In a perfect world — my students’ wishes for more sustainable design practices

Paul J. Nini, AIGA, Ico-D, Professor, Department of Design, The Ohio State University,

For the last decade I’ve taught a seminar course on “design for social good” that’s included graduate and undergraduate students from Industrial Design, Interior Design, and Visual Communication Design programs. The main class activities have entailed students writing about and leading discussions on readings and films that often raise issues that affect and challenge how we practice design.

Current day problems such as over-consumption, planned-obsolescence, waste, pollution, natural resources depletion, toxic materials, etc. invariably come up (Whiteley, 1993) — which can paint a fairly grim picture of what the future might potentially hold for us all. Issues such as the publicly-traded corporation’s mandate to put shareholder profit above all else, the plundering of the natural environment for profit, and the passing of negative environmental consequences on to future generations also emerge (Achbar, et al., 2004), and often result in lively discussions and a variety of viewpoints.

If anything comes from this course beyond a raised awareness of the above issues, it’s the realization that achieving something akin to environmental “sustainability” is an enormous undertaking that will involve unprecedented cooperation between industry, government and everyday citizens (Anderson, White, 2009). While the road ahead is daunting, students are eager and willing to start tackling this large problem area, and many hope to devote at least some of their future efforts to that end.

For the final segment of the course, students are asked to create small-scale projects that address the issues that have been part of our discussions. These projects typically involve deeper secondary research into a chosen topic-area — and when appropriate, include design directions that speculate on how things might be handled differently in the future (Dunne, Raby, 2013).

Reflecting on several years of such projects, it’s clear that certain issues come up repeatedly. I would like to say that many of these problems have been adequately dealt with recently by government, business, the design professions and our educational institutions — but unfortunately, I can not. So, in the interest of trying to advance these important ideas, I give you my students’ collective wishes for more sustainable design practices.

1. A wish for a truly circular materials economy

As outlined in Cradle to Cradle (McDonough, Braungart, 2002), the website, and in many other sources — we see that our materials economy currently operates in a linear fashion. That is: raw materials are extracted and processed; products are manufactured, distributed and sold; consumers use those products for certain lengths of time; and many products often end up in landfills or waste dumps.

Linear materials flow (illustration by the author)

Circular materials flow (illustration by the author)

The alternative approach would be a circular materials flow, where extraction of virgin raw materials no longer occurs. As well, the dumping of “retired” products would also be eliminated, and their materials would instead be reclaimed, extracted, reprocessed, and reused to create new products ( Making such a materials flow reality is easier said than done, of course. It may also require government legislation to enact this approach — but my students want to know why we’re not taking this issue on in a more substantial way.

2. A wish for products that are designed for disassembly and repair

For materials to be reclaimed from existing products, obviously the product must be designed to be easily disassembled (Diener, 2010). My students are often shocked to discover how few products actually meet such basic criteria. As well, there is nothing more frustrating than a product that fails and can’t be repaired. Often it is just one part that’s at issue, but the design doesn’t allow for easy repair, and the manufacturer often doesn’t provide upgrade or replacement parts. This situation represents obsolescence at its worse, and consumers are demanding better (Koebler, 2016). Several advocacy groups such as,, and have surfaced in recent years, and make a strong argument for a return to a culture of product repair-ability.

Timberland Earthkeeper 2.0 shoes designed for disassembly (photo from

3. A wish for more options to lease (as opposed to own) some products

Some current manufacturers offer give-back or buy-back programs for their products, but often the reclaimed materials just end up in waste-dumps in the developing world (Bullock, 2011). My students have voiced a clear opinion that they’d rather lease certain products that they know have shorter shelf-lives — such as cell phones, as one example (Goodwin, 2011). As part of that arrangement, of course, they expect those products to be easily disassembled, and that the reclaimed materials actually be made into new products. As far as eventually owning certain products, they prefer things that are well-made, and that could last for a lifetime (Sorrel, 2015). They see such products as future investments, and have no issue with them being more expensive.

Electronic waste dump in China (photo from Duke University web-site)

4. A wish for flexible products that can be updated, added to, etc.

Many students have explored the idea of modular products that provide the flexibility to be customized to individual preferences, and that can be transformed over time. One example of this approach is the Project Ara cellphone currently being developed by Google, which resulted from the speculative Phonebloks concept introduced by Dutch designer Dave Haakens a few years earlier. The idea is to use a metal frame that a variety of third-party cellphone modules can be attached to, enabling easy replacement and/or upgrading of modules as desired.

Project Ara prototype (photo from Google, Inc.)

Phonebloks concept model (photo from

A modular design approach could potentially be applied to a variety of product-types, of course, and my students wonder why it’s not more widely used. Imagine being able to easily swap-in new processors and cards to upgrade a modular laptop or desktop computer after a few years (, and keeping much of that hardware in use and out of an e-waste dump. Other designers are experimenting with this approach in many applications, but we’ve yet to see many large-scale manufacturers commit to seriously employing modular design strategies.

Modular toaster concept by Hadar Gorelik (photo from

Youmo modular power strip (photo from

These possibilities equate to opportunities for design

While my students are all interested in emerging areas such as user experience, service design, and interaction design, they also see great opportunities for the design professions to better address sustainability. That could include such ideas as actually working with manufacturers to set up efficient and effective systems to reclaim and reprocess materials from their products — and obviously there’s plenty of opportunity to explore modular approaches. And what about new systems that provide the ability for the consumer to effectively recycle materials on their own? The new Epson PaperLab is one recent example that claims to be the world’s first in-office paper recycling system (Anthony, 2015). One assumes that we’ll see many more of these ideas in the coming years.

Epson PaperLab in-office paper recycling system (photo from

A reason to hope

If nothing else, I sense from my students a great desire to tackle the problems of sustainability that those of us in the previous generation have not become aware of — or worse yet, have chosen to ignore in lieu of business as usual. Despite the serious issues we all face, I believe that there is reason to hope. The younger generation seems intent on cleaning up our mess (Elkington, 2011), and for that we should all be thankful.


Achbar, M., Abbott, J., Simpson, B., Bakan, J. (2004) The corporation: A documentary. Filmwest Associates, Big Picture Media Corporation.

Anderson, R., White R. (2009) Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose: Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. New York: St. Martin’s.

Anthony, S. (2015) “Epson Unveils World’s First In-office Paper Recycling System,” Ars Technica.

Bullock, W. (2011) “E-Waste: An Industrial Designer’s Perspective,” Proceedings of the IDSA Education Symposium, September 14–17, New Orleans.

Chua, J. (2010) “Timberland Earthkeepers 2.0 Are Designed for Disassembly, Recycling.”

Diener, A. (2010) “Afterlife: An Essential Guide To Design For Disassembly.”Core 77.

Dunne, A, Raby, F. (2013) Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Elkington, J. (2011) “Will Generation Zero Clean up the Baby Boomers’ Environmental Mess?” The Guardian.

Goodwin, L. (2011) “A New Lease on Life for Electrical Goods.” The Guardian.

Google, Inc. (2015) Project Ara.

Gorelik, H. “Toaster.”

Haakens, D.

Koebler, J. (2016) “A New Advocacy Group Is Lobbying for the Right to Repair Everything.” Motherboard. Vice Media, Inc.

McDonough, W, Braungart, M. (2002) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point.

Sorrel, C (2015) “How To Design Products To Last A Lifetime.” Co.Exist. Fast Company.

Story of Stuff Project (2015),

The European Environmental Bureau. Make Resources Count.

The Repair Association.

Vos, S. (2012) “Electronic Waste Disposal.” Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment.

Whiteley, N. (1993) Design for Society. London: Reaktion.