Redesign recycling: A design thinking odyssey
A healthy middle school cafeteria, a toy to learn coding, and the first wearable breast pump — what do they all have in common? Design thinking. Since I first learned about design thinking back in 2012, I’ve been captivated. I jump at any opportunity to apply the method.
Design thinking fuels innovation. I feel a little dirty even saying that — buzzword salad isn’t my thing. Everyone would like to be innovative. Few truly are. But at the core of design thinking are proven ideas to fuel innovation. Peek inside a kindergarten class: everyone is creative (we ‘serious’ adults forget). Design thinking taps into the innate creativity in every human being. We don’t have all the answers: learn from others. Crazy good ideas will reveal themselves when we learn from others. But how do we know if these ideas a crazy good and not just crazy? Take these crazy ideas and test them: experiment rapidly. What works? What fails? Make it real no matter how crude. Paper and markers, scissors and tape—your new BFFs.
At my workplace, everyone has the opportunity to hack any idea during our semi-annual hackfests. This was my chance to apply design thinking. Less interested in the problem particulars, I pitched a vague project — redesign recycling. The vagueness was a happy accident because another core ability of design thinking is embrace ambiguity. The ambiguous pitch was great for gathering a design thinking team.
Perhaps I am drawn to design thinking because I live ambiguity. I had no plan for our team. I’ve been waiting for a chance to use this beautiful, practical, deck of cards. Each has an exercise in one of the three phases: build empathy (i.e. learn from others) unleash creativity, and prototype (i.e. experiment rapidly). It seems simple enough, but making a plan out of these cards turned out to be challenging. Unlike the popular design sprint methodology, there is no prescriptive path; there is no map. One must roam.
The first stage of the odyssey: build empathy
To actually make recycling better (instead of worse!) we need to learn from others. We need to get outside of our own experiences and context. This is the foundation of innovation. To do this the team took a field trip.
I Notice, I Wonder
With pen and paper in hand, we left the office to look for recycling and trash bins in the wild. Carefully observing, we noted what we noticed and what that in turn made us wonder. The team noticed that—even in the green city of Vancouver —the city with goal to have zero waste — recycling is exceptionally confusing. Walk just a block and you may see four competing versions of recycling bins: different designs, different icons, different colours, different rules. Ain’t nobody got time for ’dat! We noticed people putting the same items into the wrong bin. We wondered what happens when something is put in the wrong bin. Recycling in public is a black box with no feedback loop. How can you learn if you never know what you’re doing wrong? Learning from others filled us with empathy and ideas.
Capture the Right Mood
We headed back to the office to build empathy from another angle. Empathy is like examining a diamond. Look at the problem from a different angle and you will see something new. There are practically unlimited ways of looking at this diamond. Rotate it and something new will glimmer. We looked at our problem from a new angle by using mood boards. The design thinking twist is that we don’t make the collages ourselves, we observe others make them. Their prompt was ‘How could recycling be effortless.’ All of the participants were reluctant in varying degrees. How could this be useful? Why would you sacrifice your Nat Geos? The ambiguity was unbearable for one person who walked away without starting. I am sure that if they started cutting and taping, they would have contributed valuable ideas. Alas, the first cut was too much. Others did finish their mood boards though, giving us valuable ideas. Why isn’t this automated? Why can’t we blast our trash into space? What about incinerators — let’s burn it! Not all feel that recycling is important, but all feel that it is hard.
The second stage of the odyssey: experiment rapidly
An eternity could be spent doing research, but forward motion is critical. With a healthy dose of empathy we moved forward.
We noticed many single use coffee cups thrown in the garbage instead of recycling. So to experiment rapidly, we designed a better sign for the confused patrons of the mall. We covered up the confusing signage with a new sign communicating a singular message: coffee cups go here! We sat at different bins and watched. Much to our relief, security guards did not escort us off of the property. In our moment of glory, we witnessed someone walk up with coffee cup in hand, reach for the waste, stop, and recycle it instead. Victory! This validated our idea: signs with a singular message will be ignored less.
Bad Idea Brainstorm
We headed back to the office to unleash our creativity. Personally, I hate brainstorms. I need the mental space to mull things over and let my mind wander. Brainstorms usually just get my mind stuck on others’ good ideas. For some reason though, my ideas flowed in the bad idea brainstorm. Bad ideas are funny. Bad ideas aren’t precious. In a bad idea brainstorm, everyone writes as many bad ideas to solve the problem as possible. Put all of them on a wall and categorize them. Then, discuss which ones can be flipped on their heads—good ideas in hiding. Our bad ideas included bees in waste bins to make people afraid; active fires at garbage bins; a space potato cannon but with trash. Such good bad ideas! Sure enough, some promising ideas were hiding. What about a universal language for recycling? Like Esperanto, but successful. Use the same visual language—colours, icons, etc.—everywhere in the world. (Turns out, Norway’s done this.) What about a rotating ad campaign, focusing on one commonly misplaced item at a time? The public’s collective knowledge of recycling would gradually increase, starting with the highest impact items. Our creativity was being unleashed.
Headlines From the Future
To build on the good ideas we found amongst the bad ones, we again looked at the problem from a new angle. Imagine that your solution is wildly successful. What will the newspapers say 20 years from now? So, we wrote a headline and brief article from the future. Yet another new vantage point to see things from.
To fill in some gaps in our understanding, we called a friend who both for the City of Vancouver and is a passionate expert in recycling. It was an enlightening discussion. We learned that Vancouver has some of the most uncontaminated recycling in North America. The call confirmed some of our ideas and provided new ones too.
As mentioned above, moving forward is critical. In order to experiment rapidly you have to take an idea and make it tangible. You see what works and what doesn’t. And this stage of the journey is where we failed (at least in terms of design thinking). Instead of making something we talked about our ideas. But better late than never! Long after the hackfest was over I designed a sign for each bin in our office, picking a single oft-misplaced item for each bin. These illustrations requires no mental effort. When people learn to recycle these items another commonly misplaced item can be illustrated. The system adapts its colours to its environment like a chameleon (or cuttlefish).
The design thinking odyssey was worth it. It was fun and fruitful. By learning from others, we unleashed our creativity and rapidly experimented. We discovered a small way to make recycling better.
Maybe you, reader, would like to go on a similar odyssey? What do you see that is broken? We have no shortage of problems. Here are some resources to prepare you.