by Marc Stoiber
I believe design is key to building a futureproof brand.
It bridges cultural divides and invites new users; it lowers our
confusion and trepidation around technology; and, hey, it makes us
feel like we're moving civilization forward, even if that progress
comes dressed as a new phone or blender.
Having led a green brand agency for five years, I was always
intrigued by design's shifting relationship with sustainability. It
was my experience that green couldn't be the driving design
consideration if you wanted to create products that would sell. But
ignoring green as a design consideration was recipe for irrelevance
in today's market.
A short time ago, I chatted with Chris Sherwin, Head of
Sustainability at leading design and innovation consultancy
Seymourpowell, about the green balancing act in design. Had the
relationship shifted, or found more stable ground?
"Green is rapidly becoming a de rigeur
part of every design job we do. I see this whole confusing issue of
green vs. not-green simply becoming a thing of the past. In
five years, we want green to be integral to every project we
do." Chris Sherwin, Head of Sustainability,
One look at his company's website reveals projects
that are both flagrantly green, as well as more subtle in their
sustainability. Sherwin himself reveals that design's role in
sustainability is a tricky one.
"We think sustainability is hard to sell as a lead proposition,"
says Sherwin. "But, our philosophy is to make things better. And
sustainability can definitely be woven in as an element of
My own work with big clients backs Sherwin's thinking. More and
more, I'm seeing large consumer-facing corporations create brands
that have green credibility, without overtly trumpeting those green
credentials. To them, green is definitely "better," even if -- for
their own reasons -- they prefer to keep it out of the
As Sherwin says, "Our clients are getting much better when it
comes to sustainability in operations, supply chain and governance.
What they want now is sustainability in brand, product and business
model innovation. After all, brands are what they sell -- and
sustainability can give those brands a marketing edge."
Green, Green, Go Away
Sherwin believes that all this talk of green/not-green design
will soon go away.
"Green is rapidly becoming a de rigeur part of every design job
we do. I see this whole confusing issue of green vs. not-green
simply becoming a thing of the past. In five years, we want green
to be integral to every project we do."
That, however, still leaves room for green to be a brand
advantage. As all brands incorporate green into their design by
degrees, those with a "sustainability first" agenda will -- by
nature of the rapid pace of green innovation -- continue to create
projects as distinctive as Seymourpowell's fuel-cell motorcycle. What's more, if green
standards such as LEED are seen as precedent, the bar for
"acceptable" green will continue to rise, forcing engineers and
designers to constantly push the envelope.
The Next Frontier -- Designing Social
Sherwin believes design has an important role to play in making
the everyday things we buy and use greener and more sustainable.
But, he sees the true power of design in creating sustainability
breakthroughs and social innovation.
"Design is a human-centric endeavor, unlike engineering," says
Sherwin. "It can tap into the emotions, inspiring people to make
their world better. And, it can make it easier for people to
collaborate, accelerating that change for the better."
One need look no further than the concepts like open innovation and the
creative commons to see how people can be inspired, and
accelerated, in their creativity by well-designed collaboration
As Ezio Manzini, design strategist and leading
expert on sustainable design, says, "What most interests me is
catalyzing the most abundant resource we have on the planet, which
are our human capabilities. The planet is very rich with potential
intelligent operators. What does it mean to enable all the
potentialities of so many intelligent people?"
Lessons For Futureproofers:
1. Insight first, design second. As Chris Sherwin
says, green needs to be a design consideration. But, it's difficult
today to lead with green. Consumers need to be acclimatized to it.
Can your consumer handle a "sustainability first" brand, or is it a
bridge too far?
2. No green? No way. Sustainability, even if it
isn't in the spotlight, is necessary if your brand wants to survive
in a market where consumers are enabled and vigilant about green.
And it better be legitimate, if you don't want to end up getting
the wrong kind of attention.
3. Enable your consumers to innovate with your
design. Design can only create brands that save the world if
it taps into the creativity of our greatest resource -- people.
Build consumer usage and consumption changes into the product
design itself -- rather than simply putting out messages of change.
That's means low-flow showers, not "turn off the tap" campaigns;
electric cars, not eco-driving training. Consumers will give you
credit if you give the tools.
This article first appeared in Huffington Post and is reprinted here with the
kind permisson of the author. Marc Stoiber is a
creative director, writer, innovator and green brand specialist. He
consults with clients across North America. He also speaks and
blogs extensively on trends that will influence the destiny of
today's brands. View all posts by Marc Stoiber