Design Thinking and Sustainability: How to Use Design Thinking to Create a More Sustainable Future

The economic environment is continuously evolving, and so are consumer needs. This has led to the design and development of products that are not needed today, contributing to pressing environmental issues. A Columbia Climate School Report in 2020 states that the end-to-end life cycle of consumer goods contributes to more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Victor Papanek, in his famous book “Design for the Real World,” emphasizes product development as the source of environmental unsustainability. Thus, the need for designing to integrate sustainable practices is becoming more urgent to address issues such as climate change, resource scarcity, etc. In short, Design Thinking is essential when solving problems that can impact the future.

What is Design Thinking, and How Do We Use It in Practice?

Design Thinking is a broad term that has various interpretations. It is an innovative approach to solving complex problems. The following constitutes a design thinking process in practice:

1. Human-Centered

Design Thinking places end-users of a product at the center of the process by focusing on what the customers need rather than what they use.

2. Research-Based

Research is essential to get a deep understanding of the end-users who are at the heart of the process. The research activities are also used to solve specific business or design problems.

3. Broader Contextual View

Designing a product by always considering its next larger context, i.e., the broader context, is an essential component of Design Thinking.

4. Collaborative and Multi-Disciplinary

Collaborative approaches and the multi-disciplinary nature of Design Thinking apply not only to the makeup of design teams but also to the activities of including end-users and other stakeholders.

5. Iterative Delivery and Prototyping

Under Design Thinking, a project is divided into iterations which are then prototyped, tested, and refined over time.

Also known as human-centered design, Design Thinking focuses on understanding the audience for whom the products or services are created and providing long-lasting solutions to customer problems. It is a five-step process as given below:

1. Empathize: Learn about the end-user for whom the process is undertaken.

2. Define: Build a viewpoint based on the user’s needs.

3. Ideate: Come up with innovative solutions.

4. Prototype: Create a representation of the idea to present it to others.

5. Test: Test the ideas to get feedback from the original group.

Check out the design thinking programs to create innovative and valuable products.

What is Sustainability?

It is easier to understand sustainability by understanding its opposite, unsustainability. Tony Fry, a design theorist, introduced the term “Defuturing.” It means unsustainable human practices such as carbon emissions and planned obsolescence and works to foreclose on the future. In simpler terms, sustainability is sustaining human lives on the planet.

Over the past few decades, the profit-seeking tendencies of Design Thinking have shown that consumerism is a massive driver of unsustainability because it is believed that it is worth creating any design as long as it satisfies human wants.

Design Thinking and Sustainability

As organizations strive to formulate a purpose-driven structure, sustainability should be the most crucial consideration of a Design Thinking exercise. Various world organizations have emphasized the importance of sustainability considerations through their developmental programs. 

One such program is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where many scenarios have been developed to imagine the world in 2030. The solutions for today’s complex challenges and problems would be effective if designed in a user-centric way. This could be done by engaging the youth, who can be forged with leadership, empathy, ideas, energy, and hope to demand changes.

Other reasons for employing sustainable practices are reputation management, customer relationships, and employee satisfaction. It is also important if the organization wishes to remain relevant in the domestic and international markets.

Design Thinking for a Sustainable Future

 To achieve sustainable outcomes, Design Thinking can contribute in the following ways:

  • Eco-Design

As stated by the Design Council UK, an estimated 80-90% of a product’s life cycle economic and ecological costs have already been incurred by the time design is completed. Eco-design employs various sustainability checks throughout the development phase to measure and reduce the adverse effects of a product on the environment. This includes:

  1. Reducing the materials used to create a product while not compromising on the durability and expected life of the product.
  2. Designing to use materials that have low to no impact on the environment.
  3. Designing products that use fewer resources to operate.
  4. Designing using organic or recyclable materials.
  • Design for Purpose

Functionality matching recommends matching productive activity to user needs and perceived value. User engagement helps under what should or should not be designed and produced. By engaging the users, designers can walk away from ideas that could be more useful to the end users. Iterative delivery and prototyping help in developing products that leads to objective achievement.

  • Designing for Behavior

A significant portion of environmental impacts from products happens during their usage. Often, these impacts are due to unintended user behavior or rebound effects. Unlike eco-design and design for the purpose, which focuses on designing sustainably, design for behavior focuses on influencing user behavior through the features of the product or service to restrict unsustainable practices. Robinson’s 7 Doors model for designing & evaluating behavior change programs in 2004 states four factors for voluntary behavior adoption. They are:

  1. Per-disposing factors
  2. Enabling factors 
  3. Triggering factors
  4. Satisfying factors

Research, especially observational research, helps identify the factors, key barriers, and deficiencies that need to be eliminated. 

  • Systems Design

Hawken, Lovins & Lovins (1999) suggest applying “whole system thinking” to sustainability challenges to enhance the benefits of designs. They recommend integrating different sustainability objectives at every level of the process and society. Product Service Systems(PSS) is a part of systems design that comes from the idea that people’s needs are derived from the benefits obtained from the product or services rather than the product or service itself.


Businesses seeking to achieve competitive advantage and innovation rely more on the designer’s creativity and approach to solving the company’s problems. However, they need help with resource availability and customer value created to achieve the above-mentioned objectives. Design Thinking with sustainable practices is the only way to face and overcome these challenges. A radical implementation of sustainable practices has become important for businesses to survive.

Check out the design thinking course and become a designer who designs with sustainable practices in mind.