“The practice of thinking about the future is very much a design practice,” says Lisa K. Solomon, Stanford d.school’s Designer in Residence, in a recent conversation with the Institute of the Futures. In fact, Solomon prefers the term “futures” over “the future,” suggesting we ditch accurate prediction for multiple possibilities. The subtext here is intention: It’s up to us to create the future we want, and designers can play a central role in that.

The one future everyone can agree we’ll need is a sustainable one. Climate change is on everyone’s minds (finally), even more so this week, with strikes being staged across the globe starting on Friday. We’re entering a period of deep creative thinking, drawing on all human resources possible to help craft solutions to a problem we all share.

Planting billions of trees to save the planet makes for a poetic news headline, but it doesn’t target the real issue, which is consumer demand for the greenhouse-gas-emitting resources, such as beef and dairy products. The main problem we have to solve is this: how do we convince people and companies to trade consumerist mentalities for conservationist thinking?  

Enter, designers. 

When we consider the user’s needs, we catch hold of the thread needed to unravel the solution. In a recent study where participants had to decide between purchasing tins of beef or vegetable soup, they opted for veggie when each tin displayed a label reflecting its true environmental impact. In this case, the user’s need was more information.

Most of us are simply unaware of the impact we’re making, and designers have the power to change that.

Here are the primary ways we will depend on designers to take care of the planet.

1. Eco-friendly nudges

There are opportunities for designers and UX writers to create small nudges that encourage consumers to make more eco-friendly choices. For example, while booking a cab with Lyft, the app could present you with a notification that says, “The destination you’ve entered is just a few minutes’ walk from your location. Do you still want to take the cab?” That way you’ll consider your choice more carefully.

Shopping websites could also offer different delivery options for products, from overnight to “no hurry delivery” where you can wait for a bulk order in your area to be filled, thereby reducing your carbon footprint. This could be accompanied by a small discount, cashback, or rewarding display message that makes users feel good about their green choice. CureFit asks customers if they’d like to receive cutlery with their food delivery or use their own, and gives users a discount if they choose the latter option. 

“A simple but effective gambit is to make the desired sustainable behaviour an “opt out”—users must consciously choose to pick the more environmentally harmful option (for instance, express shipping), which they might be less likely to do than the reverse,” writes James Christie, founder of SustainableUX.

Other ideas might be to add a carbon offset option to travel sites, create more closed-loop products, and include efficiency ratings for products so that users can compare their options.

2. Promoting the circular economy

There’s been a lot of talk lately about ditching the linear economy for the circular economy, and designers have a central role to play in this as well. 

While the linear economy rides on creation and disposal, the circular economy “aims to design out waste” by prioritising reduction, reuse, and renewability in all products and systems. The World Economic Forum describes the goal as follows: “Waste does not exist: products are designed and optimised for a cycle of disassembly and reuse.”

Designers can, in essence, map out the life cycle of a product from manufacturing to reuse to keep these priorities in mind. Examples would be working for a medical equipment company that refurbishes used equipment from developed countries; helping move companies toward rental business models, such as carpet and washing machine rental services; and working directly with used materials to design their next reuse.

The circular economy is all about addressing customers’ needs using the bare minimum amount of materials required, and this is where human-centered design methods can really shine.

3. Labels on plant-based food products

“How does the plant-based movement reach the other 95%?” said Patty Trevino, Carl’s Jr SVP of Marketing, at the Good Food Conference in early September. “Stop stereotyping consumers into categories and just make great products.”

Veggie-friendly food companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods now have their meatless burgers being served up by a number of fast food chains in the U.S., including Burger King, Carl’s Jr, Hard Rock Café, McDonald’s, Red Robin, and White Castle. Independent restaurants have started serving them as well.

Who is responsible for making great products like these? To make plant-based and cell-based meat products more appealing to a wider demographic of consumers, we need UX designers who can put themselves in the shoes of those “other 95%” and create meatless products that aren’t seen as substitutes but as delicious and healthy in their own right.

The Beyond Meat vegan burger is all about UX. Made from yellow peas and coconut, with beet juice to “bleed” like a real burger, the burger is made by a company that refers to its product as a “360 degree experience.”

