“There are professions more harmful than (industrial) design, but only a few.” 

Victor Papanek wrote that In 1971 in the opening of his book Design for the Real World. We’ve made some progress in the 50 years since then, with ethics, inclusivity and sustainability increasingly on the agenda in the design world. 

But we still need reminding to look carefully at what, how and why we design.

You would hope that nobody needs reminding – other than a billionaire (or two) who take the odd weekender in space, burning up to 300 tons of carbon dioxide –  that the climate crisis is real and requires immediate action. But the feelings of panic this can evoke can also cause paralysis. It’s our responsibility as designers to take these feelings of urgency and do something practical to address the situation. 

That’s why we’re honoured to be working with the Design Council on the Design for Planet event that’s running alongside the COP26 summit. The main event will focus on accelerating action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Meanwhile, in Dundee on the 9th and 10th of November, we’ll be looking at how design can help solve the challenges the world faces.

“The individualised way we’d been designing digital products and services to be ‘delightful’ or frictionless experiences, was not a helpful model when considering longer-term consequences and the cumulative effects beyond the individual.”

Cassie Robinson ‘Beyond Human-centred Design’

Moving from user-centred to planet-centred design

Designing around user needs was a great leap forward when service design was young. And it’s still at the heart of what we do. Every day, in all our work with our clients, we think about how the people who use and deliver the products and services we design will be impacted by the decisions we make. But part of this has to include thinking of these people’s needs in the future too. If we don’t design thinking of long-term environmental impact, we’re not doing our jobs properly.

We’ve been lucky enough to work with clients who are actively involved in trying to design a more sustainable world (such as our recent work on building a circular lighting service with EGG and a sustainable fishing tool with Pisces). 

Our Thriving Planet group meets every week to share best practice and work on ways to fold planet-centred design into all of our work where we can. We’re keen to share everything we learn so that planet-centred design becomes the norm.

Our responsibility as designers

So we set about developing a planet-centred design training offer. It’s one small step in a giant footprint, but you have to start somewhere. We all do. 

With the Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) as a prototype partner, we designed a 3-day workshop, first levelling the team up on Service Design Practice, then diving into Planet Centred Design, and considering what steps the team can build on within their already strong foundations.

“Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical.”

Victor Papanek again

Small changes and Radical actions

Together we looked at what we can do – from small changes to radical actions. We started by looking at the work of other teams working hard in this area like the Design Council, Earth Centred-Design group, Kate Raworth and the Long Time Project, discussing and synthesising emerging themes. 

At Snook, we published Ness Wright’s Principles for sustainable design last year and they’ve been shared widely – including in the Design Council’s Beyond Net-Zero. They were the foundation of how we started to discuss the UCD’s practice at Defra – forming a useful starting point to look at what they’re already doing, what more then can do and how to get from here to where we’d all like to be in terms of the Government delivering on promises to meet climate goals. 

The UCD team at Defra are creating a community of practice centred on Planet Centred Design and connecting the dots through their colleagues to other communities working in this area. They are a strong team of smart thinkers who are ready to put their learnings into action. 

“Feel the feelings, let them shake you to your core, and then channel them into positive action.”

Natalie Fee, 2019 How to Save the World For Free

Designers assemble!

We are in a time of disruption. We realise that can be scary, the scale is daunting and needs the backing of governments across the world. But as individuals, communities and teams we do have the power to make change if we work together. 

Through working with Defra we saw the incredible work they have already been doing and could discuss and build on new ways of thinking. Working with them was just a start. We want to continue to develop our practice, update and add to principles as we learn and mainly – share what we find.

Through shared communities of practice, learning and evolving designing together, supporting each other to do better, be better, hold each other to account and make designing with the planet as a client business as usual. 

If you’d like to work together on embedding planet-centred design in your organisation, and building on our principles together get in touch.

Let’s start redressing the balance of what design’s done to get us into this mess by designing a way out of it. 


Written by Tash Willcocks and the Thriving Planet team


30 Sep 2021


  • Climate Change
  • Government


  • Training