Designing sustainable products and services involves looking beyond the solutions themselves, to consider their role in systems that impact our society and the planet. For example, how does a sustainably manufactured shopping bag solve the problem of global waste, if people are filling it with over-packaged items? To solve problems like that, we need to approach design in a different way.
What’s wrong with the way we design things now?
A lot of physical or digital products and services are created by starting with an idea for something and then designing that solution to suit the target market. This solution-centred approach may sound sensible, but there’s no guarantee the end result will be something that benefits society and the planet. Is the solution solving a problem, or simply creating a new one?
Although responsible designers and organisations consider the sustainability of materials and processes, the solution itself may have a negative impact on the planet overall. It can perpetuate the cycle of consumption and contribute to global problems such as waste, poverty or biodiversity loss.
Even digital products impact people, animals, natural resources and socio-economic conditions. That shiny new app you just downloaded might solve one problem (such as getting takeaway food delivered quickly) but create other problems (like increased traffic, stressed workers, excess packaging, and discarded food waste that negatively impacts wildlife).
Why human-centred design isn’t enough on its own
To create solutions that are more meaningful, designers often follow a human-centred design approach. As the term suggests, it’s about putting people at the centre of the project and focusing design efforts on addressing their needs. Rather than starting with the idea for a product or service, you start with a human need and then develop solutions.
A human-centred design project usually starts by identifying a general problem, researching the people impacted by the problem, unearthing their specific needs, restating the problem, and coming up with ideas to address that. That approach is valid and should result in solutions that address clear human needs.
Once a solution is defined, it can be designed with sustainability in mind by considering materials, energy use, waste, and so on. However, the solution itself may do nothing to address global needs identified through the UN Sustainable Development Goals. To explore those more complex problems, project teams might take a Design Thinking approach.
Design Thinking is a human-centred process that involves having an open mindset, generating lots of ideas, and prototyping solutions to test their effectiveness. The designer’s overall aim is to question the status quo and come up with innovative solutions while staying focused on the people at the centre of the problem.
So human-centred design addresses human needs, right? No, not if it doesn’t consider broader human needs. We all need a planet we can live on, an ecosystem that supports life, and a home for future generations. That’s where life-centred design comes in…
What is life-centred design?
A life-centred design approach takes human-centred design one step further, by considering ALL life, not just humans. That includes animals, plants, and natural systems like rivers and local ecosystems. It means that when designing a product, you analyse the impact on all life forms throughout the product’s lifecycle. You look for ways to decrease negative impact and increase positive impact.
“Life-centred design is an emerging framework that enables product design (for physical and digital products) to consider the impacts of their entire product lifecycle to minimise the impact on people and the planet, reduce waste, and regenerate the human and environmental systems they take from.”
Damian Lutz, founder of Future Scouting and author of The Life-centred Design Guide
You may hear other terms that describe this general concept, such as conscious design, design for planet, environment-centred design, systemic design, regenerative design or circular design. They all refer to the idea of design as a way of focusing on the needs of people and life on the planet, rather than being driven purely by profit and economic growth.
An example of life-centred design
If you were designing a new apartment building you would typically identify the needs of its residents, managers, local authorities and so on, following a human-centred design approach. With a life-centred approach, you would also look at the impact on other humans (e.g. workers, suppliers, community groups, unemployed or homeless people) and other aspects of life (e.g. pets, native wildlife, waterways, plants, and insects).
This broader look could help you design a solution that not only reduces negative impacts but has a positive social, environmental and economic impact. For instance, the building could integrate space for local community activities or a creche to reduce travel to childcare centres. You could employ local unemployed people and help them learn skills during the build. To promote biodiversity, you might plan gardens with native plants that attract pollinating insects. And to minimise any negative impacts on the local ecosystem, you could instal smart drain filters that stop detergents from being washed into waterways when residents wash their cars. Once you start thinking more broadly, ideas start to flow.
Understanding broader impacts – life-centred personas
To understand how a product or service impacts people’s lives and how well it meets their needs, designers often use ‘personas’. A persona is a tool to represent relevant stakeholders – usually the end user of a product or service. Based on insights from research, a persona describes a typical end-user as if they were a real individual, with a name, profile, goals, likes/dislikes and specific needs or motivators. This helps the designer empathise with users and anticipate their needs or reactions.
However, we need to consider stakeholders other than end users when designing products and services. By definition, a stakeholder is a party that can affect, or be affected by, the design process or outcome. So with a life-centred design mindset, we look beyond business and customer stakeholders. We consider how other people, animals and ecosystems affect, or are affected by, the design. Non-human and non-user persona templates can help us visualise impacts for a wider range of stakeholders.
As an example, let’s consider the less obvious stakeholders for the apartment building design project mentioned above. Non-human stakeholders could include a resident’s dog, native bees, or even the local creek. Developing a non-human persona representing the dog might inspire you to integrate an eco-friendly disposal system for pet poop, to reduce plastic bags and landfill. Understanding the bees’ need to pollinate plants could influence an insect-friendly garden design. Just as importantly, considering other non-user human stakeholders (such as the local community, or workers in factories making building materials) could influence how you involve local people in the project and choose ethical suppliers.
Impacts work both ways
As well as looking at how various stakeholders are impacted BY a project, consider it the other way around too. What impact do they have ON the project?
For example, a tiny non-human stakeholder like the Covid-19 coronavirus has had a big impact on society. Considering this impact could affect how we design social spaces and work-from-home facilities in a new apartment building.
Or what about the building residents’ pet dogs and cats? The animals might have both negative impacts (noise, damage) and positive impacts (social connection, exercise, mental health). We can look at how features of the building design could minimise negative impacts and maximise positive impacts.
How to practice life-centred design
This whole area is evolving as awareness of the need for sustainable design increases, so life-centred design frameworks are relatively new. There’s no magic wand to make you a life-centred designer or responsible business, but there IS a growing library of tools and resources to help you get started. The first thing you need is a desire to make a difference, backed by a healthy dose of curiosity and a willingness to have a go.
A host of useful resources
- A good place to start is The Life-centred Design Guide (Damian Lutz, 2022), which inspired this article (no affiliation to the author). The book takes you through a number of strategies/tools to support life-centred design. Lutz’s Future Scouting website also includes downloadable tools.
- LifeCentredDesign.net is a directory of curated links to articles, videos, books, podcasts, and courses.
- The Design for Planet Knowledge Hub curated by the UK Design Council has resources for climate-conscious design, including the Systemic Design Framework
- The Circular Design Guide has methods, case studies, tools and resources. It’s a collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO.
- The Actant Mapping Canvas (Monika Sznel, 2020) is a way of mapping human and non-human stakeholders (‘actants’) when designing a product or service.
- For a BIG dose of inspiration, check out Mau: MC24, a fascinating book by Bruce Mau (2020) outlining 24 design principles for the massive change required to address world problems.
- Finally, see Green Street resources for a range of practical tools. These include the Sustainability Roadmap for business, the Sustainable Procurement Tool, guidance on Circular Economy business and a range of practical Green Tips with useful links to help you implement them.
Happy life-centred designing!