the stairs and walk or cycle to work.

Sustainable design can look like a cargo ship that runs on wind power with shipping routes designed to collect and deliver waste while collecting and delivering products to optimize space and mileage.

Sustainable design can look like integrated circular economies at neighborhood to global scales, that leverage material, energy, and manufacturing synergies, that are designed for endless cycles of waste=food.

Sustainable design can look like deserts turning into forests and farmlands, consumers turning into citizens, cities turning into places of beauty, joy, and wellness. 


What is the role of designers in driving sustainability?

We need designers — sustainable designers — to imagine, to create, and to drive the sustainable future that we’re all working for.


If you are a designer — or love the tools of design — we invite you to explore our fully online MA in Sustainable Design programApplications for Fall 2021 are accepted until June 1.  Our next free informational webinar is May 18. You are also welcome to contact me with your questions [[email protected]]. 

Denise DeLuca / Director

Denise DeLuca is the Director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program. She was co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler. She also teaches with the Amani Institute.

Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, Project Manager for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions.  In addition, Denise is a Biomimicry Fellow and a member of the Advisory Council of The Biomimicry InstituteBoard Member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), on the editorial board of the Journal of Bionic Engineering, and an Expert with Katerva. Denise is based in Oregon.

contact:  [email protected]