Article / Guide

When designing for systems of consumption there are rarely any concrete solutions.

We often grapple with the contradictory nature of sustainable design when thinking about product consumption. Design decisions are more nuanced than we like to think and there are always trade-offs to be better understood.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata


Solutions and Compromises

Working as product designers we are transfixed by the idea of solutions. As our job is to find and fix problems this may go without saying. We make a chair more comfortable, electronics more useful, a product more ‘sustainable’. This focus can miss the overarching principle of the role, and one which is so conflicting; at a fundamental level our job is seen to drive consumption. We want people to buy into status, the latest widget, to upgrade, to make their lives easier. Society measures and elevates the most ‘successful’ products in their ability to drive consumption. In a world of limited resources, how can such a model be sustainable and benefit everyone? By accepting a continual role in this system don't we simply accelerate ourselves towards a future of uncertainty?

Inherently not all things are equal, and there are many existing or emergent business models that push against these principles. One such methodology is that of the Circular Economy, which is where I would like to make my second point. As a structure, the Circular Economy provides many important strategies that limit consumption, it is however still a system of such. Be it the use of alternative materials, designing products that last longer, or addressing the waste of finite resources, we can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the goal is to simply make things more recyclable. Whilst these are worthwhile goals, it is only by creating new models of consumption that we may ultimately achieve a balance with our environment and the resources available.

There are no solutions when we design products for systems of consumption, only compromise. As way of example, If we substitute a material for a bio-based alternative, we may reduce our reliance on non-renewables yet create unwanted impacts to the environment and  recycling chain. By making more durable products, we may expel greater amounts of energy and create more lasting harm if not properly managed at end of life. It's often difficult to fully understand the impacts of our decisions as designers, and it's easy to become overwhelmed by the risks and challenges ahead. What I realise however is something I think is important to consider, we are not designers of solutions but creators of compromises in systems of consumption.


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