Book Review: Design Is the Problem

Book | Author | Review

By Gerd Waloszek , SAP User Experience, SAP AG – July 7, 2011 • Original article

This review takes a personal look at Nathan Shedroff's book Design Is the Problem.



Cover of Design is the Problem     

Nathan Shedroff
Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable
Rosenfeld Media, 2009
ISBN: 1-933820-00-4 (Paperback + PDF), ISBN: 1-933820-01-2 (2 PDF editions)

General, Design



Photo of Nathan ShedroffNathan Shedroff is the chair of the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, CA. This program melts the unique principles that design offers business strategy with a vision of the future of business as sustainable, meaningful, and innovative – as well as profitable. He is one of the pioneers in Experience Design, an approach to design that encompasses multiple senses and requirements and explores common characteristics in all media that make experiences successful, as well as related fields, Interaction Design and Information Design.
(From Rosenfeld Media Website, adapted)



Taking a (Systems) Perspective

In the blog on the companion Website for his new book Design is the Problem, author Nathan Shedroff asks: "Are you as sick of sustainability as I am?" and continues: "It seems that everywhere you turn these days, sustainability is the hot topic. While this is a good thing – and a needed one – people are already getting 'green fatigue'." One might be tempted to ask: "So, why another book about sustainability?" Shedroff argues, and would probably counter, that "over the last 40 years, little has changed in spite of all the discussions, while the issues have increased dramatically. [...] What needs to change is that we all need to decide, now, that sustainability is a given." Shedroff's book intends to push everyone in this direction: While it deals with the negative as well as positive impact of his own profession, design, on sustainability, it considers the impact from a broader perspective – one which might help reach such an agreement.

Consequently, Shedroff makes one thing clear: "This isn't a book about sustainable design. Instead it's a book about how the design industry can approach in a more sustainable way. Design is interconnected – to engineering, management, production, customer experiences, and to the planet. Discussing and comprehending the relationship between design and sustainability requires a systems perspective to see these relationships clearly." Thus, Design is the Problem is not a cookbook offering sustainable design solutions, although you will find ideas throughout the book. Instead, it approaches sustainable design from a systems perspective. According to Shedroff, taking such a perspective means acknowledging that "the system is the sum total of everything affected by an activity". It "requires an appreciation (at a minimum) and an understanding (at best) of how various systems interact with each other. These include environmental, financial, and social systems" (for example, markets, ecosystems, social systems, or the entire world). Designers are just one group of "players" in the challenging endeavor to take action towards a sustainable future, although, in Shedroff's eyes, they are indeed an important one.

Shedroff states that he hates starting with definitions but nevertheless provides a very general definition of sustainability from the Brundland Commission (1987) to enable a common understanding of the concept. As it may be useful to have this definition at hand when reading the review, I include it here: "(Use and) development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Or as Shedroff puts it more simply, "Don't do things today that make tomorrow worse". He adds that "an even deeper meaning to sustainability points to the need to restore natural, social, and economic systems (and the effect they've had on society, nature, and markets), and not merely 'fix' them to make them perform better". As the book overview shows, both aspects are represented in the book: First, the book is concerned with methods for fixes, such as reduce, reuse, and recycle, and then it briefly addresses the restoration aspect.

At the end of the introductory section, Shedroff examines the role of designers and design and asks the provocative question of, whether design is "part of the problem or part of the solution." He concludes that it is both – I will return to this statement below – and calls his readers to action: "Get over the guilt or shock or outrage or embarrassment or disagreement now, because none of it will be useful to you going forward. And we have a lot of work to do." This is also true for reading the book: about 300 pages on paper and over 500 pages online – so let's see what's in it.

Characterization, Audience, and Overview of the Book

Shedroff characterizes his book as "a summary of what he feels are the most important approaches and aspects of sustainable design." He regards it as a good introduction to sustainability, one that can "also help people put sustainable design practices into their work, no matter what they do." With respect to the audience of his book, he claims that he wrote his book for the designer in all of us. Although the book is primarily targeted at design professionals, Shedroff tries to avoid design jargon so as to reach a wider audience such as engineers, managers, students, and anyone wishing to build a better, more sustainable world. The key idea behind the book is that understanding sustainability issues, frameworks, and strategies can help to create better solutions.

The book starts with a fairly long prolog: How to Use This Book defines the book's audience, provides an overview of its content and sustainability resources, and finally discusses the delicate issue, at least in the context of sustainability, of offering a paper and an online version as a PDF file. There is also list of frequently-asked questions on the subject of sustainability, a foreword by Hunter Lovins, and finally an introduction clarifying the concept of sustainability and the aforementioned discussion around the question of, whether design is part of the problem or part of the solution.

