The ‘Sustainable Design Compass’

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As Seymourpowell launches a tool and publication to help designers and the wider design community to navigate a route to sustainability Chris Sherwin looks back to his early sustainable design days
I left art school in the mid 90s with a Masters in Product Design, a passion for sustainability and a desire not to fill the world with more meaningless stuff.

Despite my youthful energy and enthusiasm, I wasn’t actually able or confident to do a ‘real’ project until about three years afterwards. Was this laziness or procrastination on my part? Neither really: the challenges of sustainability just seemed so monumental to me that I was left feeling paralysed and lost.

The need to redesign and rethink pretty much everything meant that no single intervention ever seemed enough.

In the end I managed to find that ‘macromicro’ balance, in a project with Electrolux, working with its design teams on designs for the eco-kitchen of the future. This really helped get me started down the right path.

I’d finally discovered what is really pretty obvious now; that your essential ingredients for a successful project require a helicopter/systems/holistic view to orientate yourself; as well as a clear focus or ‘brief’ to solve a tangible, manageable problem, effectively designing a piece of that system.

My own personal journey illustrates just how tricky it can be for designers to get on track on sustainability. Faced with such a momentous transformation, where do you even start?

If that all sounds pretty familiar, we had you very much in mind when producing The Sustainable Design Compass — a tool that unpacks the many faces and approaches of designing for sustainability.


The need for business and society to move to a more sustainable world is increasingly clear and accepted; the role of design within that transition is not.

Wrapped up in a publication rather appropriately titled ‘Many Routes One Destination’, we explore the various ways designers can and must help build a sustainable future.

Its conception was sparked by my own frustration with a lack of real progress on sustainable design, with the design community being slow to recognise the responsibilities and opportunities that sustainability presents.

Yet rather than exploring a single sustainable design challenge, like integrating lifecycle assessment tools into design; or a specific approach, like designing for the circular economy, we were keen to map the world of sustainable design in its totality.

Sustainability is a multi-dimensional concept, and design practice is similarly diverse too, so navigating your way through this complexity can be a real headache.

We’re convinced the richness of design should be applied across the whole gamut of sustainability areas, from big to small improvements, from societal to technical problems.

The tool and publication present a series of six different and distinctive ‘routes’ that designers can follow on sustainability, which are:

1. Sustainability in all design in which sustainability is integrated as a factor in every projects and briefs, 100 per cent of the time, simply becoming part of what constitutes good design

2. Cleantech by design in which designers help to humanise and commercialise new green and clean technologies, so that they scale up and succeed

3. Design for sustainable behaviourswhere designers make sustainable behaviours and actions easier and more desirable for people

4. Social innovation where design is driven by the ‘real’ problems and needs of people and the planet

5. New design models in which designers embraces the new sustainability skills and working practices required for sustainability, such as biomimicry or ecological design

6. Creating Design Visions where designers create imaginative future visions of how a sustainable world would be better, that inspire rather than scare or depress people.

Interestingly, the Electrolux Eco-kitchen project used this sixth route, where we designed seven sustainable kitchen concepts for the future that would save water, reduce energy consumption, reduce food
waste, all using emerging green technology and consumer behaviour.

We found that kicking-off sustainable design with a concept design project really helped free us from the constraints of today’s short-term commercial realities, giving us the space to learn, experiment and grow on sustainable design.

Embracing just some of the above routes would mean designers have a crucial role to play in delivering a more sustainable world.

The Sustainable Design Compass maps out a sustainability route that works for you, your strengths and skills. It presents a series of discreet pathways designers can follow on sustainability that can work for individual designers and the wider design community too.

If sustainability is a destination, then designers will need a tool to help get us all there. Check out our compass for sustainable design and let’s start charting a course to sustainability.

Seymourowell launches tool to help designers navigate to sustainability

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