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winning entry, student essay competition 2010

 Elle Tweedy

Elle Tweedy writes:

"I'm a 22 year old Product Design student from Sussex University. I have just completed a year in industry with the Ecodesign Centre in Cardiff where I developed a keen interest in design for behaviour change. I hope to pursue this area of design in my final year project next year".

Elle's essay:

pdf version

“Learning to live sustainably - How Can Product Design Contribute?”


Everyday we come into contact, and depend on, hundreds of products. Product design prides itself in ‘solving problems’ and ‘improving lives’ through means of tangible artefacts. Unfortunately designers have done their fair share to the contrary in recent years and these artefacts are increasingly evolving into beautiful pieces of waste. 98% of products are thrown away within the first 6 months of purchase (Datschefski, 2004). There is a lack of knowledge and understanding concerning design for sustainability and the impacts every design decision has socially, environmentally and economically. Product designers need to become aware of what they are doing, not only to the world, but to each other. We must face up to macro issues such as climate change, over-consumption, poverty, population growth and human health. Although many impact assessment tools and sustainability strategies exist, I feel they are not explored fully in design education. In my experience, students are tackling sustainability problems with little confidence or conviction. Traditional design teaching must change in order for us to learn to design sustainably to benefit society. We, as product designers, have created this unsustainable world, now we have a responsibility to learn to put it right.


It should be the role of product designers to help redesign our environment to make sustainable practices more viable. Designers are directly positioned to contribute to the alleviation of sustainability issues (e.g. premature obsolescence), while simultaneously locking-in positive features and attributes (e.g. energy efficiency). Responsible design should be used to shape the way we live, for betterment and sustainability.

“Designed artefacts shape and are shaped by the contexts in which they are used” (Ingram J, 2007)

To achieve this type of design, literacy in sustainability and design thinking should be embedded into design education, with facilitation starting as early as possible. ’We have to learn our way out of current social and environmental problems’ (UNESCO). It is crucial that product designers are taught a holistic approach to design and realise that every design decision they make multiplies with mass-production and exerts an influence and/or responsibility issue of some kind.

image for Elle Tweedy essay

Change Agents

Product designers have the capabilities to anticipate consumer behaviour and have a powerful influence on how they consume and use products. When used intelligently, influencing behaviour change can contribute to climate change lessening and product design is a powerful tool to achieve this (Pettersen, 2009). Products can elevate the likelihood of certain choices and shape certain kinds of behaviour. This type of design, known as design for sustainable behaviour, makes use of choice architects and psychological heuristics to motivate and enable positive behaviour. Sustainable behaviour is often as simple as making sure people use a system effectively; hence relating directly with usability and user decision-making. How and why do people decide to use systems in a particular way? For example, the ‘status quo bias’ indicates that people have a strong tendency to go along with default options (Thaler, 2009). Therefore, washing machines and dishwashers could be designed so that the ‘eco’ cycle is the default setting, leading to beneficial energy saving effects. This persuasive design is a non-coercive approach that tries to induce sustainable living through a product’s design: a nudge in the right direction.

Visualising instant feedback to inform the consumer of how much energy they are using is another persuasive approach to sustainable living. As energy is mostly invisible, we are not always aware of it. Our visual dependence is a barrier for behavioural change; if we can’t see it, it can’t hurt us. Thus, by visualising energy and energy usage the designer can supply consumers with knowledge and understanding of the positive and negative outcomes of their behaviour. We cannot expect consumers to embrace sustainable products until they understand the consequences that these built artefacts have on the world. 

Finally, one of the biggest sustainability problems is our throwaway culture. Cheap, ephemeral products are exacerbating our disposing tendencies, leading to over-consumption (e.g. fast fashion). This is encouraged by a plethora of ‘poorly deigned products with unwanted solutions and unfriendly materials’ (David Carlson, 2010). Designers must consider how and where their products are being made, to meet our unsustainable consuming habits. Ethical and social issues such as child labour and exploitation in developing countries need to be addressed. Can society afford to buy these cheap things? To encourage people to ‘love what they own’ a new sensibility approach must occur within design. Affectivity and emotional durability must once again be built into products. Products should be able to grow with the user, gaining value and meaning. They should tell a story and collect memories, like an old leather armchair does. Products, such as cars, could also be designed so consumers can upgrade and change different parts of it, to better fit their desires and needs: ergonomically and functionally. This will aid resourcefulness of everyday citizens and empower them to repair, redesign and reuse. Design to reignite our love of tinkering and encourage sustainable consumption.


In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.’ (Dioum)

From my personal experiences at university and my exploration into this topic, I believe that the facilitation of knowledge in design education is paramount to ensuring that product designers help society to live more sustainably. Product design is a fundamental driver to help redesign our environment to make sustainable practices more viable. Sustainable behaviour can be induced by intelligent products. Then again, we need the correct education and as early as possible to achieve this. The majority of unsustainable impacts can be locked-out at the design stage, if we know how. We must learn to empower consumers to live more sustainably through our products. Ultimately, products designers should aim to influence user behaviour in a positive way and solve problems with a true need and value. It is no good designing objects based on the existing behaviours/intents of the user, if these are creating our current sustainability problems.


Datschefski, E. (2004.). Bio Thinking. Retrieved March 24, 2010, from The Total Beauty of Sustainable Products:

David Carlson, B. R. (2010). Time to Rethink Design. David Report. 1

Dioum, B. (n.d.). Senegalese Environmentalist. Retrieved March 24, 2010, from

Ingram J, S. E. (2007). Products and Practices: Selected Concepts from Science and Technology Studies and from Social Theories of Comsumption and Practice.

Pettersen, I. N. (2009). Framing the role of technology in transformation of consumption practices: beyond user-product interaction. 1.

Thaler, S. &. (2009). Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. Penguin Books. 8 - 9

UNESCO. (n.d.). UNESCO: Education for Sustainable Education. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation:

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