sustainable interaction design

April 11th, 2010

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
- Einstein

casey

I’ve spent the past few weeks collecting thoughts on the Valerie Casey keynote at SXSW, but it got too complicated. So instead, here’s a bunch of stuff I found insightful or inspiring in the process (followed by some thoughts on how to move forward)…

    In Colonizing Sustainability, David Stairs shares some of his thoughts on Designers Accord and others. There are also notable comments by John Thackara and Eric Benson.

    The idea of “System Design” makes me think of the discourse around “Design Thinking” in the fact that design is now so broad it can mean basically anything. On a related tangent, Rick Poynor’s thoughts on Bruce Mau struck me on the difference between designers and design thinkers and the why there’s some unease with the latter.

    But a lot of the truly influential ideas I find come from non-designers…
    Built to Trash: Is ‘heirloom design’ the cure for consumption?
    ‘The Road From Ruin’: Are We Naive Idiots For Thinking Business Can Be Anything But Greedy?
    Jacqueline Novogratz: Pioneer of “market-based” philanthropy
    Tim Kasser: Professor and Chair of Psychology (focus: materialism)
    Michael Pollan, food guru
    Jeffrey Hollender on The Responsibility Revolution, CSR 2.0, and Blowing Your Lawyer’s Mind
    Live simple: Radical tactics to reduce the clutter, complexity, and costs of your life.

My big question in all my searching was – is sustainable design financially sustainable? I’ve mostly seen projects that *cost* designers money and the few potentially for-profit endeavors involved seductive green consumer products (or as Casey would say, doing “less bad”). Is this movement being promoted by professional organizations as a hobby?

What I would really hope to learn from the leaders in sustainable design is how to create relationships with other industries. How do we work with non-profits, government, and business innovators who are rethinking old standards of success? How can we start collaborating with professionals in policy, science, social research, journalism, etc. instead of naively fumbling around with these ourselves? This kind of facilitation and networking could really enable opportunities for designers and start to reshape the character of our industry. I’d also like to see more real-world examples with success metrics and not just gallery shows. For successful projects, I’d be interested in hearing the specific challenges and solutions from the designers involved. All the designers I’ve seen in this space are very heavy on self-promotion and very sparse on details and actionable takeaways for fellow designers.

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In absence of that kind of larger “system” change on the part of design sustainability advocates, I still think there are positive changes designers can make in the context of their jobs. Maybe this is treating the symptom and not the problem, but it’s more realistic and actionable regarding what many designers are able to do at this point in time. For interaction designers specifically, I found the following areas…

  1. Software Design & Information Diffusion – Make sustainable options easy. Use software and easily accessible information to engage people, encourage better alternatives, and connect those who can work together. Think of the larger social and cultural impact of design choices. (see Danah Boyd’s keynote on privacy)
  2. Create New Future Visions – On a recent trip to Disneyland I saw a McMansion of the future that had a kitchen with over 5 flat panel displays and a child’s room that turned bedtime reading into a multimedia extravaganza. With the housing bubble burst and the economy collapsed, the vision seemed more retro than futuristic. What are these gadgets adding to our lives and what is the real cost in raw materials, energy consumption and healthy child development?
  3. Hardware, Systems, Business Models – It’s hard to apply ideas like “heirloom design” to technology and the current rate of hyper-consumption is great for the economy. However, the overwhelming amount and toxicity of the waste, not to mention endless personal debt, is not sustainable. Consider designing hardware with more easily replaceable components. Plan for repair, not replacement. Make them rugged for the long-term, not delicate. Reduce wherever possible. Use fewer platforms with standardization for development (sorry Don Norman, c.f. unitasker). A current problem area is the cell phone business model with its hardware churn and convoluted financing. I also think of those early gen iPods and iPhones with the mirror finish. The *second* you got your hands on it, it was scratched or scuffed. This led you to buy more plastic tchotchk in the form of “protectors”, made it virtually impossible to resell, and got you wanting a new one almost immediately.
  4. Given the hangover people have been getting at CES the past few years (see Guardian and Newsweek reviews), maybe putting goals 2 & 3 together is a much more viable direction that it seems. We could also use some time getting all the crap we already have to work right instead of endlessly making more.

  5. Power Usage – This is an area we probably think about least because it’s the hardest to get around. All digital work runs on power and hardware innovation to improve efficiency may add to the waste/replacement problem of #3. But consider the energy requirements we create by making digital experiences more common and more addictive. We think switching from analog and paper will save raw materials, but how many plugs and power strips are there now vs. 20 years ago and how many server farms and off-site computing centers are supporting all your digital services? There are also health and well-being repercussions from sitting looking at screens all day. If we can’t solve this while still holding our jobs, maybe there are ways to introduce balance into systems we create.

So there’s some starting points and I will post whatever examples I find. If you want any more thoughts on design and sustainability, you’ll just have to take me drinking some time.

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design | society + culture | technology | user experience

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