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Product Design Principles to Address Climate Change

28 August 2019

Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical in the truest sense.
—Victor J. Papanak, 1971

The term resilience originated in math and physics and refers to returning to an equilibrium state following a disturbance. Experts in the fields of planetary health and climate recognize that the environment is always changing. They define resilience as renewal and reorganization rather than returning to a stable state.

The earth’s climate is changing. In the last 50 years, most of the warming has been caused by greenhouse gases from humans. As designers, we envision futures, anticipate needs, and create products and services that impact the world. Designers create change — and we have the power and the ability to slow and mitigate climate change. We will change the trajectory of global warming if more products are designed for resilience. We must start immediately.

As part of this work, we surveyed 25 product designers across seven countries representing Africa, Asia, North America, and Europe. About half of the designers think about the impact of their work on climate and the environment “all the time”, or “often” — yet only three reported that their companies had any policies around design for resilience or sustainability.

Sustainability, however, is different than resilience — and it is an important distinction.

Sustainability implies continuity, something that is replenishable or can never run out — like sunlight. Resilience is the ability to bounce back after a challenge or disaster. Sustainability’s starting place is a functioning system that will ideally be maintained and improved. Resilience’s starting place is often with a disaster, the response, how we as a society adapt for now and the future.

Over the last 50+ years, product design has seen significant improvements to process and practice to minimize impact on our planet. Many of us are familiar with the excellent work by organizations like Cradle2Cradle, Fairtrade, Forest Stewardship Council and others to set out product specifications and criteria for sustainability. Yet, as a community, we lack a broad set of principles.

Our proposed set of principles is not a how-to. An extension of this work is much needed. For example, the most frequent request we had from designers was a compilation of design tools for resiliency and advice for implementation: How do we turn these principles into practice? And how do I stand firm in the face of financial and business challenges to resiliency?

These principles are statements of belief to lead strategy and tools. We were inspired by the work of architects, who have been at the forefront of developing and implementing principles and tools for the changing climate and natural world.

We, product design practitioners, must be the ones to articulate resilient design principles for climate change. Design in practice is messy. Every day we make difficult trade-offs weighing future benefits against immediate returns, balancing good for people relative to good for the environment, and profits relative to impact. This is an overdue — and possibly difficult — conversation, and our hope is that it is the beginning.

Resilient Design Principles

  1. Resilient systems balance basic human needs with those of the planet. Design for resilience is inherently user-centered, recognizing the users’ dignity, diversity, and the environment. Basic human needs include nutrition, clothing and shelter, sanitation, education, healthcare, and connection with others. Social equity, diversity, and community build resilience. Humans, like all living beings, are interconnected. Climate change will disproportionately affect the world’s poorest, exacerbating existing challenges. Design that promotes equitable distribution of resources to meet human needs minimizes vulnerabilities and reduces environmental loss. Design that supports respect and more diverse ecosystems, economies, and voices in decision-making better strengthens global communities to adapt and respond to interruptions or change.

  2. Design for resilience encompasses the design process, the product’s life cycle, and downstream global effects. We view design broadly from need identification through product usage, the varied contexts in which the product is used, its impact on the users and the world, and ultimately the product’s end of life and environmental impact. We consider external system disruptions to our work, such as intense weather changes, greater economic inequality, pandemics, and physical and cybersecurity. Designers, to the best of our ability, will assess the impact of our choices, and where there are negative implications, seek alternatives or mitigate them. Using reclaimed materials, resource-efficient processes, and sustainable sources of energy are more resilient. The ultimate goal of resiliency is that resources are reused, as in nature. We prioritize sustainable inputs and those that require less energy usage. We recognize that a product’s intended benefits have a finite life, and design for reuse by considering how a product might be reconfigured for new benefits or as inputs. Resilience minimizes waste and seeks responsible disposal.Where recovery or reuse is not possible, we seek to minimize disposal of products, packaging, and system materials to landfills, incinerators, and the ocean.

  3. The principal requirements of resilient products are versatility and durability. Versatile products are relevant with changing user needs and global conditions. Resilient products are designed for intuitive use, compatibility, upgradability, ease of maintenance, variability, reconfiguration, and repair. Simple products are often the most versatile. Durable products transcend time by offering long-term value to users. Products that recognize the dignity of the user are valued, handled with greater care, and repaired. Durability also encompasses the business model: planned and psychological obsolescence, single-use products or components, and market-driven (rather than user-driven) features are inconsistent with design for resilience.

  4. Total resilience is not realistic, yet we act with urgency. We embrace cumulative progress and understand there are significant challenges in achieving complete resilience with the reality of daily tradeoffs. We do all we can at present, and build momentum.

  5. Sharing best practices and encouraging transparency will accelerate design for resilience. Collaboration will drive greater cost and resource efficiency, as well as new standards, policies, and tools for resiliency. By strengthening the knowledge and practice of design, we build a greater future for life, our planet, and the generations of tomorrow. We commit to educating — to the best of our abilities — ourselves, decision-makers, and users on the planetary impact of design decisions, and offer options with greater resiliency. As designers, we will adapt these principles to our own areas of practice and expertise, strengthening them, while advocating beyond our professional communities. We are in a position to educate others as to why design for resilience is critical now at this point in history. The movement toward change must come from many. Many designers are already practicing resilient design, and we thank you and hope you will continue your leadership. You are the future of our practice.


These principles are the result of sharing and collaboration of design practitioners across many fields. Many contributed key opinions, expertise, resources, and learnings — this work is a product of collective, not individuals. Thank you to the following: Peter Russo, Montana Cherney, Noel Ekker, Shilpa Das, Elise DeVries, Maria Giudice, Anders Haug, Marcus Heneen, Amina Horozić, Pushkar Ingale, Seph Lang, Anton Ljunggren, Martin Lukac, Patrice Martin, Jake Moritz, Samuel Murekefu, Luan Nio, Payan ole-Moiyoi, Robin Parrish, Kyle Reis, Tara Ramanathan, James Sommerville, Jim Taylor, Casey Trubo, Simon Wachira, and the Autodesk Foundation. Many thanks also to Shelly Helgeson and Andy Goodman for their invaluable contributions. We also want to acknowledge the work and leadership of the Resilient Design Institute who articulated principles for resilient architecture which inspired many of us. There are many designers and environmentalists, too many to articulate, whose critical work on which we have built our fledgling design for resiliency movement. Krista Donaldson, Ph.D. is CEO of Equalize Health (formerly Equalize Health (formerly D-Rev)), a non-profit company that creates medical technology for everyone.


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