To create better products and a better society, we need designers

This article originally appeared on Circulate the news.

When you think of design, what images come to mind? If you’ve been to a design museum recently, you might think of a nice chair, a resourceful backpack, or a futuristic-looking car. Most likely, you are thinking mainly about tangible objects. Hopefully, or for example, assuming you are familiar with the concept of circular economy, your design idea might also include services, such as rental programs or a maintenance contract. In recent decades, however, industrial design has expanded to incorporate increasingly broad areas, such as organizations and neighborhoods. This development occurred because designers sought to apply their skills to increasingly complex problems, such as environmental degradation and poverty, which generally require a systems approach. The same goes for achieving a circular economy, whether in a city, a country or on a global scale. The wide range of skills and methods available to designers today can therefore significantly contribute to this effort.

In search of the germ of designers’ interest in broader social issues, we quickly come across the work of Victor Papanek, an Austro-American designer. In 1971, he wrote his founding book, “Design for the Real World” in which he exposed the environmental impact of design. “There are crafts more harmful than industrial design, but only a few,” he says in the opening line. “And maybe only one trade is voice. Advertising design, by persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have in order to buy them. ‘impressing those who don’t care is probably the most phonetic field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the vulgar nonsense peddled by advertisers, comes next. “

Jotte de Koning, assistant professor at Delft University of Technology, remembers feeling betrayed when she first read “Design for the real world” as a second year industrial design student. “I wanted to do good, make the world a better place, and he was there, telling me that I had chosen the second worst line of work in this regard.” However, Papanek’s book also offered a way forward by introducing ideas such as eco-design and social design. “By the end of the book, I felt like there might be a way out,” de Koning explains.

The best-designed product will ultimately be phased out unless there is an easy path to a new cycle of use.

In a much more recent version publication, two design researchers, Fabrizio Ceschin and Idil Gaziulosoy, gave an overview of the many strategies that designers have developed since Papanek’s book to solve these problems. They identified four levels of innovation developed over time, each taking a broader systems perspective than the last.

The first level is product design. Designers started by looking for ways to make products less harmful: by removing some toxic chemicals here, using a little less material there … Soon however, designers began to take a full life cycle perspective. , in which you not only consider the impact of manufacturing the product but also the impacts resulting from its use, transportation and disposal. This broader perspective opened the door to more circular models. Making a product, like a glass bottle, a little heavier can indeed be preferable if it allows it to be reused several times.

The designers also explored the effect that a product can have on user behaviors, such as their compliance with given rules or potential rebound effects, such as when people increase the temperature in their homes after they leave. ‘they switched to more efficient heating. They have developed many approaches to design these behavioral changes.

As soon as they considered options like reuse, designers had to extend the scope of their work beyond the product itself. The best-designed product will ultimately be phased out unless it is associated with an easy path to a new cycle of use, for example with the right service or the right business model. This could be, for example, a deposit or a rental arrangement. The skills of designers are also very valuable here, as they are trained to put the user at the center of their thinking. With this widening of the field of application, design has entered a second level: product-service systems.

The third level is what Ceschin and Gaziulosoy call the innovation of space-social systems, which takes into account the social and local context in the design. Industrial symbiosis provides an example of innovation at this level, in which wastes from one industrial process can become inputs into another industrial process. A few case studies are well known in the context of the circular economy, notably the Kalundborg Industrial Park in Denmark, but there is generally little emphasis on the role that designers can play in these initiatives. A number of tools are available to them, such as visualizations to map actors and resource flows as well as models to simulate the entry and exit of materials in a given geographic area.

Designers do their best when they can tackle the problem early on and engage with its stakeholders throughout.

The spatio-social level is also the domain of social innovation, which complements technological innovation when it comes to tackling environmental and social issues. Examples of social innovation, such as community gardens or tool-sharing programs within a neighborhood, are often led by communities themselves, sometimes in collaboration with activists or political leaders. Professional designers can also play a key role here by making these innovations more effective, attractive and visible and helping them to grow.

The fourth and final level of sustainable design according to Ceschin and Gaziulusoy is the socio-technical system, in which complex social and technical systems are intertwined, like a city or a region. At this level, the designers aim to drive the deep societal transformations – or “transitions” – that are necessary if we are to tackle challenges as complex as climate change or rising inequalities. When it comes to the circular economy, we fall into the range of projects typically associated with governments, such as urban planning and regional development. Here too, the skills of designers are relevant. Over time, they have developed techniques to manage such complex systems, for example visualization methods that embrace diverse perspectives, experiential approaches such as living labs, participatory processes to bring all stakeholder or visualization methods.

This growing scope of design has largely fueled the growing trend of design thinking, which is sometimes misinterpreted as suggesting that anyone can and should become a designer. Many other disciplines, skills and knowledge are needed to effect societal change, many of which fall outside the main scope of design, such as policy making, psychology, or data science. However, I can’t think of an ambitious circular economy project that wouldn’t benefit from a design perspective.

If you are a business owner or policy maker trying to make your business or region more circular, you may want to consider hiring a qualified designer, and not just focusing on particular products and services. Their skills could help you tackle larger systemic issues more effectively. “It is important to bring in designers upstream of the project,” specifies Jotte de Koning. Too often designers are hired after a lot of discussion has already taken place and the scope has been refined. Designers do their best when they can tackle the problem early on and engage with its parts. stakeholders throughout the process. ” While hiring a designer isn’t an option, learning about design, its processes, mindset, and wide range of methods could help you make better decisions.


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