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Design Roundup: Designing Products for Sustainable Use

By Adele Peters

Eco-Kettle-Teabreak-Savior.jpgWhen someone mentions ‘sustainable product design,’ the first thing that comes to mind may be products that are made with renewable materials, or materials that can be used in a closed technical loop. Of all the stages in the lifecycle of a product — resource extraction, manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal — the beginning and end of the process often receive disproportionate attention from designers. Picture, for example, the plethora of bamboo objects available at most green retail stores. Conventional materials have been swapped for better alternatives, but the ways in which consumers use these products remain largely unchanged.

As sustainable product design continues to develop, it’s interesting to consider how we could pay more attention to reducing the environmental impacts associated with use in particular.

Any product designed to increase energy efficiency should reduce impacts while the product is in use. But an energy-efficient refrigerator, for example, is given a rating based on how it performs while it sits in the kitchen, unopened. Serious losses in efficiency come from user behavior: for example, when using a refrigerator, a person might decrease efficiency by opening the appliance door twenty times while loading groceries, or putting hot food directly in the refrigerator before letting it cool. Few products available today fully consider how unsustainable use of a product can be influenced, or even controlled, through design.

A handful of products have shown creativity and innovation in re-imagining the way we use our things. The results, though varied, are making progress toward goods that are more energy efficient, smarter and more effective.

The most direct application is products whose purpose is to change user behavior. The Power Aware Cord and several new home energy monitors including EnergyHub, The Energy Detective and the much-hyped Wattson, are intended to influence behavior by providing real-time feedback that shows users how much energy they are using in their household appliances. By making the normally invisible entity of wasted energy very visible, these devices encourage their owners to adopt more efficient daily habits.

But I find these even more interesting: products that attempt to make it impossible for users to behave unsustainably. To understand this concept, think of all the analogous designs that exist for other purposes: my Prius, for example, forces me to use my key to lock the car door from outside, so I can't lock the key in.

To help users reduce waste, this laundry detergent from Unilever is dispensed in tablet form (PDF) rather than as a liquid that could be overdosed. The Eco Kettle (pictured above) makes it easier to boil just the amount of water necessary, avoiding waste of energy. There are surprisingly few other examples of this type of product, although it's easy to imagine that the concept could be implemented in multiple ways. The default settings on printers could print double-sided pages; washing machines could default to the most energy-efficient setting, and make it more difficult to choose other options.

Interest in the area of sustainable product use is growing, and design schools are encouraging increased research in the field. Perhaps as a result, many other innovative-use products have been designed as concepts, though not yet developed. Dan Lockton, a researcher at Brunel University in the UK, is creating an innovation tool to help designers choose the most applicable design techniques to influence user behavior. The 'Design with Intent' tool will detail the technical and psychological considerations that need to be taken into account for each type of behavior change. Next year, Lockton will begin user trials with prototype devices designed with the tool, to determine which design techniques work and why.

Source: Dan Lockton, Brunel University

Researchers at Loughborough University, also in the UK, have considered other aspects of designing for sustainable behavior. They have compiled an interesting list of developed and conceptual products of this type here.

The materials used to make our stuff are the source of a large part of each product's environmental and social impact, but there's still much more to the equation, and we're encouraged by designers and manufacturers who are innovating at all points along their products' life cycles. Look for more products of this kind in the future, and keep an eye out for companies exploring other game-changing strategies such as design for disassembly, product stewardship/producer take-back, and product-service systems.

Read more related posts in the Worldchanging archives:

Design for Increased Energy Awareness

Sabrina Raaf and Making Visible the Invisible

DIY Circuit Monitoring

Adele Peters is currently earning a Master's in Sustainability at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden.

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i have been reading this site for a long time, and just thought i will let you know how informative i find it. i recommend that my students - who study mass media - read it (atleast occassionally).
An additional point i would like to make here is that, in addition to design, it would help if this was also part of policy. for example solar panels in new housing...
There needs to be a certain cohesion in efforts from design to implementation and awareness dissemination !

Posted by: harini calamur on 20 Dec 08

HI Adele , nice work . Good to see the professional aptitude of students.

Keep the good work up!


Posted by: Salman on 21 Dec 08

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