Sustainable design thinking

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A few of years ago I had a moment of clarity. Working in the retail display industry you create a number of designs that are manufactured and, on average, placed in stores for anything between 2 to 5 years.

What happens to them after that? Are you creating waste into a landfill site or could the displays be recycled?

I know what I would prefer, recycle. I began to work out how I could make a difference to what I was doing everyday.

Why does design matter? As a designer you are in a unique position to influence the products or displays you create. Based on this I set about introducing a simple way of approaching projects that includes sustainable thinking right from the start.


By including sustainability to the considerations you make at the creative stage of the process you can make informed design decisions that set up the right product for end of life recycling, incorporating sustainable materials, aesthetics, brand equity and functionality. Good mix in my opinion.

This is not a new idea. Victor Papanek wrote a complete book on the subject called “Design for the Real World” in 1971. I love this quote as it sums up part of his thinking:


Victor J. Papanek

Dieter Rams in the early 1980’s developed the idea of sustainable design thinking with his ten principles for good design:


One of the principles we have incorporated at displayplan is ‘design for disassembly.’ It is key to the recycling of any product.

What does it mean? Put in simple terms all the materials you choose to use within your design need to be taken apart at the end of its life and placed into recycling streams.

This means simple screw fixings or no fixings or making your design out of one material.

You do not bond, glue or permanently fix different materials together. E.g. do not glue metal to wood or wood to plastic. If you do materials can’t be separated and will be placed into landfill. Waste of resources.

Why is it important? Because it affects people, their lives, and their health.

A really good film illustrating this can be found through the Great Recovery project, launched in September 2012.


Part of the journey and discovery of how we could make a difference grew into LIST. We developed, in conjunction with BRE, FITCH and M&S a tool that can measure the embedded CO2 and Eco Points within the designs we create. We included sustainable design thinking into our company 20 Point Plan. Check out the ‘about’section within our website.

Today good design is sustainable design. Both Papanek and Rams thinking is relevant as we respond to new sustainable trends, pressures and legal drivers. Retailers have targets Sainsbury’s 20×20, M&S Plan A and you as a designer have the ability to help them achieve their targets. Honestly. It is all about including sustainability from the very start.

Our philosophy is to start at the end and work back.

Posted 28-07-14