4. Discoverability

Often, it’s simply a matter of making green products “discoverable,” or easy to use without having to put much effort into figuring out how the product works. Discoverability is a sign of effective UX design. 

In a recent blog post, green business consulting agency R&G Strategic shared its story of being challenged by the Nova Scotia Department of Energy and Mines and Clean Foundation to develop solarassist.ca, an easy-to-use online tool to help Nova Scotians discover their home’s solar potential.

R&G realised that a major barrier to more Canadians adopting solar panels was the time it takes to research how suitable their homes were and how long it would take to finance the panels based on their income. 

So they designed a platform with toggles, switches, and buttons so that users could simply play around with numbers and receive different estimates without the headache of doing their own research and calculations. These savvy designers realised that people like “playing” with interfaces most of all. 

UX and service designers can exercise a lot of creativity in helping make the process of going green as seamless as possible.

5. Positive outlook

Along the same lines as Trevino’s sentiment, the key to greener living is making it more appealing. Which means staying positive about sustainability rather than framing it as an antidote to impending doom.

“A better future doesn’t require doom and gloom design,” writes Chaisson from R&G. “In fact, it will require the opposite. Who wants to live in a future that’s less fun? We must avoid making the mistake of confusing urgency with negativity if we are to make progress.”  

UX designers can lead the way in creating a brighter outlook for users, starting with an enjoyable experience.

Chaisson draws on an Elon Musk quote to emphasise his point: “I think a Tesla is the most fun thing you could possibly ever buy. It’s not a car, it’s a thing to maximise enjoyment.”

6. Materialising the invisible

We all want more transparency. We want to know what’s going into the products we buy, what byproducts were created during those products’ manufacturing processes, and how products actually function under the surface. Basically, we want to be able to peer under the hood of the car and decide whether or not we like how it’s been built. 

Thanks to designers, we can. For example, Toyota created an energy monitor in the Prius which shows drivers how efficiently they’re driving with a multi-information display on the dash panel. This design choice led to something called the “Prius Effect,” changing the behavior of Prius owners to be more economical.

“The Prius’s displays change driving behavior through what is known in psychology as a feedback loop,” explains Jim Ross, Senior Researcher at AnswerLab. “The driver sees the miles-per-gallon (MPG) information display, showing the consequences of his or her actions—the MPG goes up or down—then reacts by applying more or less force to the accelerator. This feedback encourages drivers to strive for better gas mileage.”

7. The Green Web

As the majority of websites are powered by fossil fuels, designers can help companies reduce their carbon footprint by suggesting green hosting services instead or maximising the energy efficiency of web content interaction. 

Modern sites and applications use fancy web fonts and high-resolution images and videos, which create a better visual experience but use more power. Websites are also much bigger than they were a decade ago, with web page size increasing by 317% from 2010 to 2016, and receive more traffic. 

“By some estimates, an average website with 10,000 page views per month could be responsible for emitting up to 4,700 lbs of CO2, equivalent to driving a car for over 5,000 miles,” says Jack Amend, co-founder of Web Neutral Project, which partners with clients to create carbon neutral websites.

The startup does this by redesigning and reprogramming websites to consume less energy, moving website hosting to 100% on-site solar-powered (or “clean”) servers, and awarding certification badges to carbon neutral websites. 

You can also design products that work well with dark colors, which use up more power than light colours (not just for colours and illustrations but also the themes and background colours of apps), and create dark themes as Google did for YouTube to increase battery life.   

“For the average website creator, there are four simple to-dos to take action to reduce the carbon footprint of our websites: compress image files used, disable unnecessary plug-ins, don’t over-use video, and switch to hosting powered by renewables,” writes climate consultant Neil Yeoh.

The good news is that a low-data site doesn’t equate to a poor user experience. On the contrary, designers can build attractive, engaging experiences by using less than 1/300th of the data of an average page. Check out the winners of the 10k Apart competition for inspiration.

