Four strategic design lessons on the eve of graduation
In a few short weeks, I will finish my master’s program at Parsons in Strategic Design + Management within the School of Design Studies. This is a blended “design methodologies with business applications” program, one of the first and few in the nation. Each class has stretched the traditional business courses — for example, instead of business economics, we took a current, broader approach and studied new economies (e.g. the gig economy) and global trends and impacts.
This program wraps up in a year-long capstone project, in which we each select and solve for one wicked challenge. Through this process, several concepts I learned moved from class discussion topics to personal lessons.
Lesson 1: Choose a big challenge, but start small and focused
This past summer, I spent time with marine biologists, observing sea turtles nest and discussing plastic’s impact on their lives and in turn, ours. In choosing a capstone project topic, I decided to dig into the user behaviors, societal values, and existing systems that support our disposable use of products, often made from plastic.
In the latter half of the 20th century, petroleum-based plastic became cheap and widely available, and it was found to be able to meet these requirements. At least with our understanding at that time. What was not understood, but is becoming clear now, is the environmental and health impact of this material. Cheaply produced and distributed, yet durable, means that plastic products have quickly littered our environment. In water, we’ve found some plastics to have toxic chemicals and even worse, we’ve seen plastic absorbs toxins and can then transport them wherever it travels. This is particularly problematic when plastic does breakdown into microplastics and becomes hard to detect or filter from our tap water, of which 94% of US samples have shown to contain them.
The plastic we eat with has become the poison we eat; I asked, “How might we reduce the use of disposable utensils in the US?” since we don’t have a widely adopted alternative to their use when we’re outside of our homes and offices. By looking deep into a very specific item, I began to understand the ingrained, subconscious patterns and find where they could be tweaked towards a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle.
Considering the simplicity of a fork’s design, we expect a lot out of it. Functionally, we need it to be durable and strong, able to pierce our salad and withstand hot meals without breaking or melting. From an experience perspective, we want it to be of a certain size and dimension to fit our hands and the action of eating. We’d also prefer for it not to alter the taste or texture of our food. Taking into account our health, it needs to be clean and made from non-toxic materials.
When you think of your preferred fork, what does it look and feel like? What material is it made out of? Of everyone I surveyed and interviewed, the answer was consistent: metal.
Why is plastic the popular option? It is because of our contextual expectations. We expect the fork to be available at no cost when we need it, which has led restaurants and offices to offer free to-go utensils. And we prefer to not carry them too far after use. Providers have no way of guaranteeing utensil return, so they opt for the lowest overhead cost: plastic.
Lesson 2: Design for new behaviors and impact first
We could introduce a material change into the existing context, but in addition to achieving the functional, experiential, and health requirements, it must do so at a comparable cost to plastic. And it still doesn’t address the cost of manufacturing and disposing of products for a single use. Because of this, addressing the context of use with a mind to provide a more preferred metal utensil experience became my focus.
It is a high expectation to demand for businesses to provide us with utensils for free that we will not return to them. Restaurants operate at small margins already. Is there some way customers could participate in a solution?
Early on in concept testing, I prototyped a new utensil system to help shift user behavior — a break apart utensil whose handle attached to your key chain with the ability to trade out utensil tips for clean ones at restaurants. This new product incited interesting user feedback, but the most insightful piece to me was posed as a question: “How does this help you actually achieve your ten-year vision of a less wasteful future?”
Looking back at reactions during user testing, I realized the preferred, sustainable product already exists and is adopted in other contexts. Metal forks are used in our homes and in sit down areas of some restaurants — it’s takeout use and lower scale/tighter margin eateries that need to use the plastic alternative. I zeroed in on this use case and asked how we might make metal utensils a viable, available option.
Borrowed Good is the answer I created, a metal utensil subscription to restaurants that provides deposit bins in community locations for convenient disposal, after which Borrowed Good picks up, washes and redistributes utensils for subscribing locations. Keeping aligned with the insight that the preferred product already exists, Borrowed Good sources unused utensil donations and marks them for use in this circular system.
The idea isn’t that Borrowed Good becomes the primary solution for eating on the go, but that it becomes a ubiquitous, sustainable alternative for when you forget your own reusable utensils. It makes sustainability more accessible and impactful by diverting the waste of existing metal products to prevent the creation and use of plastic products.
Lesson 3: Consider business value beyond scale
“How can your concept apply to the beauty industry?” I had just pitched Borrowed Good at the FUSE Design Conference and this question was posed. Until that moment, I had concentrated within the scope of my research on consumer on-the-go food disposables, but this challenge was interesting, stretching what I had learned.
Design can be singular in creating a solution to a challenge, but strategic design addresses a challenge in a way that can grow or shift, scaling up being only one direction of value. Adoption of the system as designed at community-size levels would become profitable and my thought was that by solving this system for utensils, I might introduce a new definition of “disposable” to include a reusable component and as a system, scale to other consumer on-the-go products like bags and cups.
This is a valid strategic direction, but it can be pressed further. How does this strategy look applied to other industries? Could it be? As it was pointed out to me, moisturizer comes in well-designed containers that after use, is thrown out. Can we elevate the lifespan of what we design in a useful way? Bringing this up to a few women, they all shared how they try to find other uses for their jars and bottles after use. They would love it if there was a way to not throw the containers away.
Can strategic value also be realized in the solution’s ultimate marker of success being non-existence? If we can change user behavior to become used to using metal forks on the go and ultimately, carry their own, what if the “growth” it stimulates is that restaurants no longer need to provide utensils to takeout customers and instead, cities provide sanitation stations for utensil washing?
This begins to touch on how we measure value and progress in our society as a whole. GDP — the volume of new items produced — cannot be the only way we concretely demonstrate value. Doing so supports single-use consumption and overall environmental destruction and it becoming uninhabitable. That does not signal a valuable future to me. It must at least be tempered with long-term impacts on health of the nation, availability of natural resources, etc.
Lesson 4: Listen with all senses; think with all understanding
Business + design. What is + what if. Yes + and. During this last year, I also took weekly long-form improv classes. The entire premise of improv is the “yes,” deep listening and agreement on premise, and “and,” the offering of unique, bold input to further the story. To me, the strategic design process began to look very similar.
The common sentiment in this program is that we are remembering to question like children, which I found to be true. “Why?” is a powerful. It is what led me to ask a “Since you prefer metal, why don’t you take the restaurant’s metal fork to-go and return it later?” Children seek to understand and somewhere along the way, we’ve learned to assume. Understanding leads to empathetic, and ultimately, more successful design.
But it learning to question is not enough. After living through the Depression, my Grannie Tilley washed and folded foil for reuse. Scarcity of resources was a lesson with which she was brutally familiar. We are also being asked, after researching with an open mind, to approach design with strategic wisdom that looks at lasting consequences and ripple effects.
These are but a summary of the lessons I’ve learned during this program. In the end, I’ve realized what motivates me to be more intentional and responsible with design: design is embedded into everything we do; it can be as unconscious as how we arrange the furniture in our living rooms to make conversation more pleasant. But strategic design is a practice of hope; a belief that by learning and using tools for finding deeper understanding and motivations, analyzing systems, and projecting impacts, we can purposely shift greater outcomes for a more desirable future.