Future-first design thinking

Written by Marketa Benisek - May 25, 2023

Design is a powerful tool that goes beyond aesthetics. It encompasses the creation of systems that work better, providing nurturing environments for both people and the planet. While design is often associated with visual appeal, its impact extends far beyond appearances. In this blog, we will explore how design can contribute to a sustainable future, emphasising the importance of considering form, function and the well-being of our environment.

Form follows function

The famous phrase “form follows function” was first coined by architect Louis H. Sullivan in his 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” It highlights the notion that a building’s exterior design should reflect the different interior functions and their intended purpose. This phrase has long been used as a guiding principle in design. In the context of sustainability, this takes on an even deeper meaning.

In the pursuit of creating (or designing) a sustainable future, we must extend the notion of form following function to include the responsibility of creating products and systems that are not only effective but also unharmful – or better yet, beneficial – to the environment. Sustainable design thinking goes beyond mere aesthetics, it aims to minimise waste, reduce energy consumption and mitigate the negative impact on the planet.

Product design and sustainability

In the context of sustainability, design of physical products is often perceived as the most important because it can have such far-reaching impacts. Indeed, physical products have immense potential for driving sustainability. The choices we make when we design physical products, from material selection and energy efficiency to resource usage and recyclability, have the potential to shape a more sustainable future. Every decision counts. 

But in a world increasingly reliant on digital technology, it is crucial to acknowledge that even digital products have a significant environmental footprint. The infrastructure that enables our online activities relies on physical resources and consumes vast amounts of energy, often derived from fossil fuels. The language we use to describe digital products, such as “the cloud,” “wireless,” or “virtual,” may create the illusion that they have no physical impact. However, the intangible nature of digital products should not hide the very tangible impact they have on the environment.

Sustainable Web Design

At Wholegrain, we are well aware that incorporating sustainability into our design process requires a shift in mindset. It requires us to view creativity and innovation through the lens of responsible stewardship. 

“Creativity isn’t a switch that’s flicked on or off; it’s a way of seeing, engaging with and responding to the world around you.”

Rod Judkins

It is in our power to design products, both physical and digital, with a non-wasteful and sustainable mindset to invest into their longevity and minimise their negative impact on the planet and its resources. By adopting sustainability-first thinking, we can unleash the creative potential within us to design a cleaner, better future.

Form – Function – Future

If we’re serious about creating a sustainable future, perhaps we should change this common phrase from “Form follows Function” to “Form – Function – Future”. While form and function are essential considerations, the future, represented by sustainability, should be at the forefront of our design thinking. And actually, if sustainability is truly at the forefront of the way we create new products, then maybe we should revise the phrase even further to “Future – Function – Form.” This revised approach would place our future, represented by sustainability, at the forefront of our design thinking. It would encourage us to first ask ourselves, “What is the most sustainable way to design X?” and then consider how the function of X can be met while ensuring it remains non-harmful to people and the planet.

The role of non-human personas

How do we do this in practice? How can businesses effectively prioritise the environment as a key stakeholder and integrate sustainable design principles into their processes? One approach lies in the concept of incorporating non-human personas into the design thinking process. Inspired by Patagonia’s commitment to making planet Earth their sole stakeholder and Damien Lutz’s enlightening article on using non-human personas in digital design, it makes me wonder whether we could revolutionise our design thinking.

Incorporating non-human personas into the design thinking process would allow us to embody the essential elements that constitute our environment, such as air, trees, water, and land. These personas can serve as tangible reminders of the interconnectedness between our design decisions and the health of our environment, a living entity that deserves our protection and consideration. 

Image depicting Trees as a non-human persona. Credit: Damien Lutz

Unlike user personas that are different for every organisation, non-human personas are universal. We can create their profiles based on scientific research and consider their needs, vulnerabilities and the opportunities for their wellbeing. By embracing their presence in our projects, we can shift our focus towards sustainable outcomes, fostering a mindset that encourages responsible choices and innovation.

Sustainability-first design thinking

Embracing a sustainability-first mindset in the design thinking process offers several benefits for both businesses and the environment. This approach aligns with the concept of Cathedral Thinking, which stretches back through the centuries to mediaeval times and has since been applied to various fields, including space exploration, city planning and other long-term goals that demand foresight and planning that spans across decades. Just like the construction of cathedrals, sustainable design requires a far-reaching vision, a well thought-out blueprint and a shared commitment to long-term implementation.

“The only way to stand out is to work out what you stand for”

Rod Judkins

Cathedral Thinking provides a valuable framework for sustainable design by emphasising the importance of considering the future impact of our present actions. By implementing this framework into our design thinking processes, we can encourage designers and businesses to think beyond short-term gains and instead lay the foundation for a more resilient and environmentally conscious future. In fact, the lens of sustainability can be a catalyst for innovation that helps teams think differently and create products that are better in every sense, not just for the environment.

Good design is sustainable design

It is within our power to create a more sustainable future by paying attention to the smallest details that can make a big impact, and by making responsible choices in our design processes. When we incorporate sustainability as a core principle, we can shape products and systems that not only fulfil their intended functions but also minimise any harm to the environment.

Perhaps we should consider each and every one of us as the designers of a more sustainable future. In doing so, we must embrace the idea that design goes beyond aesthetics and encompasses the holistic impact of our creations. Whether physical or digital, every design choice we make has consequences, and it is our responsibility to ensure those consequences are positive and sustainable. 

I think we should use our creativity to challenge existing practices and look for new possibilities to design  products and systems in a way that prioritises the well-being of both people and the planet.