How to Design Sustainably with These Provoking Questions


We have some big problems that need tackling. Now.

Depending on how much control you feel you have over your job, that is a daunting statement.

Every day, more big companies are tackling their packaging, changing their processes, and committing to reducing or eliminating certain impacts on the environment.

Adidas, Carlsberg, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and more are all making big shifts to their product lines in the coming years. Some of the clever and elegant solutions make you wonder why they weren’t done that way as soon as the materials and processes allowed for it.

So how can you make such a big shift in your work when you know nothing about sustainable design?


Designers are problem solvers.

For years I have had this overwhelming sense that I need to change my habits immediately in order to make a change, and that I need to know all the answers before attempting to tackle any problems.

The funny thing about that worry, is that as a designer I already have the skills needed to make that change.

Every project we do should be started assuming we know nothing.

Of course we have certain skills that we use to lead us through the process, but assuming we have all the answers before digging into a project will end up with bandaids for symptoms, not solutions to the root design problem.

Photo by  Karim Ghantous  on  Unsplash

Question, Research, Explore

We discover the boundaries of a project by asking questions of the client, and of ourselves as we work through it. So here are some questions you can use when you sit down to strategize or brainstorm.

What happens when we treat environmental impact as a priority?

By looking at a project with a different lens beyond budget and timeline, we start to consider different forms, materials, vendors. Maybe there are different solutions for different situation? Maybe in a place where two solutions were used before, it actually makes sense to find a single solution for both?

What if there was no standard or expected solution to influence this project?

Many industries start to see common solutions over time. Sometimes there’s a good reason for that. Maybe logistically one way is easier than another. Just like the evolution of a species, certain traits will start to win out. But sometimes there’s some inbreeding of solutions… maybe a vendor controls the market or competitor pressure has caused things to start looking the same. Take some time to question the standard.


What would the solution have been before plastic?

Plastics really started to come into daily life in the 1950’s. While it was initially invented with good intentions, it really got out of hand when it was marketed as a time-saver in the home. With what we’ve learned in the time since, we can make better decisions around when plastic should and should not be used.

What if the client was responsible for the disposal rather than the consumer?

Look at both the existing solution to get a feel for the impact they’re putting on their customers’ shoulders, as well as considering how it might look to take on that responsibility.

What is one simple change that can reduce the impact?

Say the project is basically wrapped up or doesn’t have much wiggle room from the norm. Is there one small thing that can be done to reduce impact? Replacing a metallic ink with an emboss? Removing bleeds and reducing waste material? Using a local printer to save on fuel from shipping?

Edible seaweed packaging for water, alcohol, ketchup and more! Image by  Ooho

Edible seaweed packaging for water, alcohol, ketchup and more! Image by Ooho

What might the solution look like five years from now?

With pressure on manufacturers and companies around the world, there are bound to be solutions that might otherwise be decades away. Imagine some ideal solutions and research what does exist, or talk with vendors to see if they might be willing to try something new.

On a sustainability scale of one to ten, what does an eleven look like?

Removing all obstacles and restrictions, what would that ideal impossibility look like? Now reel it in to fit within budget and current materials, etc. By simply considering that eleven, maybe you’ve come up with some unique ideas that could scale down to a six. Hopefully better than where it started, with room to improve for the next iteration.

“I don’t want to design trash for a living.” -  Kamal Patel

“I don’t want to design trash for a living.” - Kamal Patel


Challenge Yourself

Clearly an eleven isn’t attainable on the scale for anyone, but this isn’t an all or nothing game.

Working around something initially seen as a barrier can end up leading to exciting and creative solutions you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

And isn’t that one of the ultimate joys of being a designer? Overcoming challenges through moments of discovery?

You already have the most important tools needed to design sustainably simply by being a designer.

Stay curious, question everything and think creatively.