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Learning Green Design: The Okala Guide

This article was written by Jeremy Faludi in January 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Okala.jpgAre you a designer just getting interested in eco-design and are looking for a place to start? Are you a designer who already knows the big-picture view of sustainability, but wants to actually apply things to your designs today? Either way, the Okala guide by the IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) is for you, and your office. It is a primer on green design written by designers for designers, and while it is short enough that no one in the office has an excuse to not read it (fewer than 70 pages), it has enough activities in it that it can be an 18-week university course. In fact, it was designed as a course by Philip White, professor at Arizona State and current chair of IDSA's Ecodesign section, as well as design professors Louise St. Pierre and Steve Belletire (with some influences by Worldchanging ally Wendy Brawer and others). The Okala guide is not an in-depth theoretical tome like Natural Capitalism, but it is a good workbook for applying sustainability to your product design practice today, right where you are.

Almost no green design guides exist that are practical and textbook-worthy. This is not to disparage works like Cradle to Cradle, The Green Imperative, or other great green design titles; it's just that most books on sustainability are very abstract, talking about the problems we face and the general principles to think of when trying to deal with them. They give you a very clear picture of what the problem is, and a vague picture of how to solve it, but without many real nuts-and-bolts-level tools. They often list examples of good practice, but don't give an exhaustive list of ecodesign strategies or provide a way to balance the pros and cons of different strategies, which is key to creating your own good designs. Occasionally a book will overflow with good examples (like Alastair Fuad Luke's ecoDesign, almost a catalog of green consumer products), but these are also of limited use, because they fail to connect the examples to enough theory, leaving you in the same place as overly-abstract books.

To be a good textbook, you need to provide four things: understanding of the problems and solutions at a big-picture level, a toolbox of strategies for the day-to-day level, examples of success, and the connections between these three. Okala, simple as it is, does these four things. The only other book I would strongly recommend for practical how-to instruction is Design + Environment, written in 2001 by professors at the Centre for Design at RMIT University in Australia. Longer and more technical than the Okala guide, it is a great reference book and learning guide. (In fact, Okala references it several times.) Okala's guide, on the other hand, is a great workbook: it is meant to be actively engaging, getting you to try things out, do your own analyses and redesigns. It aims at average designers, and gives them a solid foundation without overwhelming them with the complexities of detail. If you want those details you'll have to go elsewhere, but it does have several suggestions for further reading. It's also highly visual, like designers are, which should make it more accessible to the right people.

The first section of the guide (nearly the first half of it) introduces you to the concept of sustainability in all its ecological, social, and financial aspects; it gives overviews of the Natural Step, ecological carrying capacity, different arenas of ecological impact, and so on. It also points out how eco-design fits into a larger view of stakeholder needs, and talks about balancing different needs against each other.

If you already believe in the importance of green design and understand the basic goals, you can skip to the later modules--the rest of the guide is divided into three sections, "lifecycle strategies", "assessment", and "practice". These are your toolboxes for green design, from the initial strategic phase through design development and material choice, product usage, and end-of-life. It even discusses green marketing and business strategy. While most of these subjects are not covered in depth, each one gets a mention, and several activities are suggested for you to deepen your understanding through your own research and/or theoretical designs. I would like to have seen more detail for each strategy, but the brevity does make it an easy read, and a quicker reference. For example, their Ecodesign Strategy Wheel is great for reference, listing dozens of strategies in the seven life-cycle stages that each one is relevant to. Their table of connector designs for manual disassembly is especially good, since this is an easy strategy to employ but one that nobody talks about in detail. On the other hand, there are areas where the guide could be improved. The module titled "Strategies In Depth" only talks about two strategies (biomimicry and product longevity), whereas it should describe all strategies mentioned in the Strategy Wheel. Several of the other strategies in the wheel get described in more detail in other parts of the guide, but in no particular order; I would prefer to have the pamphlet organized by the seven regions on the Strategy Wheel, so that it is easier to navigate to the strategies you are interested in. I disagree with their example of Velcro as a green material--it is indeed biomimetic, but as a petroleum product requiring high temperatures and pressures in extrusion, it's not any greener than plastic buttons or zippers. One subject that I would like to have seen which was not covered at all is persuasive design--affordances, interfaces, and whole devices that change user behavior for better sustainability. I can't fault Okala for this, though, since no one has really written well on this subject yet; and they do mention persuasion for lengthening product lifetime, by designing objects users will become attached to and not want to throw away. The one eco-design tool that Okala covers in real depth is well-chosen: life-cycle impact assessment.


The single most useful feature of the guide is the list of "Okala Impact Factors" for doing back-of-the-envelope life-cycle analysis. These are single-figure scores for the ecological impact of common materials and manufacturing processes, derived from the US EPA's TRACI system. Single-figure scores are often called oversimplified and misleading, and rightly so: a product's life cycle impacts fall into wildly divergent categories, from fossil fuel use to water acidification to human toxicity to mineral depletion, just to name a few. Trying to normalize these against each other and lump all of them together into a single score is comparing apples to oranges. And yet, when I have given a presentation to a client showing the impacts of their product in all the various categories, it all boils down to comparisons: comparing the product's manufacturing to its packaging, or comparing the usage part of the product's life-cycle to the manufacturing or disposal parts of the cycle, or comparing one design to another possible design. For comparisons, in the end you always want the choices to be as simple as possible, A vs. B. You always end up lumping things together into a single score. Trusting a single score to adequately represent the complexities is mostly a matter of trusting the people who decided how to weigh apples and oranges on the same scale--the score's normalization and weighting algorithm. The most widely trusted system for weighing life cycle impacts is probably Pre's Eco-Indicator, but it is for European data, and the IDSA's audience is primarily American; hence the preference for TRACI, which uses US data. (Although arguably everyone should be using Asian data, since most manufacturing happens there nowadays; unfortunately, hardly any Asian data is available yet.) Okala's list of impact factors also has the advantage of being free and simple to work with, while Pre's software costs thousands of euros. Few companies are willing to spend this kind of money on eco-analysis, and even fewer individual designers are able to. So although single-score life-cycle assessment is oversimplified, I think it is valuable for designers and design firms to use as they start off on the road to sustainability. Any quantitative life-cycle thinking is an improvement over guesswork and intuition, which is what most people work with today. We need to avoid letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We need as many people as possible getting on the road to good work; once they're on that road, they'll continue on towards the perfect as their skills and successes improve.


In the end, I recommend the Okala guide to designers looking for an introduction to sustainability, and those who are already versed in green design but are looking for a handy desk-side reference. I also recommend it to those who would like to use life-cycle analysis but cannot afford LCA software. While many other sources go into greater depth, Okala is immediately practicable, which is something very few books on sustainable design can say for themselves.

image credits: Okala Guide

The Okala Guide to Green Design is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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