On the sustainable transformation of experience design practice.
Part I of the Transformation and Sustainability Series
by Florian Sametinger and Sara Ziskovic
As of 2020 we have reached the time when we are forced to rethink the way we practice Experience Design. For us as internally, the notions of design-inherent values and the overarching responsibility of designers, researchers and in general everyone that works in the field, were prevalent when diving deeper into the rethinking of our designerly practice. In our series we are going to look into the internal structures and processes as well as underlying philosophies and methodological reference points that guide the field of Experience Design today. Which kinds of frameworks and organisational structures are needed to foster a more sustainable, conscious design approach? Which processes can be identified as remnants of overcome ways of doing design and how can we deal with transformation and change especially in relationship with customers and clients?
Make no mistake, we are by far not the first ones, nor are we the most radical in this endeavour. Our design and research colleagues from around the world contribute to the common knowledge about and around the topic in various ways, ranging from suggestions to look beyond the Frameworks like the infamous Double diamond (Teo, Y., 2020) over sharing thoughts on the ways of utilising consumers as resources in responsible production and consumption developments (Heibeck, 2019) to sharing free tools for sustainable and circular designs with the rest of us (Acaroglu, 2020).
What we are not trying to do is to set some new terminology, dress an old concept up in new clothes and try to put our name on it. This is rather an inquiry into existing approaches that take into account the notion of sustainability (in all its complexity) in the practice of design, and our try to put these approaches into perspective.
The current crises that riddle our societies go beyond COVID-19 and the climate collapse. The notion of a planetary boundary system (Rockström, J, et. al., 2009), provides one of many frameworks to look at the lines that we may not cross. In order to avoid an imbalance of the ideal dynamic equilibrium of sustainability we are dependent on, we argue that design practice, in our case Experience Design, needs to undergo a systemic transformation guided by different sets of principles. In this series we take a step back to look at the inner workings and external systemic influences that we have to deal with when designing user-centered and highly contextualised experiences within a system which is characterised by non-linear, complex and interconnected patterns.
A lot has been said on the impact of design on society, the environment and the economy, but we live in a time, when the practice of design (whichever notion of it) is spread further than ever before. Designers are creating experiences that are able to determine the behaviour of whole parts of society, creating unimaginable impact that is often not taken into account beforehand. Nowadays, the famous Viktor Papanek is cited quite frequently with his memorable comment on the profession of (industrial) design: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them.” (Papanek, 1971, p. 9.). Of course that was focused mainly on industrial design, and this statement oversimplifies the role that design currently plays, but let’s keep that in mind as we go along. We are quite certain that there is more truth to it than some might imagine. So let’s expand on this a little bit. Why can design still be deemed one of the most harmful professions? In our opinion, it is largely due to it playing a growing part in the construction and design of our society itself, as well as our own personalities and identities, through the products, services and systems we are bringing to life as designers. This brings us to the point where all of the current strands of sustainable, transformative, and strategic design come together: each designer, no matter how small or big their part in any innovation, transformation or product-service design project, has to take full responsibility for the impact their designed outcome has on society, economy and the environment.
At the core of our article series, we are in fact talking about the responsibility designers have in this complex world, and how we can manage to steer our activities in a direction that takes into account the future of our grandchildren and their children after that, a notion that has been one of the cornerstones of endeavours into a more sustainable design practice. Design in general has diversified, new branches have popped up, but whether it is Interaction Design, UX or the latest hype CX, they all have one thing in common: to a great extent they revolve around specific users, customers — around humans as their primary anchor. For argument’s sake, and without being too disrespectful to all the good and important work being done in the various sub-fields, going further we will use Experience Design as an umbrella-term.
So, what exactly is the problem here? It’s not only that design tends to focus on outcomes rather than the process, or on humans rather than activities, as Don Norman (2005) stated, but it goes far beyond that. In the lifecycle of a designed artefact, whether it’s a product or a service, we have to consider the process of its creation, lifecycle and beyond. All existing criticism aside, there are established tools for physical products like life-cycle-assessment (Guinee, J. B., et. al., 2011) or Cradle-to-cradle design (McDonough, W., & Braungart, M., 2010) that allow for a more or less precise quantification of ecological and economic impacts, which digital products or systems of services are sparsely covered by.
