What is Sustainable Design?
A philosophy of designing physical objects (or services) which best meets the principles of ecological, economic and social sustainability.
It is a philosophy which extends from the small, household items and products for everyday use, to the large, building structure and city planning.
It is a philosophy which is applied across hundreds of industries, found in engineering, architecture, urban planning and industrial design industries as well as fashion design and graphic design products.
But what does it really mean?
In 1914, John Krubsack harvested the first known grown chair. The first chair grown and shaped as a living tree, to be harvested matching the specifications of product design. A completely sustainable product. With an 11 year manufacturing lead time.
The Khasis of North-East India have created marvels of sustainable engineering, including the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge. That’s right. Two bridges. Suspended over each other. Created entirely from the roots of surrounding trees.
Whilst we can argue as to the necessity and benefits of a double-decker bridge, we cannot deny that such architecture, and the many others like it, is awe inspiring. It represents the pinnacle of sustainable design. Design with no detriment to the environment. Design which creates a balance between human desire and environmental sustainability. However, with up to a decade and half of growing time, such designs may not stand up to human timeframes.
And thus the crutch of sustainable design development is revealed. The balance between sustainability and convenience.
There is a desire for speed and ease in many aspects of human culture and development. We want to get places faster, complete things faster and have things faster. And have it cheaper too. But there is a limit. It is a problem seen in history and fiction, both looking to the past and to the future. A peak of unsustainability. A point at which we use things up. A point at which speed and ease are gone, and cost increases exponentially. After which no amount of clever design will solve the problem.
The key therefore, is sustainability and sustainable design. Looking beyond the convenience now, to the convenience of the future and beyond. It is a trend which is gaining increased acceptance and becoming a prime driver of innovation. We only need to look at companies like Tesla Motors to see this shifting trend. Power, speed and sleek design, in a sustainable package. It may not be made from nature like Krubsack’s chair or India’s root bridges, but it’s made to exist alongside nature. Finding a balance between human need and desire, and environmental need and desire.
The moral of sustainable design is not to have our designs literally shaped by nature (although it’s altogether possible), but to have our designs co-exist with the natural environment. It can be as simple as looking to use biodegradable, recyclable and / or low-impact materials, or as complex as redesigning processes to optimise energy usage and emission production.
I have found that it is often the small things that help push towards sustainability. In the end, there is a duty with design to consider not only the life-cycle of the product, but the people and world in which the product exists; because the benefit comes from not what we design, but how we design it.