In the summer of 2018, we published a blog, Our world is getting warmer’, to sound the alarm on the climate crisis and explore how design skills can help. We decided to revisit it and share what we’ve learned since then.

We’ve had the most learnings and success with ‘Make the sustainable thing the best thing’. We’ve won new projects with exciting clients who are passionate about their sustainable product or organisation, and had the opportunity to put our skills into practice.

Our work with start-up SNTech will always be a standout. They had a technically brilliant product that helps reduce bycatch – the unwanted fish and other marine creatures caught in nets while fishing for a different species. But they hadn’t designed it to meet the needs of those working on commercial fishing boats. Working with fisherfolk, we co-designed a service to wrap around the physical product to support the adoption of its use. Pisces is now on the market. It enables precision fishing to reduce bycatch by up to 90%. SNTech are promoting their product as one that is “designed with fishers, for fishers”, an original principle of our work.

Having the chance to work on projects with potential for a positive environmental impact has been invaluable. It gives us hope, purpose and focus. And it’s helped attract talented new team members to Snook who share our vision and values.

However, we’ve come across challenges with legitimising the role of design in the climate space and know there are places we need to improve our internal environmental practices too. So we decided to revisit the blog and share what we’ve learned since first writing it.

Make the sustainable thing the best thing – 5 things we’ve learned so far:

1. It’s not enough for something just to be sustainable. 

Products or services need to have other compelling features beyond sustainability for people to want to use them. To be worth the hassle of switching from an existing set-up, things must be able to compete on qualities such as cost, ease, speed, simplicity, aesthetics and service quality. 

For example, through our work with EGG Lighting to design a circular economy service for remanufactured lighting, customers told us that EGG Lighting’s new offer must be equal to and not less than the traditional manufactured goods. For a customer to take the risk of switching lighting suppliers and persuading their boss this is the right decision, the offer must help the client solve additional problems.

This finding has been consistent in our projects across different sectors and confirmed the research insights from a previous project I was involved in to introduce low carbon transport and energy solutions in European cities

2. Design beyond convenience. 

Of course, convenience is important to build into any service or product. People are unlikely to adopt a sustainable product or become loyal customers if it’s inconvenient to use. 

For example, our work co-designing a community food growing scheme in Dundee with James Hutton Limited highlighted the importance of making it easy for new growers to have success with their first crop. Without this, drop-out rates were high.

However, there are environmental limits to how much an organisation can compete on convenience. Evidence shows that options like same-day delivery tend to require high energy input and human stress to achieve. Trying to compete on convenience is likely to lead to a downward race and erosion of standards. Systems thinker, Donella Meadows describes this as the Escalation trap, where trying to beat a competitor leads to a spiral of increased competition until something or someone breaks. The way to avoid this is to refuse to compete on those terms and instead offer other incentives to choose a different option. 

Good service design and experience are compelling features that can outrank convenience. Designing a good support service that helps businesses recycle and remanufacture their products rather than sending things to landfill after one use is something we should be advocating for as designers. We need to help our clients build service offerings that outrank convenience.

3. Balancing current and future user needs. 

We’ve written before about the problem of designing for current user needs when the resulting solutions are likely to increase climate change.

With ‘make the sustainable thing the best thing’, we learnt that the dilemma is the opposite way round. We understand what the sustainable thing is. We have evidence it will help meet fundamental future user needs. But we don’t know if it meets current user needs well. 

When the sustainable thing doesn’t exist in the present it can be hard to collect reliable evidence from user research into the likelihood of future uptake.

This was especially relevant in research we conducted to explore the introduction of heat networks recently. By comparing people’s experiences of traditional gas and electricity services with the possible features of future services, we gained an understanding of what people value, what service features we would need to match and where there were opportunities to go beyond.

For our research with EGG Lighting, we used prototypes to observe how people respond to early concepts and asked participants about analogous examples in the present to understand how they may act in reality.

We’ve found that highlighting both the current and future user needs is an important place to start, to spot solutions that meet both or transition from one to the other. 

We are increasingly using trend data to investigate future user needs and motivations and we’re more consciously applying ways to evaluate the unintended consequences of our designs. 

If sustainability is going to be a top priority for customers or a government standard in five years time, then we need to design for future user needs more intentionally in our work.

4. Perception of design, from the outside. 

We’re also learning about the wider role of design in confronting the climate crisis and how the design industry is seen by others. Many of the climate-related organisations we want to be working with are not familiar with design thinking or user-centred design. 

Design can be seen as a ‘nice to have’ with small budgets, and it’s often the first thing to be cut. Yet design has an important role to play in ensuring sustainable solutions are based on a solid foundation of evidence and user needs, rather than assumptions. This helps avoid wasting time and money building services and products that no one wants to use or that make the problem worse. For example, we did a discovery on consultation tools with GDS that concluded it made sense for departments to use an existing tool that meets their needs rather than building a new consultation tool from scratch.

We need to work together across the design industry to better communicate the benefits of design so we can collectively transform entrenched sectors like energy and transport. 

Potential clients need to understand what they are buying, what it costs and the value it will bring to their organisation now and in the future.

As we grow Snook’s portfolio, we hope to demonstrate how the application of design can not only help get products to market but also ensure they work brilliantly for people and planet. 

5. Funding is crucial for experimentation. 

To overcome the risks of trying a new approach, it is vital that organisations have access to funding for pilot projects that bring together the design industry and sectors owning environmental challenges and solutions. 

Our projects with SNTech, James Hutton Limited and EGG Lighting were all made possible thanks to Innovate UK funding that de-risked new collaborations between businesses and design.

To quote Elvis, we need a little less conversation, a little more action, please.

Where there is already plenty of research into the potential benefits of a solution, such as the circular economy, we need to direct funding into real-world experiments. 

We need funding opportunities that enable collaboration between industry, academia and design, so that designers can help build live prototypes that are rapidly tested and iterated with people. So that we develop working solutions in real-life contexts.

This is a call to action

Climate is without a doubt the design challenge of our time. Its complex, systemic dynamics mean it’s not enough for us to just speak about things, but we need to do and show and tell the world what is possible.

There is so much work to do to enable the transitions between where we are now and the visioning of where we could be, that others like the Design Council, Cassie Robinson, H3 Uni and Rob Hopkins are leading. We are increasingly seeing the role of design as that bridge, but we can’t (and don’t want to!) do this alone.

For everyone reading this far, there is a role you can play and an action you can take. To build the collaborations and experiments that we want to see in the world, we need to:

  • Work openly to share learnings and examples of how design can help
  • Start conversations about this within our spheres of influence
  • Go upstream to funding sources and campaign for considerably higher levels of investment to de-risk design and experimentation
  • Continue building bridges to other sectors and take the rest of the design industry with us

Using design to make the sustainable thing the best thing was the easiest place to start. It applies our existing skills to new topics, but we are also working on making our design processes more sustainable as well as improving our internal operations. This takes more time as it requires new skills beyond design. 

It’s important to acknowledge we are all still learning, as the climate crisis is a new situation for humanity that we’re all navigating for the first time. And no one is an expert at designing within that, yet. Let’s continue to explore the intersection of design and sustainability with enthusiasm and urgency. 

Get in touch with us if you want to work together to make the sustainable thing the best thing

written by Ness Wright. Also available on Medium