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3 Ways to Adopt Sustainability in Your Design Work

David O'Donnell
Jan 12 · 5 min read

Your company has a set of aggressive sustainability goals. Your design team is being asked what value design can bring to them. That’s no surprise given that more than half of the companies responding to the 2019 BSR-Globescan Survey said that sustainability is among their CEO’s top five priorities. This was up from 37% in 2015. As is often true when an issue becomes a priority, it falls to design to translate those priorities into tangible solutions.

So, how can design help?

Through design research and good storytelling designers often help clarify the relationships a business has with its customers. You can do that with sustainability as well by making the relationships at the center of sustainability initiatives more clear. By doing so you will reveal opportunities to redesign those relationships. Here’s how:

1. Extend your journey map

You’ve just finished customer research and are mapping out a customer journey. It’s an important part of the design process. It defines the boundaries of what we are designing and what we aren’t designing. It’s a powerful moment to introduce sustainability.

A typical consumer experience journey map begins at pre-purchase and ends at purchase. What if you broadened that map to be more inclusive, as shown below?

Take the time to broaden the bounds of your journey map and close the loop. Source: the amazing

Differentiate your products with more sustainable sourcing and design ways to tell your customers about it. Can the materials be sourced from landfills like Rothy’s shoes spun from recycled plastic bottles?

Reduce waste at the end of the journey. Consider what happens when the consumer is done using your product. Or, even better, extend the product’s life. How can your design live long after its initial use? Can it be compostable like the Native Company’s Plant shoe? Can it be shipped back to be repaired for re-commerce like Vivobarefoot’s shoes?

As designers we design experiences. We can choose where those experiences start and where they end. We can extend our relationships with our customers beyond Consider, Purchase, and Dispose.

The next time you’re creating a journey map ask:

  • How might we broaden the bounds of our customers’ journey?
  • How might we connect the start of the journey with its ‘end’?

2. Scan for consequences

Typically you focus your design work on designing direct interactions with the specific product you’re designing. That makes sense. But, what if you investigated the broader consequences of your design?

Consequence scanning is a practice becoming core to the agile development process. It helps teams think intentionally about both the negative and positive consequences of their products/features. It helps to bring intention to your work.

Examples of unintended positive consequences include:

Some examples of unintended negative consequences include:

  • The cryptocurrency Ethereum created a frictionless, one-click ‘wallet’. It had the unintentional effect of users moving so fast that they didn’t take time to save their ‘private key’ resulting in lost funds. You can read how Ethereum addressed the issue here.
  • Coltan (a mineral used in smartphones and electric vehicle batteries) has helped to finance the horrific civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Social media platforms often amplify hate speech.

Encourage your team to consider the intended and unintended consequences of your designs.

Senior Director at Salesforce’s Office of Ethical & Humane Use Rob Katz explains that:

“Designers are positioned to interrogate products, features, and services before they are put out into the world.”

Below are some thought starters for your team on a range of unintended consequences:

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Consequence scans are an opportunity to think beyond the first order of impact. Source: creative commons

The next time your team is discussing the possible impacts of your design ask:

  • “What are the intended consequences of our design?”
  • “What might the unintended consequences be?
  • “How can we modify our design to amplify the positive consequences and mitigate negative ones?”

3. Make risk real

At the start, we noted that more CEOs are considering sustainability a top priority. They will need quality, well-designed data to act on that priority. As a designer, you can help.

Think about the design of a business analytics dashboard. They are built to help executives identify opportunities and weigh risks. Dashboards may be built to help CEOs but they are rarely designed to help.

As an example, let’s take an obvious sustainability information design challenge: visualizing global temperature rise due to climate change.

Here are two examples using the same data set but designed very differently:

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A standard (and relatively) static graph depicting global temperature rise since 1850. Source BBC News
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A novel design using the same warming data from the good folk at Climate Lab. Source:

Both graphs describe the same clear warming trend while tracking annual variation. But Climate Lab’s spiral (on the right) offers designed data whereas the graph to the left is a simple documentation of data.

Climate Lab uses colors that become ‘warmer’ as temperatures rise. The color of the rings shifts from a deep, cool purple to a bright, warm yellow.

The century’s worth of data surprisingly comes toward the viewer rather than sitting still in the familiar format of a graph.

This dynamic, growing data set changes the relationship with the viewer. For me, it feels as if the warming data is approaching me personally. It connects me directly to climate change as opposed to feeling as if I’m sitting ‘outside’ it. I feel less like I’m reading a graph about something happening somewhere else and to people other than me. Does it make you feel the same?

When you’re designing data for executives ask:

  • How can risks appear less abstract and distant?
  • How can you make data more dynamic?
  • How can you place your viewer in the story you’re telling?

Design at the Table

Sustainability is a priority for C-suite executives. As with business theories of the past, they will eventually ask design teams to help translate sustainability goals into sustainability practice.

The topic of sustainability may seem complex and overwhelming but, never fear, as a designer you are up to the task. You can help data tell more compelling stories, scan for consequences, and extended journey maps to begin building a more sustainable future today.

Ready to skill up? Become an expert and earn the new Sustainable by Design badge on Trailhead, Salesforce’s learning experience platform.

Special thanks to Tyson Read, Hannah Downey, and all the folk at Salesforce designing a sustainable future. To Kate Hughes, Noelle Moreno, Madeline Davis, and Kate Hughes for editorial support. And Julie Hill for graphic design.

Learn more about Salesforce Design at

Follow us on Twitter at @SalesforceUX.

Check out the Salesforce Lightning Design System

Salesforce Design

A collection of stories, case studies, and ideas from…

David O'Donnell

Written by

Father, partner, dog lover. Chicagoan by way of San Francisco. Design thinker, extinction rebel, climate activist. Cautiously optimistic about the future.

Salesforce Design

A collection of stories, case studies, and ideas from Salesforce design teams

David O'Donnell

Written by

Father, partner, dog lover. Chicagoan by way of San Francisco. Design thinker, extinction rebel, climate activist. Cautiously optimistic about the future.

Salesforce Design

A collection of stories, case studies, and ideas from Salesforce design teams

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