The book comprises 18 chapters. The first three provide the fundament for the remainder of the book: Chapter 1 asks "what is sustainability?" from a few aspects (diversity and resiliency, centralization and decentralization, cooperation and competition, ecological vitality, social vitality, and financial vitality), which are part of a systems perspective. Chapter 2 asks how sustainability is measured and discusses a number of social, environmental, and financial measurement concepts. In Shedroff's opinion, all of these are incomplete, but complement each other in one way or another. When putting the concepts together, Shedroff asks a few seemingly simple questions, such as, which bag is better for the environment, paper or plastic? As it shows, there are no easy answers if you attempt to take a more complete perspective. Finally, in chapter 3, Shedroff presents about ten different approaches, or conceptual frameworks, to sustainability (Natural Capitalism, Cradle to Cradle, Biomimicry (see book review), Life Cycle Analysis, Social Return on Investment, The Natural Step™, Total Beauty, Sustainability Helix, and other frameworks) and then tries to put them together in a summary framework. Some of these approaches are referred to in chapter 17 Measuring Results and 18 Declaring Results.

The main part of the book comprised 15 Chapters, which are organized into five sections: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Restore, and Process. Thus, they represent the aforementioned "fixes," an attempt to address the restoration of natural, social, and economic systems, and a discussion of how sustainability can be inserted into existing development processes:

  • The section Reduce focuses on strategies for reducing material and energy impacts: Chapters 4-9 cover design for use, dematerialization, substitution, localization, transmaterialization (or servicing: the process of turning a product into a service), and informationalization (sending the information instead of the product).
  • The section Reuse lists strategies for making solutions last longer and finding other uses when product use has finished: Chapters 10 and 11 cover design for durability and reuse.
  • Section Recycle presents strategies for easier product recycling: Chapters 12-14 cover design for disassembly, how to close input (resources) and output (wastes) streams so that nothing is wasted and that everything is recycled (close the loop), and design for effectiveness.
  • The section Restore discusses the need to rethink systems in order to gain positive results, rather than merely reduce negative results: Its sole chapter 15 provides ideas for considering the systems view and the context of the things we design. It also presents the precautionary principle: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."
  • Finally, the section Process describes how sustainability can be inserted into existing development processes, how to measure results (based on various measures, including some of the frameworks discussed in chapter 3), and how to communicate them: Chapters 16-18 cover innovative solutions, measuring results, and declaring, that is, communicating them, for example, through dedicated product labels and certificates.

In the conclusion, Shedroff returns to his original question of whether design is part of the problem or part of the solution, and again, confirms that it is both. He calls on designers to decide which values they want to reinforce and to take action towards a more sustainable world: "We are the only ones who can make a change... and there are a lot of us".

The book closes with two appendices and an index: Appendix A offers a "super summary" and a basic as well as a detailed sustainability checklist. Appendix B provides a wealth of resources, such as book and article references, online documents, and Websites.

 The book is delivered as a double PDF version (onscreen, print) and on paper (in the prolog, Shedroff explains why a paper version is offered). It is supported by a book companion Website providing pointers to sustainability design resources (found and own). Those diagrams and screenshots from the book that are not copyright-protected are available under a Creative Common license on flickr.


The book covers so many aspects of sustainability that a discussion of even the most important ones would make this review far too long. Therefore, I will only mention a few selected ideas that caught my attention while reading the book.

The role of designers and design is one of Shedroff's central themes: Is design part of the problem or part of the solution? Not surprisingly, he comes to the conclusion that both answers are true. Designers are part of the problem, because they are "taught to make 'new' when it isn't really better or when 'old' doesn't need replacing. [...] All design disciplines have too often focused on creating meaningless, disposable, trendladen fashion items." He summarizes: "It should be clear by now what I mean by design is the problem. Design that is about appearance, or margins, or offerings and market segments, and not about real people – their needs, abilities, desires, emotions, and so on – that's the design that is the problem. The design that is about systems solutions, intent, appropriate and knowledgeable integration of people, planet, and profit, and the design that, above all, cares about customers as people and not merely consumers – that's the design that can lead to healthy, sustainable solutions."

As we now know, which direction to pursue, what can designers do in practice? In his FAQ Shedroff asks precisely this question and provides the following answer:

  • "First, designers can understand the breadth of sustainability and the strategies for developing more sustainable solutions. This is pretty easy (and is covered in this book). Next, designers can start using these strategies in their work, even if only a few at a time. We need to become advocates of sustainability issues for our own organizations and our clients, partners, and other stakeholders. We can address sustainability issues in our projects whether our clients and organizations appreciate them or not, making more sustainable solutions even when those around us don't do so. Over time, designers can address more issues and integrate more strategies into their work naturally. This is easiest when all team members are aware of the issues and strategies and when sustainability becomes part of the process. Ultimately, sustainability is most powerful when it becomes part of an organization's values and mission, but we don't need to wait for this to begin in order to have an impact now."

Thus, for Shedroff the systemic and organizational aspects have more priority than the design issues themselves, at least in the current state of affairs. I have to admit that I was deliberately deaf to this message and focused more on the design issues during my reading.

