Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Where Are The Superstar Green Designers?
Jeremy Faludi, 12 Apr 07
Article Photo

Why are there no big-name green product designers? Architecture has its William McDonoughs and its Shigeru Bans, who does product design have?

Nobody. (Really, I encourage you to try naming some in the Comments. I'd like to be proved wrong.) Franco Lodato is a big-name designer doing biomimicry, but he's not particularly green. Michael Braungart is one of the greenest people in product design, but he's a chemist. McDonough has also done a lot with Braungart to suggest guidelines like Cradle to Cradle, but he's still an architect, he doesn't design products. Buckminster Fuller could have been called a green designer for his Dymaxion car, and kitchen, and such, but he was more of an technologist than a designer, and in any case he's not around anymore. Amory Lovins, Gunter Pauli, and other big names have helped companies green their manufacturing lines, but have not done much if any design.

So why are there no green product designers?

A few reasons. Partly it's because what makes a product sustainable are the manufacturing & business model on one end, and the science & technology of green materials on the other end. The company owners are the ones who can make green happen. The designers just use the tools they have and design to spec. For instance, Herman Miller had big-name designer Yves Behar do a green lighting product for them, their Leaf Light LED lamp. Behar is not a particularly green designer on his own, but Herman Miller's design requirements made the product green. Just like with their Mirra and Celle chairs, it is their specs for materials, technology, and manufacturing methods that make the product green. Another example is that the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago had a school of green design for a little while, but has transitioned it into a school of green business strategy, because they decided it was a more effective education. Our own Dawn Danby is a designer who's getting an MBA at a green school instead of pursuing a green design degree. I have tried (as have many designers I know) to talk clients into greener designs and materials, but at the end of the day, they are the ones who make the choice. As Dawn said:

[This] is why you get indie designers making dumb stuff out of rubbish: they can control the whole system outside of end-of-life, by identifying materials ("these plastic tubs were being thrown away!") and then assembling crafty things in their garages. A lamp made out of leftover evian bottles vaguely represents sustainability, it loosely alludes to it, but it doesn't get us very far along the path. What makes me crazy is the fact that ecodesign that looks like that has been around for decades, and now it's getting famous... while still missing the point.
The point that she's talking about is that little one-off crafty pieces, no matter how hip and trendy, won't stop the freight train of industrialism from running over the planet; they will just make quiet crunching noises as the train roars over them and slows down half a percent. What we need is a transformation of mass-manufacturing, nothing less than a second industrial revolution, as several luminaries have pointed out before.

Architects can build impressive one-off projects because all buildings are one-offs (except the tiny prefab industry); product designers have to manufacture at scale to make an impact. Perhaps this is why green building boomed before green products--because an architect only needs to convince one client of sustainability's benefits, while a product has to convince millions of customers while sitting on the shelves. If the current trendiness of green couture lasts, this barrier will fall, but it has a long way to go--low price is still king worldwide, and so far the only way large shifts in the market have happened is government regulation like Europe's RoHS and WEEE.

The designer's lack of individual control does not mean that designers are powerless; however, it brings us to the second reason why there are not--and perhaps should not be--superstar green designers. Designing for sustainability requires expertise across several sectors. Like architecture, no one person can be an expert in all the areas, so collaborative teams are needed to effectively solve the problems. This means that when a super-sustainable product is released, it is the work not just of the designer, but of chemists, mechanical engineers, industrial engineers, businesspeople, etc. Perhaps it also means that credit for big-name successes should be shared.

The multi-disciplinary nature of green design also means that designers who delve into it the most get pulled farthest away from what is traditionally considered design. They get pulled into the science of sustainability, like Philip White, the chair of IDSA's ecodesign section, who teaches and researches life-cycle analysis much more than he actually designs now. We need space for designers to go far afield and then still come back, doing better design from having gained new breadth.

Do you think there are superstar green designers? Drop some names in the comments, I'd like to be wrong. I think it would do good things for the industry to have a few rock stars, as poster-children and spokespeople. After all, this is how industries overcome initial hurdles--by watching some renegade jump the hurdle first. It is part of how green architecture went from a bunch of hippies thirty years ago to a booming, suit-wearing niche in the building world today, where the industry leads government and voluntary standards get written into city construction codes, rather then government leading industry kicking and screaming.

Bookmark and Share


I want to be a green super star designer... Really! You actually pointed one of the big problems with us, industrial/product/whatever designers. But you're missing something there too.

