The significance of ecological impact of the development, production, and use can no longer be ignored. Mindless consumerism should have been over several decades ago, but instead has grown rather strong. It has been powered by greed and misplaced priorities, and fueled by competition among consumers to be on top of the latest trends and among producers to fulfill the growing void of the new generation of "things".
Each product has six levels of ecological impact: development, production, use, repair, refurbishing, and recycling. Each of these levels should receive proper attention for innovation, optimization, and sustainability. Focusing on optimizing the production and delivery cost and overlooking the ethics of the product lifespan from conception to recycling is irresponsible. Our consumerist lives have become a very bad case of Nash equilibrium in which in the end, everyone loses.
In order to minimize the ecological impact, each of the six levels should be closely examined. The development stage of the product has the most impact. The decisions that are made during the conception of the product have a long-lasting effect on everything else. The choice of materials, the ability to use refurbished parts, the processes involved, and the life span of the product are the examples of decisions made during the development.
Ecological impact of the production also has multiple stages. For instance, acquisition of the materials, creation of parts, and their assembly require the use of energy and natural resources such as water, minerals, trees, plants, and even animals. The chain of impacts can be tremendous. Careless use of the materials and lack of research into where they come from can destroy habitats, species, and create negative ecological consequences for whole communities.
The use of a product by a consumer has an impact as well. For electrical appliances, it can be energy use. The company that produces consumer goods has very little impact on the source of the consumer’s electricity. However, it has an influence over how much energy the product requires, and it can educate its consumers about the best practices. Educating people about recycling, repairing, and buying refurbished products can help minimize the waste through smarter acquisition and use.
Sometimes the lifecycle of a product can end abruptly and unconditionally. Modern products have thousands of interdependent components. When one of them fails, it can render the whole device incapable of performing its main task. Some parts of the product can be engineered to be easily replaceable, while others will always require a skill of a trained professional. The ability to repair a product — either through convenient programs offered by the producer or through cleverly designed manuals for the consumers — can minimize the need to produce a new product in the first place. It is important to understand that such practice is by no means a loss for a producer, but rather a shift of the revenue from production to services.
Every consumer is an individual that has a unique relationship with the environment. This is a deep psychological and philosophical problem that has no right solution, but rather has subjective opinions. Some of us are willing to live with the same product for a long period of time, while others prefer to experiment with new products. Some of us require consistency, while others need the experience of novelty. Regardless of the cause, we may surrender the product way before the expected end of its lifecycle. The producer should always be prepared for this type of situations and accept the used product on good terms for both parties. The design and construction of the product should accommodate the ease of disassembly, modularity, and the ability to donate most of the undamaged parts and thus, become the source of the new products on the shelf.
Finally, the lifecycle of the product should end in the recycling facility — not at the landfill. Parts of the no longer needed products can be sourced for assembly, and materials can be turned into raw sources for new products by the producer.
The primary goal of a product is to fulfill a function that makes the life of the user simpler. In a way, when we buy products, we buy ourselves extra time. If the product makes us more efficient, we gain an opportunity to spend more time with our loved ones, our friends, or doing the things we love. A product has to be useful and to optimize a certain function. This optimization helps with a spectrum of tasks: from the impossible ones, such as shaving without a razor, to those that bring convenience to our lives, such as time keeping. This range is a multifaceted landscape of possible variables that improve our lives. The job of the designer is to navigate consumers on the way to the highest hill on this landscape and make them most efficient and most free to do what they love.
There is a range of possible relations between a consumer and a product: purely functional product, highly functional and emotional product, purely emotional product. In the first scenario, the product is hidden in the background and performs a specific function silently, without bringing attention to itself, e.g. — a house heater. A highly functional and emotional product, such as a car, is a product that can be treated like a member of a family. A purely emotional product is the one for which the function is not important, e.g. — an art object, a piece of jewelry.
The whole range of possibilities is equally important since the emotional value of a product can sometimes have a greater impact on the quality of life than its function. Regardless of the multitude of possibilities, a designer must think about the intimate relationship between the product and the consumer. This relationship can at times be very complex, unique, and intricate. The product must bring joy while it is used. It should not create barriers or deny the ability for clear communication with the consumer.
Our lives can be messy. We drop things, we scratch things, we break things. There are ultra careful people, but then there is the rest of us. Products should age well and not break often. Aging is a particularly important issue. If the product's value is defined by shiny perfect surfaces that scratch, the aging process won't go that well. On the other hand, if aging makes the product look like it has history and like it withstood time, then the attention shifts to the function rather than the looks. While smooth surfaces can certainly bring joy, I think the attention should always be focused on the function of the product. If by design some parts of the product must be made from brittle materials, the designers role is to protect those areas. Designer should not make the fragility of the product to be the consumer's problem.
Ten principles of good design by Dieter Rams
I can't stress enough how important these principles are for me when it comes to design. Dieter Rams has been an inspiration and a guide for everything I do. If you're not familiar with these principles, please take a moment to read them and understand the logic behind each one. Together, they create an impeccable guideline for timeless design.
The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.
Good design makes a product useful
A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
Good design is aesthetic
The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
Good design makes a product understandable
It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.
Good design is unobtrusive
Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.
Good design is honest
It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
Good design is long-lasting
It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.
Good design is thorough down to the last detail
Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.
Good design is environmentally-friendly
Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
Good design is as little design as possible
Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.
Back to purity, back to simplicity.