Volume 13, – Issue 1 Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable by Nathan Shedroff The Design Journal. In Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable, Nathan Shedroff examines how the endemic culture of design often creates unsustainable. Design Is the Problem by Nathan Shedroff. Rosenfeld Media, ; version Biomimicry. Like the Cradle to Cradle perspective, Bio- mimicry takes its.

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Published by Rosenfeld Media, it is likely to become one of the most important books for designers on the subject of design, design practice, and sustainability. If Bruce Sterling called Worldchanging “not the book of the year; the book of next year” when it was first released, we’re calling Design is the Problem “the definitive guidebook to the future of design practice.

In celebration of its launch and in conjunction with our exclusive excerptCore77’s Editor-in-chief Allan Chochinov sat down with Nathan well, email was more sustainable, being on opposite coasts to chat about the book, the challenges ahead, the culture of business, and the amazing opportunities for designers right now.

There’s nothing inherently off-putting about sustainability at all. I challenge you to find someone who is “in favor” of purposely ruining the future. The problem is in helping people become aware of their impacts and connecting their perfectly adequate values to the effects their activities have. Let’s start with the title, Nathan.

Can you tell us a little bit more about that? I’m grateful to Lou Rosenfeld deaign accepted the book and title. I think he’s still a little concerned that designers won’t find the book though.

The first publisher complained that the title “didn’t say what the book was about. For sure, the book discusses sustainability—what it is, why it’s important, how to approach it, and how to design for it. For those already on this path, this book can help with that journey; we’ll get them with the subtitle. But, I didn’t want to nafhan attract designers already interested in sustainability. Design is the Problem is a provocation to the designers and engineers and managers, etc.

It’s a discussion the Design world needs to have because shderoff isn’t merely a few more things to add to the design checklist. If some are a little put-off or challenged by the title, they should jump into the conversation.

Designers need to take a larger, systems-perspective to their work and to the world and a book like, Sustainable Design for Dummiesisn’t going to challenge them enough to change their mindsets. I think that’s a great point. I recently participated prohlem a Designers Accord Town Hall meeting here in New York City, and I was absolutely amazed at the disparity of where people sat at the conversation around sustainability. Your book starts at the beginning though—really RIGHT at the beginning—and quickly ramps up to a pretty elevated level of discourse.

How were you able to manage that? I’m a designer and I love making models of how things work. Naathan book is, in essence, the book I wish existed when I approached the subject of Sustainability. I’m not sure I have a good answer for you. Perhaps it’s two things: Second, I’m a designer and I love making models of how things work.

After taking several courses, teaching a few others, reading a variety of books, seeing a bunch of films, and having a LOT of conversations around sustainability for the past 5 years, this book represents how it all makes sense in my head.

By no means is it the only way to approach the subject and it may not sedroff for everyone, but it worked for me and I wanted to share it. I think that when you present a clear model of something—anything—you can ramp-up quickly without losing people because it’s clear where you are, where you’ve been, desin where you’re going.


That’s the beauty and power of great models and how design can tthe to the conversation. Well, let me pick sheddroff on the notion of models then.

Design is the Problem: An Interview with Nathan Shedroff

Can you describe for our readers what some of the principal models of sustainability are? There are a bunch of things to understand about the principles of Sustainability. Most of these focus on building and using a Systems Perspective and why that’s critical to understanding Sustainability. Next, all of Sustainability, including these principles, cross three main categories or domains.

Essentially, Sustainability just asks us to manage all of these forms of capital well. In theory, it sounds easy but, of course, in practice, it can be difficult since each of these especially the social issues can get complex. This is the first realization that many people come to when learning about Sustainability: The current economic carnage is a clear illustration of what happens when we don’t manage financial capital well, either as individuals, organizations, or a society.

That’s about a third of the book. The next third of the book uses this model of three domains to describe the eight or so prevailing frameworks some could aptly be described as tools more than frameworks but let’s not argue those details right now. These frameworks are helpful in approaching what to do and illustrate how different the approaches can seem.

Some focus only on environmental impacts. Others focus on only on social impacts. Some cross several domains. However, all are incomplete and, by looking briefly at each, we can build a more complete picture of what’s going on. The last third of the book is all about design strategies. There are about 12 strategies that designers of all types can put into practice immediately, on any project, to make it more sustainable. I’ve organized these under the familiar “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and added a fourth, advanced category “Restore.

