Sustainability in Design: 4 things you can do as a designer to make a positive impact on the world


Most of us feel far removed from sustainability and ethics in our daily work as designers. Here is my take on how to feel more closely aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and how to apply those in our daily work.

Oslo architecture triennale 2019 - photo
Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019 Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth

Design has increasingly positioned itself as a field capable of catalysing change and responding to complex social issues. The design process, which emphasises empathy, reasoning and rapid prototyping, is capable of dealing with wicked problems: social or cultural problems that are difficult or impossible to solve.

“Designers can play a central role in mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable directions.”

The global challenges we face today, like climate change, poverty and inequality are most certainly wicked problems. Design thinking is increasingly being applied to these challenges, across a wide variety of sectors and projects.

Earlier this year, thousands of people discovered how architecture, furniture and object design can be leveraged to repair our relationship with nature, at the XXII International Exhibition of La Triennale di Milano. Curated by MoMA’s Paola Antonelli, the exhibition was titled “Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival”.

XXII triennale milano - photo
XXII Triennale Milano: Gionata Gatto and Giovanni Innella, Geomerce, 2015

A similar theme is explored at the ongoing Oslo Architecture Triennale — Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth. At this time of accelerated global warming, the organisers feel that “an urgent question is cast into relief: how should architecture respond to a time of climate emergency and social division?”

Oslo architechture triennale - photo
Oslo Architecture Triennale: “The Library”

“Climate crisis, migration crisis, unsustainable cities and polluted oceans. These phenomena didn’t just happen — they are results of choices. Even if designers and decision makers aim to create sustainable products, efficient public services, safe systems and ambitious policies, things are not going the right way. Are we solving the wrong problems?

Change by Design 2019

Sustainable and ethical design is gaining traction across the design industry, but I would argue that designers are making the most impact by creating innovative products and services on the startup-scene.

Innovative solutions in Green Energy, Social Mobility and Circular Economy has made the world look to Norwegian startups. Tise, Repairable and Fjong is part of a sustainable movement that is changing the way we think about consumption and circular economy, Too Good To Go is reducing food waste, No Isolation wants to put an end to loneliness, Otovo simplifies the transition from energy-draining, energy-stupid individual homes to solar-powered, smarter and interacting communities. Diwala is building an ecosystem of digital skill ID’s, to create global opportunities for youth and displaced communities.

And one thing they have in common is that they all have designers as founders or as part of the core team.

Tise, Otovo, No Isolation

How can you as a designer make the biggest impact?

1. Join a startup!

Mike Monteiro argues in this article that donating time or money, or doing small ethical and sustainable things in your daily life, doesn’t matter if you are working somewhere that does ‘some shady shit’. Do you respect the vision of the company you work for? Does it make you feel proud when you talk about where you work? Can you be a force for change in your company? If not, consider joining a startup that is working with something you are passionate about. Sure, working for a startup involves more risk. But – as design is a highly sought-after skill, it’s likely that you have many career options. If the startup fails, you could alway

If you are earning a living somewhere that makes the world a worse place, there is absolutely nothing more important you can do than take a stand right there.

2. Donate your time.

There are several causes and charities that really need design help, but a good place to start out is to think locally. Could you help local groups or organisations get more members by doing some easy UX improvements on their website, for instance? If you are not able to donate your time on a regular basis, there are many hackathons and meetups that set out to tackle social issues, where you spend a day or two with multidisciplinary teams coming up with ideas and solutions (and expand your network while doing so). Check or to find events in your area.

3. Use your unique point of view.

I recently talked to a student who wanted to get into Service Design. He is visually impaired, and we discussed how he used to think it was impossible for him to become a designer. Now he has started to see how he could use this as an advantage instead. He has first-hand experience with badly designed products and services and knows exactly what it takes to make the lives of the visually impaired much easier. Through your own struggles, especially if you belong to a minority group, you have a unique position to make a difference through design. Empathy is key to any design process.

4. Ask questions

Fortunately, asking questions is something designers are very good at, but continually questioning WHY you are doing something, isn’t always easy. This often becomes the case if you work at a large company, or are hired as a freelancer or consultant. The good news is, most teams value honest feedback, and you won’t know if you can change something if you haven’t tried.

Here are some initial questions you could ask yourself in your current design project:

  • Are we tackling any of the SDG’s in this design?
  • Are we making something that solves a real problem?
  • Will this make a difference in people’s lives?
  • By using it, will people be helping or hurting the environment?
  • Are we designing this without bias?
  • Can we give the users a way to do what they want in greener, or less harmful, way?
  • Are we trying to persuade users to do something they don’t want, by using dark patterns?

About the author

Halina works as Lead Product Designer at Finstart Nordic. She has years of experience with design and user experience and has a passion for sustainability. She holds a BA from the University of Arts in London.