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7 Principles for Sustainable Design Thinking

by Gage Mitchell | Mar 15, 2012 | DesignSustainability

I recently had the honor of speaking about sustainable design at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point NowHere Conference. While enjoying the company of some great up-and-coming designers, several of them asked me to recap my talk for those who were unable make it to the presentation. So for anyone interested, behold the Modern Species’ 7 Principles for Sustainable Design Thinking.

  1. QUESTION EVERYTHING :: Don’t just copy last year’s solution, focus on solving the problem. When it comes to repeat projects, often the client and designer are of the mindset that the parameters remain the same, but that’s not the case. Does this piece HAVE to be the old size? Do we HAVE to use the same printer? Does it HAVE to be full color? Do we HAVE to print it?
  2. THINK BACKWARDS :: Once you’ve figured out what the constraints are, make smart decisions about what you can do within those parameters. Low print quantity and strict budget? Design in two color so that you can afford UV inks and recycled paper. Massive print run? Ask if the client can poll their list for who would prefer to receive the materials online or in e-book format so that they can reduce the print quantity.
  3. SIZE DOES MATTER :: Everyone knows about right-sizing – making sure the packaging around a product is as small as possible. But few designers try to right-size a press sheet to minimize waste. If you know the size of your print piece, find out the press sheet size and mock-up how the printer will layout the project. If there is a large waste of paper, see if the size can be adjusted to conserve paper (and your client’s budget), or see if the client needs something else printed that can be added to the press sheet. We’ve created plenty of client business cards out of excess packaging folding board.
  4. BE MATERIALISTIC :: Think of the full lifecycle of a material before you use it. Can you buy a material that’s made of recycled waste? Made overseas at a certified ethical factory? Once it’s been used, how easily can the consumer recycle it? If it’s biodegradable, can they backyard compost it, or do they need to have access to an industrial composting facility?
  5. CLEANER IS BETTER :: Toxins are in almost every part of the production process, but sometimes you can remove them if you just ask. Metallic inks, foil stamps, and most varnishes create toxic runoff and contaminate the paper recycling process. Most glues are synthetic resins that release VOCs and also contaminate recycling systems. Water based adhesives exist, but you have to ask for it. Knowing where toxins exist in the production process helps you eliminate them in your design.
  6. REINCARNATE :: Plan beyond the project’s expected lifecycle. Could you make that package reusable for refills or some other handy purpose? If not, how will it be disposed of? If the client is selling to a small local market, find out about the waste system there, use materials that can easily be recycled, and clearly label the product with recycling instructions.
  7. REFLECT :: There’s no such thing as a perfect project because there are always limitations. Think of what you would do differently if you had a chance. What materials you couldn’t use or didn’t yet exist. Evaluating whether your design was able to meet the above criteria can set you up for better success on the next project.

It is our hope that someday sustainable practices are a part of every design schools’ curriculum and that all designers consider the full life cycle of what they are creating. Until that time though, if you are interested in learning more about sustainable design on your own, here is my recommended reading list:

Gage Mitchell is the Principal / Creative Director at Modern Species. For more posts from him, click here.

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No sustainable prosperity or security can be attained at the expense or marginalization of others.- Nayef Al-Rodhan