Shedroff indicates a "natural" way to switch to sustainable design, which is also reflected in the structure of the book: Start with fixing negative results for systems by reducing (energy, materials, transportation, packaging), reusing (new uses after end of planned use), and recycling (including design for easier recycling). Then, under the label of restore, rethink systems to have positive results. Shedroff states: "Perhaps the most revolutionary approach to designing sustainably is to consider the systems view and context of the things we design. [...] Systems design calls for us to reinvent more than solutions; we also need to reinvent the platforms and infrastructures those solutions rest upon." Finally, integrate sustainability into existing processes in order to make it a "given." In reality, these steps are intertwined. However, designers will have less impact as long as sustainability has not been integrated into the development processes and culture and mission of organizations – thus, Shedroff's pressure to actively influence organizations. Nonetheless, as Shedroff points out, designers can go undercover and sell sustainability improvements under the more acceptable guise of efficiency.

Interestingly, the section Reduce starts with a chapter entitled Design for Use. According to Shedroff, design for use means that there is no point in producing an engineering masterpiece that may be leading with regard to energy consumption and material use if it is not used by its buyers, or that simply does not make sense because other products on the market provide a better service. Kitchen appliances are a good example of the first category. Many of them are in use for only a short period of time and then put away. There are also "fashion trends" with proliferation, spikes and downfalls... The Segway Transporter is an example of the second category. After taking a look at how it is engineered, Shedroff concludes: "So, despite the fantastic design process and development, the product doesn't have a compelling reason to exist. [...] Any needs it hopes to alleviate seem better solved in other ways. [...] The Segway solves a problem that doesn't exist, in a way that unnecessarily requires more materials and energy than other solutions." I was surprised at the beginning, but had to agree in the end...

I would like to mention one final design issue that Shedroff discusses in the context of Design for Use: Simplicity versus clarity. This design and marketing strategy removes features and performance criteria from a product to make it simpler and thus, hopefully, easier to use. Shedroff remarks: "That isn't a terrible strategy – that is, if you know which criteria are the most important to keep in terms of the solution's intended performance and in terms of what customers actually need." However, it becomes a terrible strategy, when companies "try to separate product features into identified layers of 'consumer' (often lacking critical features), expert or professional (often packing features without improving how they're presented), and enterprise (often ignoring usability altogether under the assumption that users will want to either configure the interface themselves or have no problem finding the signals they want among the noise)." I know this strategy all too well from digital cameras... As Shedroff states, simply deleting features often renders a product or service more ineffective. He continues: "Complexity, in itself, isn't bad. In fact, it’s often critical to both understanding and usability. [...] Simplicity can be a winning strategy sometimes, but clarity is always required, no matter what the level of complexity is." This reminds me of Albert Einstein's famous quote that everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler. According to Shedroff, "clarity relies on the prioritization of cognitive models and features that are most important, while downplaying those that are less critical. This can be done through careful arrangement of elements in the visual, auditory, temporal, and other sensorial dimensions." UI and visual designers should take note – there is a lot they have to contribute in this area.

Reading Recommendations

As I have already admitted, I was more interested in the practically-oriented chapters than in those covering methodological and organizational issues. Particularly if you are reading the book for the first time and are not familiar with the topic of sustainability, the practically-oriented chapters may make it easier for you to access to this field. Later, when you want to learn more, or better (if there is a practical need), you can read those chapters as well – this is not a book to be read in one go and then put on the shelf. Thus, my reading recommendation for time-pressed readers and for readers who are new to the topic would be to start with the introductory chapters including chapter 1, and then read the sections Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. I would additionally like to propose that readers scan the book for the "boxes," which include a lot of interesting examples. I would also like to note that you should read chapters 2 and 3 before reading the Process section (chapters 16-18).


I sincerely hope that there will not be too many readers with the same symptom as Nathan Shedroff, namely that they can no longer bear to hear or read the word "sustainability." That would be bad for book sales as well as for my recommendation because I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to the members of the design community, be they professionals, students, or interested lay people. Moreover, people who have a general interest in sustainability and not so much in design itself, will also find valuable information, ideas, and pointers to resources in the book. Even though the book was intended as an introduction to a complex topic with the focus on promoting sustainability in an organization, it contains many valuable practical tips for designing more sustainable products. As I have already admitted twice, I read those parts of the book with the most interest.

Finally, the question remains, which is the better version of the book, the paper version or the online version as a PDF file. I do not think that I can give a definite answer – both versions have their pros and cons – and the publisher promised to observe sales figures for both versions before taking action. Nevertheless, this is the first review of an electronic book for the SAP Design Guild. However, I have to admit that my colleague printed a copy from the PDF, which I also used for the review. I found it easier to find certain words or text passages in the PDF version using the search function. Copying citations was also easier and less error-prone (this explains the many citations ;) ). On the other hand, I still prefer highlighting text passages with a marker in a paper version. And scanning the book for highlighted passages is also easier for me on paper – it is like rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP; described in our review of Robert Spence's book Information Visualization, 2nd Ed.). You can take also a book everywhere and read it without using any electrical energy. Thus, the longer you use a book, the more sustainable it becomes – provided that you do not use a lamp! OK, I give up – once again, even simple sustainability questions do not have simple answers!




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