The title of Nathan Shedroff's excellent 2009 book Design is the Problem: the future of design must be sustainable identifies a key challenge of our time: how can we best design so that what we create is sustainable? What are the principles for designing things, policies, business models, organizations, services processes etc. which would lead all of these to be resilient and sustainable?
Shedroff provides an introduction to a very wide range of the current sustainable design approaches, tools, techniques, frameworks.
However, while Shedroff's introduction is excellent, it has a key weakness: he doesn't explore in depth what sustainability might mean in general, in the context of the design process and outcomes, nor whether the material he presents is consistent with such an understanding.
John Ehrenfeld, considered by some to be one of the founders of the Industrial Ecology movement, attempts exactly such a deep dive in his excellent 2008 book Sustainability by Design: a subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture.
One of the many useful ideas which emerges from this is a wonderfully inspiring definition of sustainability, which he defines in a style that is similar to how one might define fairness or justice:
The possibility that human and other life can
flourish on this planet forever.
flourish on this planet forever.
The book proceeds with a deep, daring and worthy attempt at deriving design principles which, if followed, would reliably create flourishing. This is in itself a must read: Dr. Ehrenfeld explores the parameters and considerations for such design principles. He starts with a diagnostic of humanities current mode of "having" (as opposed to "being") and then builds from an exploration of fundamental human (and non-human) needs by Manfred Max-Neef.
Unfortunately, by his own reckoning, he doesn't succeed at identifying sustainability design principles. This is rather frustrating, although given the complexity of the goal entirely understandable; indeed it appears that Dr. Ehrenfeld himself is disappointed. Having clearly establishing the knowledge frontier he is unable to see through the fog beyond.
So where might one turn for such principles? What was the barrier that prevented Dr. Ehrenfeld from penetrating the fog of the unknown?
Oddly perhaps, an idea struck me while reading the latest work by Donald A. Norman, who some consider the father of Human Interaction Design (HID, often called Human or User Interface Design). As examples: in the 1980's he helped establish the Apple Human Interface Guidelines and then in the early 1990's wrote the seminal Design/Psychology of Everyday Things (to be revised fall 2013 with new chapters on Design Thinking and Design in World of Business).
What's odd? As far as I am aware, at least professionally, Dr. Norman has never expressed views or an interest in environmental, social and economic sustainability; although of course a good user interface based on empathetic understanding of the user is a (small but vital) component of enabling human flourishing. This latter idea is one Dr. Norman has consistently made.
So how did the connection between HID and Sustainable Design principles arise in my mind? Let me tell you the story.
In Living with Complexity Dr. Norman does two important things.
Firstly presents a mea culpa of sorts from his prior works. He (finally) recognizes that simplicity should not be the goal of Human Interaction Design; rather the goal should be the presentation of the complexity necessary and inherent in all human activity in ways that facilitate learning, and efficient and effective use of a socio-technical system's functionality.
It is clear that this re-framing of the problem that HID attempts to solve better aligns it with finding solutions to the problems arising from necessary complexity of the simultaneous integration of the environmental, social and economic. As Dr. Ehrenfeld points out, this integration is required for human flourishing, and of course, is generally ignored by profit first businesses (at an every increasing risk to their shareholders)!
Secondly, in light of this realization, Dr. Norman updates the design principles for effective and efficient Human Interaction Design. These can be summarized as:
A clear conceptual model of the interaction
Clear signifiers to indicate the place and nature of the possible actions (commonly, but inappropriately, called 'perceived affordances'
Discoverability, where a person could determine the potential actions at any time through inspection
Feedback to disclose what action has just taken place.
"These are fundamental principles of interaction derived from understanding the psychology of the users. As a result, these are independent of the platform and the form of interaction. Whether the interaction is controlled by buttons and levers, steering wheel and foot pedals, mouse and keyboard, gestures in the air or touchpad, these fundamental psychological principles still apply. The principles will be implemented differently for different systems of control and interaction, but they must be followed if the resulting systems are to be understandable."(The above from 2012 Communication of the ACM article which amongst other things summarizes some of the books key points: reference below)
So this in my mind led to a question: might these principles be the basis for the sustainable design principles which Ehrenfeld failed to find?
Might this profoundly empathetic approach to HID design be at the heart of the design of sustainable and resilient things, policies, business models, organizations, services processes?
Collaborating DesignersSo returning to the title of this post... perhaps Shedroff is only partially correct in his assertion that "design is the problem" and that "the future of design must be sustainable".
I wonder if a collaboration of designers, and a synthesis from their respective works, for example Ehrenfeld and Norman might not also be required.
Imagine if Norman's socio-technical HID principles could be applied to the deep systems oriented understanding of the sustainability and resilience problem space which Ehrenfeld has developed? How cool could that be?
I will be attempting to get Ehrenfeld and Norman to comment on this idea... if you know either of them, and think this idea has merit, please bring this post to their attention!
- Ehrenfeld, J. (2008). Sustainability by design: a subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture. New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A.: Yale University Press.
- Norman, D. A. (2011). Living with complexity. Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A: MIT Press.
- Norman, D. A. (2012). Yet another technology cusp: confusion, vendor wars, and opportunities. Communications of the ACM, 55(2), 30-32. doi:10.1145/2076450.2076460
- Shedroff, N., & Lovins, H. L. (2009). Design is the problem: the future of design must be sustainable. Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.: Rosenfeld Media.