Not designing for design’s sake
Last year, a record 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste were dumped globally — that inlcudes cellphones, computers, televisions, stereos and other electronic consumer goods that are deemed no longer useful. And as our relationship to technology continues to evolve, both companies and consumers bear a responsibility to consider the impact this waste is having on the well-being of people and planet.
Since the 1980s, WDO Member Compal Electronics has been at the forefront of innovation in consumer electronics. With clients like Sony, HP and Dell, Compal has been producing a wide range of devices from laptops to wearables, mobile devices to TVs and IoT applications. In fact, Compal is responsible for a quarter of the laptop computer built worldwide today.
Committed to sustainability, the company continues to push the boundaries of design to ensure the long-term usability of their products. We asked Shikuan Chen, Compal’s Senior Vice President and Chief Design Officer to share more about how the company is tackling the issue e-waste by moving beyond the practice of “design for the sake of designing.”
What is the company’s overall vision and what is your approach to sustainability?
Compal’s company motto is to “embrace innovation, harmony and transcendence”. As we look to construct a complete supply chain to encompass multiple trades and industries, it is through insights that are deeply rooted in research are we able to identify trends and marketable futures, so that we may jointly create new business opportunities with and for our clients.
A phrase often quoted in popular culture reads ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, and with an estimated annual manufacturing power of 100 million computing devices, inclusive of all notebooks, wearables, and AIoTs, doing what is sustainable is in our DNA and a responsibility we uphold ourselves to everyday.
The electronics industry produces a lot of waste, much of which ends up in landfill. What are some specific strategies Compal has undertaken to reduce waste?
While ground-breaking innovations cannot be done without trial and error, instead of promoting niche marketing platforms that support small batch manufacturing, a large portion of our efforts go into the pre-designing stage where quantitative and qualitative market/consumer research is done to generate holistic insights so ideas make sense, and designs are able to withstand the test of time. We are also careful about vetting vendors and by working with industry leaders who have the scalable statistics, consumer understanding and perspective; they help us make more well-rounded decisions about our designs and future business.
Can you pinpoint certain products that reflect your commitment to sustainability?
One classic example comes from the industry’s use of Anodizing, a common CMF practice that produces ultra-smooth metal finish, only at the cost of the environment where massive tons of CO2 and wastewater are produced for every ton processed. Through innovative design and R&D, Compal is able to reinvent that process with Nanoimprint Lithography, a much more environmental-friendly solution that achieves the same design and visual effect on metal, while emitting far lesser carbons and water pollutants. We are also committed to using more post-consumer recycled materials, for example up to 80% recycled plastic in our notebook interiors.
From your perspective, what more can be done to ensure that both corporations and consumers understand the global impact of e-waste?
Technology and artificial advancements are helping us be more connected than ever; but the flip side also means that we are growing more interdependent of one another. We only have one world to live in and we can all see or feel its impact one way or the other. It is in all of our best interests to learn the difference between our needs and wants, and always support solutions that are better built, use environmentally friendly materials and processes. Remember, sustainability is a choice and a way of life.
What role do you think product design can play in addressing the e-waste problem? How can designers help to ensure the longevity of these products?
Again, this is all about doing enough market research and consumer research beforehand, and knowing exactly who you’re designing for and what purpose you’re trying to achieve. We never want to design anything for the sake of designing, so it means a mindset and lifestyle shift.
In your opinion, what are some key design features that a product must possess in order to be considered truly sustainable?
A ‘green’ product doesn’t mean it uses more recycled materials; it starts all the way at the beginning from a sustainable mindset through green manufacturing practices. A thoughtful example of this could be adopting designs that are modulated. Should a component inside a modularized design fail, instead of throwing the whole item away as e-waste, just the one failed part can be easily fixed or replaced in order to prolong the usability and longevity of the entire device.
What do you see as the future of consumer electronics, from design and manufacturing to end-of-life?
As designers, we must take pride in the work and in the artifacts that we create, so it should be common practice and taking into account its afterlife is the responsible thing to do. We once designed a solution that transformed all the outdated, idle smartphones and turned them into beautiful, nostalgic Wi-Fi speakers. Recycling is good, but a way to upcycle something already in existence — to lessen the immense burden that was put on mother earth — would be even greater.
Shikuan Chen is Chief Design Officer (CDO) and Senior Vice President of the Marketing and Innovation Office of Compal Electronics, Inc. in Taiwan, one of the world‘s largest research and development centers and computer manufacturers. He is also a Board Member (2015–2019) of the World Design Organization (WDO/ICSID), Ambassador of Good Design Award Australia, iF Design Award jury, as well as Professor of Design at Shih-Chien University in Taipei since 1995. From 2000 to 2004 Shikuan served as Managing Director Greater China Region at GE/FITCH, and from 2004 to 2009 as Global Account & Design Director at Philips Design. In 1995 he graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Art (USA) with a Master of Fine Arts in Design.