Design can have a profound impact on society, but often designers don’t think about this. And if we design with intent, it can have an even bigger impact. Particularly human-centered designers, whose design process centers the end-user or, as you’d expect, the human. When the products or solutions you design revolve around user needs so inherently, it’s easy to be so focused on the end-user that you disregard the impact it could have on the planet in parallel.
Designers aren’t usually the first port of call when thinking about social impact. But designers have adopted ways of thinking that can influence and change the behaviors of those who interact with their designs. Indeed, the very principles of design thinking are grounded in psychology, with designers utilizing theories of cognitive psychology to create intuitive solutions for human use. This, then, makes designers uniquely positioned to make a difference. In the way a solution functions, how a user interacts with it, and what effect this can have on society as a whole.
What Is Design And How Can It Impact Society?
But first, what is design itself? There is artistic design, which is self-expressive and emotional. Then there is solution-driven design, which aims to identify needs, ideate solutions, and solve problems. This form of design is purposeful, often resulting in the design of products that will be used by humans. This is the type of design I’ll be referring to in this post. And don’t worry, this isn’t a call-out post – I, myself, am primarily a solution-driven designer.
When building products that directly affect people’s behavior, simply designing beautiful systems is not enough. When building products with the end goal of human interaction, the user experience doesn’t end with someone using the product. It extends beyond that. It has the potential to become built into our library of experiences we recall upon to make decisions and navigate through life on a daily basis.
Think about the design of social media platforms. They have no doubt had a profound effect on society. It’s most definitely up for debate whether the overall effect has been a positive or negative one. But there’s no arguing that their design has shaped our behaviors and changed the way we think. At a more scaled-down level, a design as simple as painted lines on a pathway has the power to shape the path we take as we walk.
So, when designing products that we hope will be used by millions of people each day and have the power to influence their decisions, designers shouldn’t get to opt out of social responsibility. Particularly at a time when we face a climate crisis worse than ever, the planet needs us to start thinking beyond human needs and push ourselves to encourage sustainable behaviours.
Enabling Progress Through Design
As designers, we have the ability to enable progress. We have the ability to design with intent, a discipline aimed particularly at socially and environmentally beneficial behavior change. There are three questions to consider when designing a product or solution:
- What are we designing and why?
- By using our product or solution, will people be helping or hurting the environment?
- If it isn’t helping or doesn’t have a direct effect on the environment, can we give the users a way to do what they want in a greener, or less harmful way?
The last question is particularly interesting to me. Like with everything in life, there’s a lot of nuances to consider while designing with intent. Perhaps the product you’re designing genuinely doesn’t seem to affect society or the environment in a way that you can think of, but can you push it further and help your users adopt greener behaviors through your product? By asking these questions, we’re already pushing ourselves to think about the larger impact of design, rather than being complacent and complicit in the climate crisis.
This particular quote on the topic resonated with me:
“With every new product we share with the world, we need to consider the long-run effect on society. So why shouldn’t we use this to our advantage and push people towards an end-goal which is ethical and good for us all?”– Jan Hellemans
Maitree: A Example of Designing With Intent
This is what was on my and my co-founder’s mind when we founded Maitree, a sustainable platform for buying eco-friendly gifts. Consumerism is a much-debated concept. Many people taking the stance that buying more than necessary is simply not good for the environment. And we get that. But during COVID-19, we felt the pain of not being able to celebrate our loved ones’ special events due to lockdown restrictions. More than ever, we found ourselves wanting to connect with our loved ones. One of these ways was to let them know we were thinking of them through gifts we knew they’d love.
As we began to adopt more sustainable practices in our own lives, we become increasingly aware of the lack of options for eco-friendly gifts. Whilst there are plenty of promising options out there for purchasing eco-friendly everyday items for ourselves, we struggled to find suitable, sustainable gifts.
We’re realists. We believe in celebrating the good in our lives and we believe that consumerism doesn’t have to be bad. Period. if more of us are working to make it sustainable. We thus connected our desire to celebrate meaningful relationships with our desire to live more sustainable lifestyles and positively impact the environment.
So, we designed Maitree, a marketplace for sustainable gifts and treats for yourself or your loved ones.
We aren’t encouraging you to swap out all your plastic items for eco-friendly options, but rather providing a place where you don’t have to feel bad about treating your loved ones, or yourself. Too often we are told as consumers that our choices are harmful. But more often there are simply not enough sustainable options for us to choose from. We want to change that. Our ultimate vision is to place sustainability at the forefront of all celebrations.
Sustainable Consumption And Production Patterns
Our values align with the United Nation’s goal of ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. We carefully vet our suppliers to ensure their products uphold our values. As well, we recognize the importance of supporting small businesses. We make an effort to ensure our products are supplied by small businesses that are working to create the change we need to see.
It may not be the most innovative solution to combat climate change, but we designed our platform to change people’s natural, everyday behaviors. We all want to celebrate the good in our lives. So, we designed a platform where you don’t have to feel bad about doing so. We aim to facilitate conscious consumerism through design.
The next time you’re designing a product or platform, take a minute to think about what you can do to facilitate sustainable behaviors through your design decisions. The design with intent toolkit is a free resource that acts as a great starting point.
As designers, we can all collectively have a positive impact on the Earth by designing with a little more intent.
Images from Unsplash