Designers! We need to stop doing harm. It’s time we design for people, profit and planet.

Fellow designers, take a look in the mirror. We keep making crap that’s making the world worse. Now that we finally have a seat at the big table, let’s design a more sustainable future for everyone.

Erlend T. Hovgaard

We need to get off our high horse. Just because something has been designed, does not make it better. As designers, we’ve participated in fuelling un-sustainability and been a part of the problem. We’ve brought lots of crap into the world. It’s time we stop creating things like single-use plastic products that pollute our oceans, or social media services that damage young people’s mental health. It’s time we start designing for the good of humanity and the planet. We must start with “do no harm,” and make ethics integral to our work by always considering the ripple effects of what we put into the world.

Design has come a long way in the last decade, gaining prominence in boardrooms and C-suites. But with great power comes great responsibility — and accountability must follow.

Yes, design has already started contributing to sustainable development. Melinda Gates said in an interview with Wired that: “Human-centred design is the innovation that is changing the most lives in the developing world.” But the potential to do more is enormous!

Here’s how we can stop doing harm and start doing good:

  1. First, we need to rethink how we see ourselves: product designer, service designer, brand designer. Why do we design? We design to make a certain impact on the world. So we are impact designers! It doesn’t matter what we design. It could be a tiny behavioural nudge or a new circular business model, as long as it creates the impact that we seek — without harmful side effects. We should not feel like we’ve done a good job simply because we designed a nice thing indicated by our title. The world might very well be worse off with that thing.
  2. Once this new mindset is in place, we need to set the triple bottom line as the default framework for design value: for people, profit and planet. Without all three in place there is no sustainability. It does require big change, but done right, it doesn’t necessarily require big sacrifices. Research shows it is possible to make money, meet the needs of people and society, and be planet positive at the same time. In fact, more than 50 studies make it clear that companies that are leaders in environment, social and good governance policies are financially outperforming their less sustainable peers. For example, removing waste often decreases both cost and environmental footprint. Sustainability can mean better business — if we take a long term, big picture approach!
  3. To do all this with accountability and precision we need to always measure impact. We need to have an intimate, long-term relationship with the outcomes and consequences of what we design. We need to make sure there is value beyond the single user or business we’re designing for. Both quantitative and qualitative measurements need to become core tools for designers, and we should look to models like the MultiCapital Scorecard to define sustainable performance metrics that goes far beyond economic efficiency and shareholder value.

There are steady signs on the horizon in the business world that these philosophical changes are working. Many companies have expanded their leadership to include a role called CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer), whose job it is to make sure that sustainability is folded into every corner of an organisation. Designers can be a huge part of this process. We’re ready to take the lead! Let’s create change, not crap.

You want to make the world a better place? Then take charge and learn:

  1. Quantitative and qualitative methods for measuring impact on people, profit and planet — because we must be accountable for what we put in to the world and adjust based on actual outcomes. The gold standard for measuring impact is Randomised Controlled Trials. This is like an A/B-test but often it’s not digital. This is where you expose a treatment group (with randomly assigned participants) to your design or intervention, and compare against a control group, in a real-life environment. There are also ways to do an “RCT lite” (as coined by Alexandra Fiorillo who highly inspired this article) or other experiments with at least some scientific validity and reliability to them. These types of measurements should come in addition to the regular qualitative tests and staged feedback sessions.
  2. Systems thinking to understand ripple effects and root causes of wicked problems — because we need to increase the scope of design from being about interfaces to including economic, social and environmental systems. For example, some of the core problems of pollution often start early in the supply chain, so larger systems and business models need to be redesigned too. Read more about this holistic mindset here.
  3. Behavioural economics to nudge more sustainable behaviours — because we don’t just need new sustainable solutions, but new habits. “Build it and they will come” has never been true. People need to make different decisions and build new behaviours if we are going to get anywhere. And they need to actually consume differently and adopt new solutions that are coming to market. Thankfully, there is a science dedicated to achieve behaviour change — so go learn from it! More on this: Here’s our follow-up article about using behavioural design for sustainability and well-being.