These three simple models are designed to orient designers to the myriad information out there and help them clearly integrate it into a meaningful whole. I’d add at 5th—”redistribute”—to the 4 R’s you have above. It seems to me that a good strategy right now is to redistribute the stuff that we’ve already got. You touch on that some in the sections dealing with transmaterialization and services.

I wanted to save this topic for later, but here we are! I think that in the meaning of Redistribute you describe, it might fall into Reuse, since that’s what’s happening with it. And, there’s a huge percentage of this stuff that we don’t use.

I’ve seen families who have two-car garages filled wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with boxes of stuff that they can’t bear to part with—much of which they just can’t find, so they buy more. However, there are lots of options for sharing and redistributing, and online technologies are making this ever easier.

In Europe, toy libraries are becoming common so parents can problsm bring in toys their children are tired of and bring them back something new well, used, but new to them.

Many parents redistribute within their own homes—at least with smaller children. They’ll periodically cull toys and put them in a closet, only to bring them out weeks or months later as “new” prlblem for iss kids!

My god-daughter lost most of her toys one weekend after misbehaving. She would get them back one at a time as she improved her behavior.

However, after a week or desjgn, she didn’t care about the rest of her toys. They were already forgotten as she realized she didn’t need them. It’s not difficult to set-up a tool lending service I’ve seen several groups of grad systems develop these.


I had a team last year do something similar for kitchen appliances how many times have you nahhan that bread maker, ice cream maker, or Hot Dogger? There are a lot of possibilities for optimizing the use of ls with services rental cars and, now, car share services have been doing this for decades.

We just need to get used to thinking differently about what we NEED to own and what we just need periodically. We shouldn’t go out there and moralize to anyone since we’ve screwed it all up ourselves. This is like parents trying to stop their kids from smoking, while they smoke.

Design Is the Problem by Nathan Shedroff

Ya, in Chapter 10 you write that “We Westerners live in a supremely wasteful society, and we’re promoting desjgn way of life, already unsustainable as it is, to others around the world.

What’s your feeling about this right now? Well, we shouldn’t go out there and moralize to anyone since we’ve natban it all up ourselves. It’s the “do as I say, not as I do” line and it has little credibility. However, it’s an important message and one we should approach humbly. We need to say to the rest of the deeign, essentially, “Look, we did a lot of this wrong. Try to take the best of what we’ve accomplished without the worst.

Yes, we have a lot deslgn nice things but even we realize that we’re no happier overall than anyone else—in fact, we’re a lot less happy than most who have less.

If they can learn from the best of what we’ve learned perhaps, valuing education, personal freedom, optimism, tolerance, prblem. It would also be a model for us to follow in order to be more sustainable and healthy ourselves. OK, that got dangerously close to becoming a moral argument or some kind of finger-waving. I apologize for that. I’m not sure how else to put it, though.

Some yhe read this as a kind of attack on the culture of the USA or Western Civilization or progress. That’s not how I intend it.

If it’s an attack at all, think of it as one on the viruses that are preventing us from being healthy, sustainable, and happy. Maybe this is the healthy, white-blood-cell response to viruses that have been killing our societies, markets, and cultures.

I mean this as a positive, aspirational view of the future but I understand how it can come off as critical and moralizing problek some. Don’t worry about that; you had us at the “war between inquiry and dogma”!

Paul Hawken also talks about an “immune response,” which makes me think, perhaps, that all of our problems might just be bringing out all of our solutions right now.

I can’t tell you how many people tell me about a new website or organization or blog or social network attempting to catalog all of the various designn initiatives underway. I’ve started a list! This is the kind of thing that gives me hope. Paul Hawken is right with the “immune response” analogy and it needs to be supported. My only concern is that we all need to collaborate better if we want to be successful.

There are SO MANY blogs and websites and start-ups trying to do much the same thing and it has the effect of fracturing our attention, as well as the conversation, rather than bringing it together. There are so many new NGOs and foundations and socially entrepreneurial start-ups but not enough conversation and cooperation between them all to be a more powerful force for positive change.