The problem isn't only about the fact that the market is flooded with cheap and companies aren't willing to take the next step towards real green. It's also because the consumers aren't educated. And this doesn't start only at school or at home. The products themselves have to teach the consumers to buy what they really need and to wish to preserve it or treat it as their valuable patrimony.

The companies need to think about new strategies besides obsolescence. We're deeply locked into the perpetual economic growth of capitalism, but I think it is possible for company to thrive by creating product eco-systems instead of isolated products that quickly die.

Marketing people also have should know how to deal with this. You pointed designers and companies. I point at everything that is related to a product - Entrepreneurs, Marketing, Engineers, Designers, Consumers, Governments...

If somebody is looking for green design, I suggest to start with small projects and small companies. There's plenty to find on the internet.

Finally, I'm not sure we need one or two superstars - we need everybody to be a star!

Posted by: Sergio on 12 Apr 07

Interesting point. I've spoken with a couple of industrial designers with sustainability backgrounds, and what I keep hearing is "where are the jobs?" Demand for sustainable products still isn't where it needs to be. I note a similar situation in urban planning. There are sustainability experts, but very few mainstream sustainable urban planning jobs, at least that I've seen. Green design needs green policy and green products too!

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 13 Apr 07

Victor Papanek is the first name that comes to mind.

“There are few professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few… by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed…”

He was actually thrown out of the IDSA because of these types of comments only to be reinstated years later after the society realizing he was right.

My main inspiration coming out of D- School was biomimicry and people like Fuller who also recognized the designer’s role in sustainability and the human experience as a whole. This type of thinking opened many doors for me to become a very successful industrial designer, but most of the time it this was praised early on at the conceptual level but usually never really makes it past advanced development and into commercialization.

After watching McDonough speak three years ago I have woken up and completely refocused in sustainability as the most compelling and meaningful contribution a designer can make. Almost all of my efforts in this space have been pushed outside of my employer’s realm because the sad reality is that designers in general still find themselves in the trenches fighting for the value and investment in traditional design. Sustainable design becomes a nice to have that never sees the light of day in most organizations with very few exceptions.

Regardless, there still are many great examples of great design that is sustainable and I would go as far as to say that all good design should be “green”. If it’s not beneficial to society as a whole then it’s not good design no matter what he consumer demand is.

Jeremy is right that it’s the organization that enables good design in general. The most obvious example is Apple, their designers are no better than those in many other companies, it’s just that they are lucky enough to be in a system that enables them to create what we consider to be great designs even though “green” they are NOT.

I don’t agree with Jeremy’s comment that there are too many different areas of expertise to consider for designer to be able to balance into great green design. We never had any problems integrating other equally complex areas before (ME, EE, UI). I agree with Bruce Sterling when he says that this is what good designers are best at, balancing lots of diverse variable into beautiful design solutions. Sustainable practices are just one more variable to consider and in my eyes, the most meaningful.

I would like to close this rant with a comment on Behar’s leaf lamp because I feel this type of product does more harm than good. What is the point of making a lamp that uses less energy and is highly recyclable if it cost $800 and no one can afford it? What kind of green impact is that?
On a more personal note…I’m a fan of Behar, but that thing is really ugly and the quality of light it gives of is very questionable. If the design community really thinks that the Leaf is a good example of green design, we have a lot of learning to do.

Will I ever become a superstar green designer, probably NOT, but that’s OK because we don’t need green design super stars, we need more green design samurai warriors to develop more of the type of nameless yet brilliant designs well documented in the Worldchanging book.

Sorry for the length of the comment but this subject obviously strikes an emotional chord here…

Posted by: Stiven (sustainableday) on 13 Apr 07

Perhaps the kind of people who practice green design are not inclined to participate in the type of activities which make someone a 'superstar designer'. Superstars and celebrities are highly paid people. Where cash is a top priority - sustainable choices are often not made. I know many designers making green choices who I consider to be very clever - but the green choices they make also make them less likely to be famous as long as our celebrity culture is fixated on glamour and extravagance. Celebrity status has everything to do with our values - when we shift our values away from superficial slickness than maybe designers who practice with more sustainable methods will be more highly valued.

If you want just one example of a brilliant green designer I would would nominate Sophie Thomas of the firm 'thomas.matthews' here in London. The work she does proves that you can make sustainable design and make money. There are others like her.

I agree that all the arty recycled products are little more than symbolic gestures in avalanche of waste. Some days I think they are nice steps in the right direction and other days they seem like vain attempts to relieve our conscience without making any effective change.

It is also true that green designers are very likely to move into designing new systems – ways of doing things – rather than artifacts. It is an encouraging new direction in design. Combined with the recent focus on ethics, I do believe there is hope for the profession yet.

