Designing with Purpose: Strategies for a Sustainable Impact

Mike Elam
June 11, 2024

We live in a world where change is not just possible, it’s required. We’ve enjoyed this world for too long without considering the long-term impacts of our buying decisions. And now the writing is on the wall. We now know change is vital, whether from brands acting responsibly or legislation stepping in and forcing change. As we stand on this precipice, it’s easy to think, we’ll get to it, and kick the can down the road. With such a tough and complex subject it’s no surprise that this happens. Big corporations have dedicated teams - either driven by the requirements of existing or pending European legislation or by good sustainability leadership. But for the thousands of practicing industrial designers and design engineers out there in the consulting world, or in smaller corporations, knowing how and where to make a difference is a real challenge, especially when needing to convince decision-makers, clients, or internal stakeholders, requires some level of subject matter expertise from us.

Knowing how and where to make a difference is a real challenge.

Start Small

Like everything, you learn by having a go. We’re naturally afraid to jump in because we lack knowledge, so we naturally doubt our own ability to affect meaningful change. But we’ll only gain the expertise by taking those first steps and researching the levers to pull for what’s immediately in front of us. For instance, even a material reduction or material change to one that is less resource-intensive can make valuable differences at scale. Tackling the challenge on a component level, as a first step, is also easily done without having to get buy-in from stakeholders. Small wins like this will just serve to lay the foundation for comprehensive and systemic change down the line; and at the right time, roadmaps for moving to more sustainable practices can be introduced on this foundation.

Small wins... will lay the foundation for comprehensive and systemic change down the line.

Designing For End-of-Life

Framing the design and development of a product through the lens of ‘design for end-of-life’ is incredibly useful for reminding us what we’re trying to achieve and informing us of how to get there. It’s an aspect of a product’s life cycle that is almost always completely unmanaged, and so much value is lost because of this. This unmanaged, unfettered process where a consumer either just sends that product to a landfill or sticks it in a drawer is one without accountability or any sense of stewardship of materials or the planet. Helping consumers divert the product away from this linear product flow will trigger consumers to think about their buying choices in the first place. 

Framing the design of a product through the lens of ‘design for end-of-life’ reminds us what we’re trying to achieve and how to get there.


We heard from Ingve Holmung, Head of Design for Sustainability at Logitech, during a San Francisco Design Week 2024 panel that recyclers have ten seconds to get into a product to remove things like batteries before they get the sledgehammer out and break the product open. But what if manufacturers were obliged to take all their products back when a consumer is done with it? Suddenly the manufacturers are incentivized to design for rapid disassembly, they’d also have an instant source for post-consumer recycled materials and, with modularity, even internals that could be reused in other products. They also gain incredibly useful data on common failure points and material performance that could inform subsequent design cycles. Some brands do this already, but it currently tends to be restricted to sectors where the most material value can be retained (Caterpillar Reman, for example). 

The Product-as-a-service business model... is where circularity takes off.

The product-as-a-service business model takes this concept another step further, with consumers never needing to own the product - never needing to think about breakages, repairs, or end-of-life. The product is simply rented from the manufacturer, perhaps even on a pay-per-use basis. This is where circularity takes off. Manufacturers are incentivized to make their products infinitely durable and modular, while still being upgradable to maintain interest from consumers. It’s an area that only some brands have tried, to date (Bugaboo Flex, for strollers for example), and limited mostly to European countries where there’s a great deal more sustainability awareness than in the US, but this has to be the future.

So where do you start? 

We encourage you to talk with your client or stakeholders and see what response you get. We’ve seen so much more awareness and discussion about the issues in the last couple of years, and we think you’ll be surprised how receptive people are now. It’s up to us to start the conversation and to take on that responsibility as a profession. As designers, we are in a unique position, not just to bring attention to the subject, but to start making changes, big or small.

Mike Elam

British-born Mike Elam is an industrial designer and engineer with 25 years of experience in consulting. He’s brought his unique blend of expertise to a diverse range of products throughout his career, including lifesaving infant warming mats for the Third World, solar-powered vaccine refrigerators, power tools, and baby strollers.

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