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How can designers step in to create a more sustainable future?

An introduction to planet-centered design.

This newsletter was written by Saskia Tykkyläinen and Christine Nikander for a collaboration between Palsa & Pulk and The E-Waste Column. It has been published in both “The Just Transition Newsletter” and “The E-Waste Newsletter”.


What is “planet-centered design”?

Planet-centric design is essentially about taking responsibility for the environment and climate in the design process. Designing in a planet-centric way is about “making sure sustainability and inclusiveness sit at the table at the strategic points of the design process”.[i] At its core, planet-centric design aims to “re-balanc[e] humans’ and our planet’s needs while placing the planet at the center and prioritizing its ecosystem”.[ii] Planet-centered design can also be referred to as sustainable design, environmentally-conscious design, eco-design, or humanity-centered design.[iii]

Typically, the attention in developing a product or a service often goes to the considerations of how to make the design as economically as possible, how to make the design technically possible, how to maximize the profit margin, and similar aspects. While these considerations need to be taken into account, people and the planet also need to be factored in.

For the past several decades, we have focused on so-called “human-centered design”.[iv] Overall, the human-centered approach can be seen as an improvement to the process-centered design approach, by emphasizing the user's needs and desires over what makes the biggest profit or is cheapest to produce. Yet to date, human-centered design has been “focused on people, their desires and needs without looking at the well-being of the planet”.[v] In other words, in regard to environmental issues, the human-centered design approach falls short because it (at least partially) perpetuates an image that humans are separate from nature and its resources.

Overall, the human-centered design approach has strengthened a world view, where humans are separate – or superior – to nature and where natural resources are there to serve the humans' needs. This has contributed to our present-day situation, where human-centered needs and desires have overexploited the natural landscapes of our environment.

Quite logically, “design that is not good for our planet is ultimately not good for people”.[vi] In line with this, planet-centered design “distances itself from a user-centered perspective and moves towards an egalitarian, planetary view – without losing sight of the user, the human being”.[vii] In planet-centered design, the focus is therefore on both “team human” and “team non-human”. The overarching aim of planet-centered design is to place “individual human needs on the same level as planetary needs”. This means that living beings or Earth, who do not speak, are also given a voice.[viii]

The ultimate goal of the planet-centered approach would be to transition to a system-level thinking in the design processes, where humans are seen as part of nature (which they are), and the products, processes, and services that we design actually work within the natural systems and generate value back to nature. This design approach is called regenerative design.[ix]


Designing for the planet

The principle underlying all truly planet-centered design is the concept that “we are not alone on our planet and that this planet has limits”.[x] The planet-centered design process aims to factor the planet “back into the design process”.[xi] Notably, the wheel does not need to be reinvented. By going back in time by only 50 years, we can see a very different economy — one that is mostly circular or at least low- to zero-waste.

According to the Fountain Institute, there are seven core principles that lay at the core of planet-centered design. The first two of these are that “the world can be redesigned” and that design can and should be used to bring about systemic change. The next three principles focus on designing for longer timelines, measuring the consequences of the designs created, and adapting designs to the real world. The final two principles focus on communication and collaboration throughout the design process.[xii]

In practice, examples of ways to design in a more planet-centered way include “understand[ing] current user behaviours and impacts so that the effects of the new/revised service can be estimated”. It also encompasses designing in a way “that users’ consumption of energy & materials is kept to a minimum”.[xiii]

Currently, both the supply of food and water are under threat.[xiv] Notably however, “countering the severely high greenhouse gas footprint derived from industrial farming and agriculture is not the only opportunity for more ethical food choices”. How designers and companies approach the process to “manufacture, package and transport food” is also key, as is exploring how we consume food. As the global population continues to grow, we need to shift our attention “not only on eating better, but making quality food available to more people”. We have to do this “while nurturing biodiversity, protecting the lands we manufacture food on, and supporting the local communities where it is harvested and produced in the process”.[xv] Tackling this plurality of issues is where planet-centered design principles may come into good use.


What is the role of designers and design thinking in the future?

Design is everywhere — in “products, services and entirely new businesses”.[xvi] How things are designed has implications and consequences, and it also creates opportunities.[xvii] Design “has the ability to advance human behavior”. In line with this, design that is planet-centered is thought to be able to “play a huge role in driving a sustainable economy”, as it can shape “the products we make, the processes we follow and the policies we influence”.[xviii]

When the design process is looked at as a series of decisions that a designer makes, it shines light on the responsibility of the designer in shaping the effects of the design on the environment and people.[xix] As “planetary systems are complex”, “design processes and tools are necessary to help navigate complexity and create better solutions for society that fit within the planet’s boundaries”.[xx]

Design has the potential of considering and asking the difficult questions that are needed in order for us to create a change towards a socially and environmentally just future. Designers play a key role in society and our ongoing transitions. They “can guide companies to strive for more service-centered business models that consumers will be willing to buy into, ones that avoid damage to the environment, but are also built to adapt as needed”.[xxi]

As we transition, the manner in which designers “work will also need to evolve to integrate new criteria for assessing quality, such as by measuring the carbon footprint of production, monitoring manufacturing practices and considering the ethics of source materials—as well as the effects on indirect users or disturbances generated by a project”. It is no longer “enough to [simply] focus on desirability, viability and feasibility when designing new services”.[xxii]

The next major step in our transition is the process of “redefining design thinking methods to include both human and environmental needs”.[xxiii] In their article titled “Futures: Resilient Futures”, Brian Collins and J.A. Ginsburg argue that “we are at a moment in history where almost everything needs to be rethought, reimagined and done different: How products are made. How services are delivered. Packaging. Materials. Business models.”[xxiv]

Brian Collins and J.A. Ginsburg see designers’ core role in aiding “companies and organizations [to] see, create and communicate their places in the future”. In order to properly do that, designers must however “look beyond the stakeholders of today” and think at least a few years into the future. They argue that even more than the “stakeholders”, designers should be thinking about the “stakes”.[xxv]


What mindset shift in design is needed for a better future?

