Sustainable Design

Your constantly-updated definition of Sustainable Design and collection of videos and articles

What is Sustainable Design?

Sustainable design creates long-term solutions and helps societies ensure the well-being of their people and harmony with the environment for generations.

Designers reduce waste by making products that are recyclable, compostable and even better - endlessly reusable. They might also create a manufacturing process to reduce or remove carbon dioxide emissions. As the most significant challenge of our age, many of these designs relate to environmentalism or combatting climate change.

One of the world’s leading User Experience and design experts, Don Norman, help us understand how to design for a better world. Spoiler alert: sustainability is not enough.

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What Makes a Product Sustainable?

A sustainably designed product or service is one that considers the entire lifecycle of the product during development, from manufacturing to disposal. A truly sustainable design is optimized for reuse.

A physical product might use recycled materials, or be manufactured in a plant that doesn’t use fossil fuels to become more sustainable. After the product is created, it should be useful for a long time. It should be designed in a way so it can be reused or repaired, or biodegrade once it is done being useful.

A sustainable service should provide what the user needs while reducing the use of non-renewable resources. Ride-sharing apps are an example of a service that ultimately reduces the need for every individual to own a car. This has the potential to reduce waste since fewer cars are necessary. Options to carpool can also reduce gasoline use, further increasing the sustainability of the service.

Carsharing services such as GoTo Carsharing seek to reduce car ownership using the Transportation-as-a-Service model.

Carsharing services such as GoTo Carsharing seek to reduce car ownership using the Transportation-as-a-Service model.

© GoTo Mobility, Fair Use

Is Sustainability Enough?

Sustain: To keep things in the current state

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

As important as sustainability is, it’s clear that the effects of climate change are already happening. In that regard “sustainability” is not enough, since that effectively means keeping things the way they are.

We have to stop creating products that create great harm to the planet. We have to create products that can last for a long time and that can be repaired and upgraded when they become outdated or stop working. Alternatively, we can design as nature does. We can design in a way where the waste itself is a valuable substance that can be reused by nature. Think of an orange. It’s protected by the peel (not a plastic wrap). Once we peel the orange the peel will naturally decompose and function as fertilizer for the planet.

What Does This Mean for Digital Products?

User experience designers who work solely on digital products might think sustainability is irrelevant for software or applications. That is somewhat true, but new industries like crypto mining have demonstrated that even purely digital products can have unforeseen ecological impacts.
Designers can develop energy-efficient apps that work on older devices to reduce energy consumption and slow the obsolescence of older devices, which causes more waste.

Dark Mode and Light Mode for Mobile

Dark mode vs. light mode.

© Apple Inc, Fair-Use

Even something as simple as a “dark mode” for the UI of an app can reduce the amount of strain on the battery of a smartphone or tablet, thus reducing energy consumption. If everyone who uses the app uses dark mode, it can have a significant impact.

How Can UX Designers Make a Difference?

Traditionally, UX design has primarily focused on human-computer interactions. However, we can scale up the practices of design thinking, user research, product design and interaction design to even larger projects. Now more than ever, designers are called on to rethink infrastructure, education and transportation to create more sustainable models on a national or even global scale.

Sustainable design processes include reforming energy-efficient infrastructure or designing sustainable buildings for housing.

The founder of User Experience, Don Norman, has coined the term “Humanity-Centered Design” to give a name to this movement and inspire designers to design a better world for all of us.

Learn More About Sustainable Design

If you want to learn more about sustainable design, take our course: Design for a Better World with Don Norman.

Norman, Donald A. Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered. Cambridge, MA, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.

Read more articles and essays by Don Norman on

For an example of a large-scale sustainable design problem, read about the circular economy.

The UN’s 17 Goals for sustainable development

Literature on Sustainable Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on Sustainable Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Sustainable Design

Take a deep dive into Sustainable Design with our course Design for a Better World with Don Norman .

“Because everyone designs, we are all designers, so it is up to all of us to change the world. However, those of us who are professional designers have an even greater responsibility, for professional designers have the training and the knowledge to have a major impact on the lives of people and therefore on the earth.”

— Don Norman, Design for a Better World

Our world is full of complex socio-technical problems:

  • Unsustainable and wasteful practices that cause extreme climate changes such as floods and droughts.

  • Wars that worsen hunger and poverty.

  • Pandemics that disrupt entire economies and cripple healthcare.

  • Widespread misinformation that undermines education.

All these problems are massive and interconnected. They seem daunting, but as you'll see in this course, we can overcome them.

Design for a Better World with Don Norman is taught by cognitive psychologist and computer scientist Don Norman. Widely regarded as the father (and even the grandfather) of user experience, he is the former VP of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group.

Don Norman has constantly advocated the role of design. His book “The Design of Everyday Things” is a masterful introduction to the importance of design in everyday objects. Over the years, his conviction in the larger role of design and designers to solve complex socio-technical problems has only increased.

This course is based on his latest book “Design for a Better World,” released in March 2023. Don Norman urges designers to think about the whole of humanity, not just individual people or small groups.

In lesson 1, you'll learn about the importance of meaningful measurements. Everything around us is artificial, and so are the metrics we use. Don Norman challenges traditional numerical metrics since they do not capture the complexity of human life and the environment. He advocates for alternative measurements alongside traditional ones to truly understand the complete picture.

In lesson 2, you'll learn about and explore multiple examples of sustainability and circular design in practice. In lesson 3, you'll dive into humanity-centered design and learn how to apply incremental modular design to large and complex socio-technical problems.

In lesson 4, you'll discover how designers can facilitate behavior-change, which is crucial to address the world's most significant issues. Finally, in the last lesson, you'll learn how designers can contribute to designing a better world on a practical level and the role of artificial intelligence in the future of design.

Throughout the course, you'll get practical tips to apply in real-life projects. In the "Build Your Case Study" project, you'll step into the field and seek examples of organizations and people who already practice the philosophy and methods you’ll learn in this course.

You'll get step-by-step guidelines to help you identify which organizations and projects genuinely change the world and which are superficial. Most importantly, you'll understand what gaps currently exist and will be able to recommend better ways to implement projects. You will build on your case study in each lesson, so once you have completed the course, you will have an in-depth piece for your portfolio.

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