So, the one challenge that keeps popping up, in our experience and in many of the projects that we work on, is that most of the processes and activities that are conducted do not take into account the impact that a specific solution has on a larger ecosystem, whether it’s that of a company, a user group or society as a whole. It is the systemic and holistic view of a designerly way of thinking and doing (Cross, 2001) that will bring about change within the prevailing practice that it is targeted. Which brings us to another point that in fact design has been moving from product to process-orientedness for several years now (Erlhoff, 2013) and extends well beyond the discipline of design.
Like we mentioned, we are not alone in thinking about these changes within a practice that is basically married to economic growth and its underlying values. Yet, there are numerous large companies, design agencies, consultancies and designers that take up the hot topic of sustainability, without thinking through that by design, opening up their practice to a more systemic perspective, the outcomes and products that come out of this re-directed practice will have to be fundamentally different. Sadly, most of the time, they are not, but rather reflect greenwashed old habits turned to products or services. Experience Design practitioners will have to earnestly take into account impacts such as electronic waste, digital divide, social injustice, disenfranchisement or climate change. This is seldom the case. Thus, in the small community working on such topics, there is rising criticism that the current drive towards “green UX/CX” is basically nothing but an organisational stage backdrop painted green.
We feel that this is also due to the lack of systemic impact metrics, the lack of strong arguments that can counter the ones put forth by business stakeholders and in general “the other side”. For this challenge in Experience Design we need to change our perspective. We need to zoom out a little bit, not only take into account our users, but also their context, social and environmental implications of the solutions we offer through design.
We invite you to follow along our inquiry, which we will conduct over the next couple of months.
In our attempt to reframe our approach to Experience Design, we have formed several hypotheses to start from:
- In design we possess the tools and methods to oscillate between a human-centered and a society/environment-centered focus and to project impacts well into the future.
- If we fail to transform HCD towards including societal and environmental impact in the process, outcomes will necessarily have harmful effects on both society and environment.
- Including a society/environment focus, including principles of sustainability into a Human-centered design process is an added value, economically, socially and environmentally.
- There are soft social and environmental impact metrics which can provide value to business stakeholders alongside economic gains.
What we are doing is work in progress. We are focusing on the human-centred design process that we have been following for quite some time and are reiterating on it, nudging it in a different direction. Our approach requires investigating current design and innovation processes such as design thinking, strategic design or service design and contextualising their position, tools and methods towards the boundary system we are all part of.
Our intention is to thereby offer a small contribution to understanding of our role and responsibilities as creators of and contributors to present and future impact elements. Contribution to identifying our possibilities to take positive action and outlining the (existing and maybe yet to be defined) strategies of measuring that same impact to the global interrelated boundary system that we, as in humanity, have put out of balance.
Our hope is to help the community swinging the system pendulum into the direction of a utopian sustainable state. At least a little bit.
Boehnert, J. (2018). Transition design and ecological thought.
Cross, N. (2001) „Designerly ways of knowing: Design discipline versus design science“. Design issues 17, Nr. 3 (2001): 49–55.
Erlhoff, M. (2013). Theorie des Designs. Verlag Wilhelm Fink.
Guinee, J. B., Heijungs, R., Huppes, G., Zamagni, A., Masoni, P., Buonamici, R., … & Rydberg, T. (2011). Life cycle assessment: past, present, and future.
McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2010). Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things. North point press.
Norman, D. A. (2005). Human-centered design considered harmful. interactions, 12(4), 14–19.
Papanek, V. J. (1985). Design for the real world; human ecology and social change. Academy Chicago Publishers.
Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin III, F. S., Lambin, E., … & Nykvist, B. (2009). Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and society, 14(2).
United States Geological Survey, 2020: An image of the Syrian Desert, covering parts of modern Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Accessed on 30.September 2020 <https://unsplash.com/photos/DNR_bxQNWfw>.