8. Putting several products into one

Designers can also lead the way when it comes to consolidating several products into one. For example, with the advent of the iPhone, we suddenly no longer needed a Walkman, camera, and camcorder as separate devices, thereby reducing the number of products created and waste produced. 

A power-hungry smartphone may consume as much electricity in a year as a fridge does, but the counterargument, writes Andrew Mcafee, co-founder of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, goes like this: “What would have been produced over the past 12 years in a smartphone-free world? The answer, clearly, is a lot more: a lot more gear, and a lot more media.”

Designers can help us create products that serve multiple functions in order to phase out products that only have one use.

9. Persuasive visual campaigns and graphic design

Graphic designers, illustrators, and UI (User Interface) designers can have a strong influence over the way we think about issues like climate change. When it comes to presenting dense statistics in a visually impactful way, designers almost have to step in. Campaigns that lean toward inspiring, motivating, and strategic visual materials have been successful in convincing people to be more ecologically responsible. 

Extinction Rebellion, for instance, uses graphic design intentionally to create engaging, open-source protest materials. 

Visual communicators should “avoid the temptation to be visually angry and preachy”, says freelance illustrator Ben Tallin, and instead try to be “clever, subtle and original.” The best way to do this, writes Sarah Dawood, deputy editor of Design Week, quoting Tallin, is “through not working in an isolated way, but instead alongside scientists and environmental specialists who can help to digest and lay out information.”

“There’s a lot of data out there about the impact of climate change and now more than ever this needs to be packaged up, branded and communicated to the masses,” says Tessa Simpson, designer at studio O Street.

Daphnie Loong and Daniel Tan of Tofu Design are working on a project that does exactly this, using the horizontal parallax scroll to bring the experience alive. “There’s no easy way to talk about the climate crisis,” says. But what if there was a better way to present it?”

10. Going from physical to digital

Designers can help us prevent overproduction and waste by creating “intangible” versions of physical things. Bringing more music, books, radio, and other items into the digital space cuts down on waste and encourages the responsible sourcing of materials and production of goods. For an example, think of the designers who created the “page turning” effect on the Kindl. 

11. Preventing greenwashing

UXers can help define an experience that’s truly green, setting it apart from experiences that only claim to be. That starts with experience and education, though. Designers who learn about sustainable design and work for sustainable companies will be able to guide users toward products and experiences that truly help the environment. For instance, they might find a way to smoothly incorporate a green certification badge into the presentation and packaging of a product or create more transparency for users by including a product lifecycle map with each purchase. 

12. Changing industry and behaviour

“Rather than creating individual products in a vacuum,” says Nicolas Roope, founder at digital studio Poke London, “product and industrial designers in particular should be using their skills and imaginations to actually change industry and “move markets towards new modes and behaviours.”

He adds: “Designers should make these steps feel like progression, not compromise.”

Luckily, when people are motivated by their peers to make sustainable choices, they do. Social scientists have noted that people are more likely to install solar panels when their neighbours do, order meatless lunches at cafes when they’re told other customers do, and give up flying when they know someone who has. Designers can help normalise these lifestyle choices by framing sustainability in a socially desirable light. 

13. Thinking beyond the single user

Although the hallmark of design thinking is focusing on a single user, Vikram Singh of UX Collective offers an interesting counter-perspective: “Unfortunately, the implications of a designed object go far beyond the person using it. This fact only becomes more true as designed objects increasingly exist in a multi-touchpoint, omnichannel universe.” 

As an example, he mentions the way Jump and Lime bikes may have been created for a single user, but designers did not take into account the people who live in the neighbourhoods around where they are parked who may not like the messy look of them littering their block. 

“Even mobile phones and digital devices aren’t designed to acknowledge the needs of people around the primary user. People yell into their phones, disrupting passersby, or stare into their devices, ignoring how they physically interact with the people around them. This could be solved through a better design, emanating from a more effective design practice,” he says.

What’s needed now, in our increasingly connected world, more closely resembles strategic design, which offers a framework for holistically designing at the scale of both the city and the individual. 

This is an exciting new opportunity for designers to change the way they approach the field and push us toward a more holistic way of thinking about the world.


Author: Saga Briggs





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