Form follows function. Apparently.
Back in the 1980s, stores adopted a game-changing design innovation—the plastic bag. It was functional, low cost and brought convenience to the user. But for the planet, the plastic bag was abysmal. Would such an innovation move forward today?
Many designers were trained in simpler times, when frameworks like “form follows function” were sufficient, and the sole goal for large corporations was to maximize shareholder value.
We live in more complex, interconnected times, when designers—indeed all professionals—need to balance financial feasibility with environmental impact, user experience, societal effects, purpose compatibility and much more.
This naturally leads us to explore a modern framework to assess and reshape design briefs. Here we suggest a framework (exhibit 1) that all professionals can benefit from using on the first day of a new project. The day should begin with the full cross-functional team present to establish goals for the organization, the team, and ultimately the people who will be impacted.
A new framework
It was during initial meetings for Design for Good, a new global non-profit alliance, when the team started to contemplate how project briefs could be improved. Here are four basic criteria we believe all creative briefs should consider:
- Purpose: Why are we doing this at all, and are we in the best position to do it?
- Profit: Does this project make financial sense with the technology and capabilities we have available?
- People: Have we thought through the impact on people —not just the end users, but broader society as well?
- Planet: How does this project leave our planet in a better place than before we started?
These four areas are not mutually exclusive, they reinforce one another. There is growing international evidence that sustainable, inclusive design is the driving force for growth, not an inhibitor.
Setting the bar high
Once the framework is accepted, the real magic is in senior leaders setting the highest bar for all four elements.
Let’s consider the Planet element. Some companies can claim a product is “better than before” when they can certify a product is zero-carbon or that they are using recycled materials. And that’s a good start. But it’s just a start. This is where designers can work with their colleagues in sustainability, engineering, and supply chain to set an even higher bar – moving towards a regenerative economy where possible, and, potentially even turning back the clock on previous damage instead of simply sustaining where we are now.
For example, a company that produces shampoo might use the framework as a reminder to fundamentally reassess its product design. Since 90 percent of shampoo is water, bold design might create a simple powder that comes in a much smaller box and lathers as it mixes with water. Doing so enables companies to transport more product in the same shipping container (more profit) while reducing their carbon footprint (better planet) and still deliver a great, and potentially even improved, consumer experience.
Or, another example, let’s say a refrigerator designer considers the planet element of the framework, and sets the bar to go beyond a zero-carbon appliance. They are more likely to work with the cross-functional team to design an appliance that reduces or reuses food waste or could even influence food choice through innovative technology and design, which may lead to new profit opportunities for the appliance maker as well.
Let’s look at an example of a designer working on an app for a healthcare institution to help diabetic patients in high-risk communities. Within the People element of the framework, they could consider how their design must also benefit the patient’s family, friends, nurses and doctors.
The time is now
The good news is that executives are increasingly receptive to expanding the criteria for evaluating products and service lines. In 2019, the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of the corporation to serve all stakeholders—customers, employees, suppliers, communities (including the planet through sustainability), and investors. That’s what business value looks like now.
This framework is aligned with this philosophy. However, products and solutions that excel on all four criteria don’t just happen on their own. They require collaborative effort with cross-disciplinary teams and measurement.
Cross-disciplinary teams. Too often, designers are being asked to make the call in balancing these factors for the good of the company, which is asking too much from just one part of a team. Getting to a better outcome requires business, tech and design to collaborate on decision making. The magic is in people from different backgrounds working together and challenging one another.
Measurement. What gets measured gets managed. Companies know how to track profit, but we need to bring that same level of scrutiny and measurement to the other factors. Then organizations need to create incentives tied to performance across all four factors.
Purpose. People. Profit. Planet. Four words every designer can bring to the start of every project brief. Together we can make significant change and move towards a better world… one product and service at a time.