Posted by: jody on 13 Apr 07

It is not that they are no Green Superstar Designers, out there; it is just that they haven’t been acknowledged. I’d drawer a loose analogy to Van Gogh or Einstein it takes a little while to recognise and for consumers to recognise the need. A lot of the resumes sent to JDi Design each week demonstrate creative insight into the world of sustainability and design, any one of those green designer wan’obes just need to be in the right place and right time, consistently enough to be recognised, It is just a mater of time.

Posted by: Adrian on 13 Apr 07

Stiven, good rant, thanks.

You're right, I absolutely should have mentioned Vincent Papanek as a former superstar green designer. But remember, he's no longer with us.

As for the bit about there being too many different areas of expertise, I guess I need to clarify: I don't think there are too many different areas, and you're right, they'll get incorporated just like ME, EE, UI, and the like. But at these "early" days of the field, it seems becoming a green designer is like becoming a new specialty, like an EE; and it's hard for an EE to get hired as a designer. It's important for firms to know that this extra discipline can make a better designer rather than a worse one. But ultimately all these specializations will work together just like existing ones do today. Green building is already starting to coalesce like this.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 13 Apr 07

Real "green" design focuses on satisfying needs, not wants. Currently, if design is to make any money, it must fill a want, not a need -because all of our (in the affluent world) real needs are already over-filled. Is there really any way to design a "green" piece of crap (car, chair, tv, coffee maker) that we dont really need? (Why not walk, bike, sit on the floor, don't drink coffee!)

Posted by: terry on 14 Apr 07

millions of customers, there is the problem. When we have so many wanting to use an then remove the product from there local area waste is abound. Movement of material is the greatest waste we have as a planet. To design with little to no waste we have to stop the shipping of material that is not necessary, sorry China. Local production is the only was to make anything green. People moving is probably the only transportation we will never be able to remove. The only green designer is going to be the one to say to everyone "stop have so much stuff."

Posted by: Glen on 14 Apr 07

Good observation Jeremy. What about the consumer?

Product Designers really represent the consumer in a product creation team within a manufacturing company. This is why there has been so much focus on design research and real world observation of consumers using products over the past few years.

There is evidence that more and more consumers are changing their buying behavior to purchase from companies and brands that are doing good. I think that designers could do a lot more to understand and trigger these consumer values in conversations with their clients. For sure "produces 10% fewer greenhouse gasses" will represent a better reason to buy for a lot of consumers than yet another un-needed feature. However we are quite a long way from achieving that recognition for sustainability in the product creation or marketing processes.It is a marathon rather than a sprint to glory! Ask Philip White!

The case for Organics is quite clear. It is less harmful to drink milk that does not contain un-natural levels of hormones. Buildings represent about 40% of the energy use in the USA. For an individual, it usually represents the highest cost of living. Utility costs can be substantially reduced through the design of green buildings. The case is clear here as well. Green buildings will reduce your running costs.No-one has developed a clear business case for sustainability in products yet.

We can all sense it, but it is not clear at an individual $10 product level yet.

One of the big issues with product design is that it is extremely difficult to show that the benefit of a sustainable, or more environmentally friendly product is really significant, because most products represent such a tiny element in energy use, or material consumption, etc. So I believe that progress in the mass production area of product design will be slow, but over time significant. It will not be glamorous and therefore unlikely to produce a star.

The real answer will in fact start in exactly the place that you least expect it. At the real hyper luxury end of the market. Because this is where the budgets and consumer willing will be found. Think here of an electric car that can out accelerate a Ferrari as a clue! Suddenly Electric car seems cool.

What we have to do as a design profession is figure out how to make the values of sustainable represent the New Luxury. When the products that lead in image and represent the ultimate that money can buy represent a sustainable solution, then the rest of the sheep will follow nicely to the slaughter!

Given the present focus on Sustainability in the press and therefore the raised awareness in consumers minds, there will probably never be a better time to achieve it!

Posted by: Clive Roux on 16 Apr 07

They're designing strip malls because that's what clients want.

Posted by: Brian Dietz on 20 Apr 07

It's not "A designer..." yet... a culmination of very eloborate designers (most of which went to CCA) and have figured out a way to capitalize on an environmental saving grace...

Posted by: g Schultz on 21 Apr 07

I like what HP/Compact has done lately. Converting 11 different engineered plastics used in a typical PC's manufacuring to just 5 that are all bio-degradeable. And all marked as to type and recylcing info.


Posted by: Rex on 30 Apr 07



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg