Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

How Sustainable Thinking Can Change Design

By Terry Swack on May 9, 2009

This article and podcast interview with Sustainable Minds co-founder Terry Swack was conducted by Jonathan Bardelline and published April 16, 2009.

Greener design methods hold a world of possibilities for businesses, from saving a bit of money on materials to developing completely new products, packaging and distribution methods. They also have the potential to change how designers learn, how they think about projects and, on a larger scale, alter designers' careers.

Terry Swack, co-founder and CEO of, spoke with GreenBiz Radio about how sustainable design can help companies through the economic downturn and into the future, and where design changes need to be made to have the biggest impact.

Swack will be speaking at's Greener by Design conference May 19-20 in San Francisco.

Jonathan Bardelline: Before we get into talking about Sustainable Minds and Okala, I was wondering what your thoughts are on what effect you see the economy having or might have on sustainable design efforts.

Terry Swack: Well, I actually think that the economy is - has been affected by the extreme environmental impacts that we're seeing now, competition for natural resources, global warming, water issues, etc., etc. All of this has conspired to show up in our economy, and I think that companies are looking inward and reorganizing and thinking about how to move forward, looking at how can they develop competitive advantages that will see them through the economic downturn into a better day, and so they're not necessarily spending money on sales and marketing, but they are spending money on R&D and special development of those workers they have retained, and looking at environmental sustainability and greener products is well understood as being a viable path for the future.

JB: Along with that issue we see a lot - sometimes in some cases going greener sometimes has an additional cost upfront, but a lot of the times, in a lot of instances, it is becoming more and more the more money-saving option or cutting costs or providing some sort of an efficiency, and you're seeing that more within companies and within more design?

TS: It's two sides to the coin. I think efficiency and cost reduction can certainly be an outcome of environmental sustainability or a green design approach. The other side of the coin is new product innovation through environmental sustainability, applying new strategies in new ways that they haven't done before.

Certainly being efficient and reducing waste and all of those reduction strategies are useful and important, but the long-term path out of this economic downturn is through innovation. We're gonna see more and more demand for new kinds of products and services, not only coming from consumers but from companies. So short term, companies may be saving pennies here and there, but by not bringing new competitive, cool products to the marketplace, longer term, they're going to lose market share.

JB: And to get to creating those products, companies have to understand all the issues surrounding sustainability which is something that your site,, is geared towards with your Okala methodology. And could you go over and kind of explain what Okala is and how product designers can use it or use what they learn from it in designing products?

TS: So Okala is both an 18-module curriculum guide as well as a lifecycle assessment methodology. Okala was created by Philip White and two of his colleagues, Louise St. Pierre and Steve Belletire. All three of them are industrial designers as well as professors at various universities.

They developed Okala as a professional development tool for industrial designers and it was first published in 2003 and distributed through the IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) with funding from Whirlpool, Eastman Chemical, the EPA and IDSA. It was then republished in 2007 with updated impact factors, new curriculum and again distributed through the IDSA.

The way that Okala was being used is students, excuse me, faculty and schools around the world were taking modules from the Okala curriculum and incorporating them into their current courses, and that's what was - that is what Okala was designed to do. And then the impact assessment methodology was being taught using a spreadsheet and the impact factors published in the book. It was clear that, you know, here was a whole bunch of knowledge and a methodology that people were using that looked like a perfect opportunity to add technology to scale that knowledge and that methodology to get it out there to a broader population.

So, Okala, as I mentioned, is a lifecycle assessment methodology and what it enables design teams to do is look at the overall product system or the product lifecycle of a product and be able to estimate what the potential impacts would be across the entire product system of products that they're designing early in the concept stages of design.

And the reason that it's important to be able to estimate or model environmental impacts early in the concept stage - and here's the financial argument for all the businesspeople - is that 80 percent of the manufacturing costs of a product are committed in the concept stage. You pretty much know what you're going to make by the time you get in detailed design and everyone knows that making changes when you're at that stage can be costly and create delays. Those same decisions about manufacturing lock in the environmental performance of a product and so if you have no visibility into environmental impacts early on, it's the same challenge. You know, it's too expensive to make those changes later.

So, Okala and Sustainable Minds combined is delivering software to product development teams to enable them to, as I said, model the environmental impacts of products early on so they can see what in their design across the whole product lifecycle is causing impacts, what types of impacts. They can quickly generate “what if” scenarios to see if we make changes how it impacts or how it reduces those environmental impacts to meet environmental performance goals.

JB: Okay. That was one of the issues I was curious about because there are so many issues involved in sustainable design and green design from recycled content materials to the recyclability of items, their weight, how energy efficient they are. I was wondering, you know, your thoughts on how do companies get involved with these issues without being overwhelmed or without focusing on the wrong area, and so what you're saying then is Okala tells them, “Here's where all your impacts are,” and then they can easily see where the most important ones are, at least see what different areas they're affecting the most.

TS: Yes, that's exactly right. So Okala, really we refer to it as the science inside Sustainable Minds. Design teams can do a Sustainable Minds LCA, lifecycle assessment, and they can see exactly what in the product system is causing impacts, what types of environmental impacts and what phases of the lifecycle so they can apply new strategies to reduce those impacts.

And so you had mentioned earlier some strategies like energy efficiency or reducing material use. Also, part of Okala is we provide an ecodesign strategy wheel where there is a number of high-level strategies that can be applied in every phase of the product lifecycle with lots of sub-strategies below those. And so using the strategy wheel as a guide or a framework, designers can look at where the impacts are happening and generate new design ideas based on employing those strategies in that lifecycle phase. Because they've never applied those kinds of strategies to the design problem before, this is where the potential for innovation is real.

JB: What are some of those high-level strategies?

TS: We like to say that the first phase of strategies to consider are around innovation with the number one strategy being rather than diving right in to redesign the product that's been in front of you, can you rethink how to provide the benefit of that product? Is the answer to simply redesign that product?

There's a number of innovation strategies that can be considered at the beginning, and then as you step through each lifecycle phase in manufacturing, using low-impact materials and reducing material use, renewable resources, using waste byproducts, recycled strategies, how can manufacturing be optimized, again strategy around waste reduction, energy and production, production methods. Design for disassembly kinda falls into this category where you're looking at the number of components and how those things go together.

Then if you can look at the distribution, there's efficiencies in distribution. You've heard a lot about Wal-Mart's packaging scorecard looking at cube utilization, efficient distribution strategy, so again, looking at packaging, packaging weight, how packaging goes through the transportation system.

When you get into the use phase, how can you consider low impact use by making things either more energy efficient, use fewer other consumables like water, utilizing clean energy or renewable energy resources.

And moving into the next part, looking at optimizing product life time. This is actually something that excites me quite a bit because it's a challenge to undo the culture in place for half a century of planned obsolescence, but how can we actually make things now that not only last longer but that are desirable and valued by users for much longer? I have recently heard people talking about design everything as though it was meant to be an heirloom.

But, you know, there's other ways of thinking about end of life beyond durability and desire. How can we make things that can be maintained and repaired and ultimately when the thing is ready to be thrown away, what do we do with it? Where is away? How do we really optimize end of life in terms of recycling, reuse, safe disposal? And then the whole Cradle-to-Cradle sensibility. Can we take everything from one product and reuse it and upcycle it into something that's more valuable in the next iteration of a product?

So, when design teams can really break the problem down into its component parts, so the whole product system, and new strategies can be brought to bear to address impacts in multiple lifecycle phases, now there's a real interesting opportunity for innovation.

JB: What are the barriers to getting sustainable design thinking more spread out within companies? Is it just the issue of changing the culture of designers? Is it an issue of changing the culture within companies where they encourage designers to start thinking these ways?

TS: Yeah. I think you used just the right word. It's a culture change and it can come from any place. Culture change can start with one individual saying, “Hey, we should do things differently.” And they socialize the idea around and other people say, “Yeah, we should be doing it this way.” And then some other people start doing it that way and they show some other people, and finally somebody gets management involved, and they say, “That makes a lotta sense. Let's start doing it this way.”

Or the other can be top-down. You know, we've seen that happen in a number of companies. You know, change can come from a lot of places. I mean a lot of companies are being driven to change by customers demanding greener products, and then companies looking inward and saying, “What do we do? How do we figure this out?” So a culture change starts in a lot of different places.

JB: And to go back to what you were saying about the idea of heirloom design, that's an issue that I have seen brought up, particularly at the Compostmodern conference here in San Francisco. More designers designing with the idea of heirloom in mind, with the idea of durability would obviously affect, if done on a larger scale, the whole concept of what a designer's career looks like. If you're making fewer products, you're making more products that last longer, obviously you'll have an effect on designers' career. How do you see that eventually evolving and changing?

TS: This is just a continuation of how design has evolved in the last several decades where in large part, design have gone from being a trade or a craft to really being a strategic business initiative and business strategy. And we've seen a lot of companies really embrace design as one of their top strategies. We've seen a lot of schools actually teach design as a strategy, and it just means that there's more for designers to design and the mind shift is from thinking purely about the artifact itself to the product system.

The product doesn't exist outside of the system from where it came from and where it's going. That whole domain now falls into the purview of the designer, and it means that people who haven't been trained to think and work that way have the opportunity to grow and learn new things and provide higher value or strategic services to their clients and to their companies. And those folks who are in school now, I think, are wonderfully positioned to be the first generation of designers who are being taught ecodesign or environmental sustainability as part and parcel of their design training.

So when they get out, they're going to be highly valuable in the marketplace. Economy should be recovered or recovering by then. You know, the analogy that I make is just like back in the late '80s when computing changed the way designers worked. All of the senior designers who had been brought up designing things with paper and writing utensils and physical prototypes had to learn how to use computing tools themselves, but for the most part they looked to the younger practitioners and students coming out of school who'd learned that stuff in school to bring those skills into the workplace. And so it's really kids who are in school now are the ones who will really make the real profound changes that need to happen and it's exciting for them to take that on.

JB: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us and for your thoughts on where sustainable design is and is going and we will see you at Greener by Design.

TS: Looking forward to it. See you there, Jonathan.