Trends come and go in the product industry. They surface when a problem becomes apparent and fade away when the solution becomes standard practice. The 1980s saw a push towards Six Sigma quality control, followed by ergonomics, each of which spawned entire research fields. Today we expect products to be both reliable and usable. These aspects of design have become second nature to industry leaders, and their omission would not only be strange, but perhaps also spell their own downfall. The key to mastery was the implementation of rigorous methodologies for planning and tracking.
Yet new technologies continue to confound these practices, in part from real technical challenges, but also from an over-reliance on novelty to sell a product. In the 1990s companies struggled with quality and usability as digital technologies made their way into consumer products. These products were expensive and confusing at first, but as demand fueled corporate research, they became as reliable, usable, and cost-efficient as their traditional analog counterparts.
Ecological products had a rough start too. During the oil crisis of the 1970s environmentalism gained traction. Holding the simplified view that sustainability meant recycling, manufacturers churned out crude park benches, trash bins, and parking stoppers designed by engineers and forged from a cocktail of old plastics and other waste. The public began to associate reuse with poor design, and with good reason: while product design advanced, ecological design stagnated. There was a perception that responsible products were a trend for hippies and tree huggers.
During the 70s and 80s solar panels were made widely available, but they were too inefficient to yield a sufficient return on investment. The translucent materials let in too much light, degraded sealants yielded electrical problems and mold, and the composite panels yellowed and cracked in harsh weather. These flaws reduced efficiency and increased maintenance costs. Too often manufacturers would rely on green branding and new technology to sell a low-quality product, damaging the field’s long-term reputation.
Past mistakes have expanded our notion of sustainability and the desire to reintroduce good design. But in order to do this, companies must implement proper metrics. Lord Kelvin once said, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” How does one measure sustainability?
In light of new 70s-like economic and environmental crises, efficiency has become a major driver for sustainability. And as companies reinvest money from efficiency measures into sustainability research, new environmental technologies have caught on. For example, consumers are switching to fluorescent bulbs as more money can be saved within a shorter period of time. When it is easy to see a return on investment, individuals and businesses will make the shift.
But efficiency is only a start. For products to resonate with consumers in a more meaningful way, companies need to be smarter in the ways they design, engineer, manufacture, and sell, as well as plan for sustainable use and disposal. This requires a more holistic approach.
A new tool called Life Cycle Assessment affords informed environmental decision making by systematically identifying impact at each stage of its life in terms of energy and material inputs and outputs. A designer might guess the biggest environmental impact is in the plastic that they use, or an engineer might say it’s the composite used on the circuit board, but this is all guesswork until one has credible data to understand and compare the real impact of a product.
As demand for quality ecological products explodes, large chains, such as Walmart, have begun to require transparency and accountability from suppliers, continuously feeding this new data back into the decision-making process. In many cases, this has raised the quality of eco technologies and materials above that of the alternatives. We are entering a new era of maturity for ecological products: no longer does the lone manufacturer of a recycled gypsum board pander for customers.
Despite the surge of new data, most environmental problems are still difficult to uncover. With millions of products produced each year, factories blindly pump them out and distribute them around the world. Ownership then transfers from the manufacturer to the consumer, leaving businesses without meaningful methods for tracking, for example, how much of that product gets disposed, recycled, or incinerated. At the same time, consumers are blind to production: they never see their product in the factory or its materials in the mine. To most, the history of the wares they wear hangs as a mystery behind a brand.
While the industry’s conception of environmental impact remains vague, demand for improvement is even less focused. For most consumers the benefits of ecological design are less tangible than testing the features of a camera or discovering the comfort of chair. As researchers continue to improve the methodologies fueling sustainability, these new results must be communicated logically and emotionally. It is the designer’s responsibility to create sustainable products that not only adhere to standards of quality and usability, but also tell a story that resonates with the customer.