Going forward, “the outputs of design must also be responsible, systemic and transparent”. Designers need to be “making thoughtful decisions that can have an effect on the future, accelerating behavior change for sustainability and making an environmental impact”. Designers must “clarify a vision and propose solutions — for a future in which the needs of human beings and the needs of our planet are in balance”.[xxvi]

Planet-centered design requires a shift or movement in the way that designers currently think. In line with this, Samuel Huber, from the For Planet Strategy Lab, has outlined “Four Movements of Planet-Centric Design”. These are “from humans to planet”, “from quantity to quality”, “from short- to long-term”, and “from market fit to planet fit”.[xxvii]

Under the first of these movements, Huber argues that we need to factor the planet into design methodologies, as the focus is currently placed almost solely on humans. Under the second movement, Huber argues that we currently place too big a focus on the quantitative side of growth. Qualitative factors such as “durability, intensity, trust, freedom, and relationships” are important but often factored in less, as they are difficult to measure. By factoring in “growth in quality”, planet-centric design could actually cater to human needs better than the use of more design methodologies. Under the third movement, Huber argues that designers should focus on the long-term perspective and consider how things may play out in the long run. Under the final movement, Huber argues that designers and businesses need to take care of their home. He argues that sustainability is “good for long-term business” and that a disregard for the environment sets businesses up for failure in the long run. He therefore also argues that designers must firstly make their creations “planet fit”, before considering ways to make them “market fit”.[xxviii]

Notably, a planet-centric design mindset will be needed throughout the entire chain of business and across sectors. It should be integrated into the core of business strategies, just as it is integrated into the design briefs for design teams. Cross-disciplinary knowledge will play a key role in being able to consider the different effects of design and the opportunities for change — from environmental sciences to communications and from business administration to production process expertise.


Can we design a (more) just transition?

Consumers are often flooded with messaging that encourages them to avoid fast fashion and single-use plastic or to recycle more. Beyond individual choices, it is also important that companies and designers make good choices. To build a just transition, companies must fundamentally reassess their business models. To be sustainable and future-proof, companies need “to strategically position themselves in step with both human and environmental needs”.[xxix] The process of publicly “sharing visions for new, evolved business models that push for lasting value over immediate convenience” can help to create space for “the sustainable, planet-centric economy of the future”.[xxx]

Luckily, in recent years, the trend of circularity has picked up pace and increasingly more circular considerations and innovations are now being applied across sectors. While this is a good first step, going forward, we should collectively shift our perspective from human-centered design to planet-centered design. In any design process that is planet-centered, the first and biggest consideration is whether the design is possible to make and whether it is sustainable from the planet's perspective. It is, notably, only secondary to consider the human-perspective – and the production-perspective becomes tertiary. While this might sound radical, if we are really serious about tackling the environmental and social challenges of our time soon, this is the mindset shift we and our businesses will need to make.

Would you be interested to learn more about key design considerations and the life cycle of an electric vehicle battery? You can now explore the material and energy use, environmental and social impacts, and EU regulations that apply to the different life stages of an EV battery in Palsa & Pulk’s new interactive visual.

The next newsletter will explore the importance of protecting biodiversity. If you want to be notified when it comes out, please subscribe to our mailing list.


About the authors

Saskia Tykkyläinen is a freelance sustainability and strategy consultant at Palsa & Pulk. She studied industrial product design and business management. Saskia has extensive experience working with young growth firms and entrepreneurs in accelerator and education programs. In her consultancy work, Saskia takes on projects that design and build sustainable business practices.

Christine Nikander is the founder of the environmental and social sustainability consultancy, Palsa & Pulk. She studied law at the universities of Columbia (New York), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Leiden (the Netherlands). Christine was a member of the Fall 2021 “Design For Social Innovation” cohort at the Columbia Entrepreneurship Design Studio. She has been writing The E-Waste Column weekly since 2022 and focuses on supply chain governance in her work.


About Palsa & Pulk

Palsa & Pulk is an environmental and social sustainability consultancy. It provides compliance, governance, policy, and strategic advice to its clients. Its work is mostly focused on supply chain governance, the just transition, circular economy, and human rights.


About The E-Waste Column

The E-Waste Column is a weekly column about e-waste, transition minerals, and critical raw materials. It touches on a range of topics including ESG, sustainable development, circular economy, EU law and policymaking, corporate social responsibility, the transition to renewable energy, the EU Green Deal, supply chain due diligence and auditing, human environmental rights, business and human rights, climate law, and corporate sustainability.


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