Is design killing the planet?

killing the planet, sustainable development
© Razvan Nitoi

Shaun Gomm, Director at Sigma, discusses how design could be killing the planet: touching on sustainable development, tech and our 2050 goals for change

In light of a number of factors, such as the recent Extinction Rebellion protests and Britain’s ambitious pledge to be net zero-emission by 2050, climate change is higher on the agenda than ever before.

While the damaging role humanity continues to play in climate change is well-documented, are we considering the role design plays in this issue?

The sudden departure of Jony Ive from Apple last June – the man behind the iPhone, iPad and many of Apple’s other major innovations – brought about a renewed attention to Ive’s back catalogue. This in turn has led to questions around how sustainable Apple’s products and services, and, by extension, the entire design world itself, are in today’s more green-conscious era.

Although great design is undoubtedly building a better, simpler, more productive and connected world, it is also playing a key role in furthering consumerism and a “throwaway” culture – a major theme explored in this year’s Camp Digital design conference.

So how can the design community begin to reduce its damaging impact on the world’s finite resources?

Why we should care about sustainability

On Tuesday 11th June, the UK became the first major country to legislate for a net-zero target for carbon emissions by 2050, following recommendations to this effect from the Committee for Climate Change (CCC).

While 2050 may still seem far off – and, thus, a realistic target – the sobering truth is that we are a long way from compliance as it stands.

Even if we manage to remain within the 1.5°C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels originally set out by the Paris Agreement, half the world’s population will face severe heatwaves – leaving 130 million people exposed to droughts whilst killing the planet – as a direct result of climate change. And that’s one of the best-case scenarios.

A more realistic prospect as it stands is a 3°C, or even 5°C rise. Three degrees would lead to extended droughts, crop failures and significant geopolitical breakdown, and a five-degree rise would in all likelihood leave society as we know it in a desperate fight for survival.

Essentially, the current state of our environment can be summed up by the first line of David Wallace Wells’ book on climate change, “The Uninhabitable Earth”:

“It’s worse: much worse than you think”.

The toxic relationship between design and sustainability

In our ever-more digitalised society, it stands to reason that technology – and, therefore, those responsible for its design – will have an integral role to play in the future of our climate, for better or worse.

However, there is perhaps currently a perception that designers are too far removed from the causes of climate change to be held truly accountable. After all, designers working with data and information, are not generally thought of as the same people as those directly causing major pollution (like oil and gas companies, airlines and so on).

However, we live in a time when physical and digital design is becoming increasingly intertwined. Subsequently, the more cerebral work of designers is having more and more of an impact on the world at large – the Volkswagen emissions scandal of a few years back being a prime example of this.

User-centred design is a particularly interesting area to consider. While user-centred design is without doubt a noble – and much-needed – practice which can improve the lives of many, is it contributing to our longer-term sustainability crisis? After all, great user-centred design relies upon designers focusing in detail on the needs of the user in order to help them achieve their goals, but usually without any real consideration of the impact of their design on killing the planet.

Unfortunately, many of the user goals of today are a reflection of the consumerist society in which we live; namely buy more, consume more and – crucially – emit more, which in turn incentivises businesses to feed this consumer want by producing and emitting more themselves.

To use Apple as an example once again, the business’s success has rested partly on its ability to create the newest “must-have”, which regularly consigns other models to the dustbin. Apple’s design decisions – such as its batteries being deliberately built to not last – actively exacerbate this issue.

Put simply, while a great user experience can be a dream come true for the individual, it can be a potential nightmare for society long-term. While the intentions behind creating great user experiences are often pure, the unintended consequences it can have on those who are not direct service users – such as wider communities, ecologies and society as a whole – could be far more harmful than we currently think.

So, how can designers create a more sustainable world?

Just as designers have had a role in contributing to the climate crisis, so too can we have a crucial part to play in countering it.

As we’re increasingly aware of the importance and sustainability, designers should in turn start thinking about how the projects they work on can be made more sustainable. Not only does this have a direct positive impact on the environment, consumers will also feel better about using the digital projects and services that come out of these projects, knowing that sustainability has been considered from the outset. As the appetite for sustainable products and services also increases, then those brands who don’t get on board are going to be left behind.

That said, a crucial part of the long-term solution will also be closing the gap between good intent and subsequent negative impact that can affect well-meaning designers. Essentially, there is a real need for the design industry to begin to think more about both the wider impact and the long-term fallout of their design decisions, rather than focusing primarily on the short-term goals of the user.

For design and product teams, taking a more collaborative design approach with marketing and brand teams, giving designers the space to suggest alternative, more sustainable design paths from the outset, could be key to this. This would allow a range of approaches, as well as the consequences of these options, to be explored with a wider, more diverse set of stakeholders.

In turn, this may empower designers to suggest alternative, less harmful, paths that take into account the needs of not just the client or user, but rather society and the planet as a whole, which is often no less affected by the choices that digital designers make.

The technology and design communities hold a tremendous amount of power in modern society; perhaps more than any other. The onus is on us to use that power in a positive way; taking into account the consequences – both intentional and otherwise – of the products and services that we bring to life and working to ensure that we are creating a better world for all, rather than simply the satisfaction of the user.

Simply enough, a cleaner, greener world will come about not just from more sustainable products, but with new design thinking that will help people experience a better world to come – facilitated by more consideration throughout the design process – that creates individual, collective and systemic change.

Through this, we can begin to reverse the current vicious cycle of design and sustainability – a step-change which needs to begin now.


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