Plastic Haul: The need to limit human-centred design

During a course called ‘Material Design’ at Tsinghua University, Beijing, the design students, including myself, were given a brief to create a solution to the problem of ‘one-time use plastic products’.

Being a Master’s student of Global Innovation Design, this was definitely one of the most impactful briefs I had been provided with. No matter what you create, your intent is clearly to have a positive influence on the planet. But how? There are so many directions one could go with this.

The first step would be to narrow down to one plastic product. Is it take away food containers or in particular plastic cups for iced tea or something like the packaging for instant noodles? It could be anything.

And while I decided to go ahead with plastic bottles for water, there are a bunch of concerns I started noticing in the way we are taught design, particularly user-centered design.

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“Plastic Ocean” by Singapore artist @messymsxi

Now, it doesn’t take much of the research to find out how using plastic bottles for storing water is a complete scam by industries that have been monopolizing water for decades. Firstly, there are 7 different types of disposable plastic bottles and each is extremely toxic to health, especially when exposed to heat and sunlight. Secondly, they are all very difficult to recycle and take more than hundreds of years to decompose. And thirdly, how long will it take us to realize that our only way of reducing plastic pollution is to either reduce demand or make laws that force us to?

With these questions, I started the design process that taught me how the faculties of learning I had been dedicatedly following until now are not good enough for me to move forward.

01. Sustainable design is cleaning up the mess human-centered design made

Human-centered design is a design and management framework that develops solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process.

Human-centered design is over glorified in a designers life. We are always taught to keep the user’s needs, desires, opinions, motivations, and struggles in mind while designing. The whole methodology of building a user persona is proof of how much designers are taught to care about the user.

However, when designing for sustainability, it is important to remember that we are where we are today because we kept the human desire in the center. For users, convenience is the most important aspect and plastic has been, in that facet, a miracle material for man. It is cheap, lightweight, disposable, flexible and accessible. No wonder 6 percent of global oil is consumed by industries to make plastic.

This is proof that designing to make a difference must sometimes have a solution which involves a user to make a behavior change instead of investing in a design that seamlessly creates a behavior change. If it doesn’t happen naturally but is needed, DO IT ANYWAY!

02. Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted

I understand how eradicating plastic all together will have a huge impact on the livelihood of the section of society unable to afford alternative material or ones whose living is dependent on being a part of the supply chain. And if there is one thing I have learned from Global Innovation Design, it is that the same global problem cannot have a standard template of solution. The same problem must have different solutions for different parts of the world.

So now I’ll spell it out clearly, plastic pollution must be handled differently in developed countries and developing countries respectively. Complex problems like such must be mapped out keeping every life involved in mind and find alternatives with the environmental impact at the core of the purpose.

No matter how much freedom a designer might have to come up with the most out-of-the-box concepts, the economy is always the first restriction. Usually, we look at it in terms of, how much would one be willing to spend to buy our design. But sometimes deliberately making something expensive in order to bring about a shift in perspective could also be a design solution with an impact.

Which leads me to the next point.

03. Context-driven design is everything

No matter which design methodology designers follow for a range of topics, context is an underlying necessity in absolutely everything. No design solution can function without a specific context and the same solution may be inapplicable to a context even slightly different.

For example, in some regions, biomaterials as alternatives for plastic might be the best solution. While in others, a serious push for reuse and having consequences for failure of meeting that responsibility might work better.

Either way, picking a place and studying the system applied there, or studying the system on a global scale and finding opportunities to fit your solution in one particular place will be more relevant than creating something and asking the world to adopt your solutions.

Why I decided to write this on a fundamental level, is out of the frustration of using design methodologies as templates all the time. Despite methodologies being extremely helpful in making sense of information, especially when one is overburdened with it and lost, as a student in the design community, we are judged by our ability to adapt processes and that somehow defines our competency in the field. Which is sometimes the most ridiculous way of curbing free will and creativity.

I would like to end with words from the Dutch writer Godfried Bomans “In the realm of the mind, a method is comparable to a crutch; the true thinker walks freely.

Written by

MA/MSc in Global Innovation Design at Royal College of Art + Imperial College London

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