1. We Are All Designers

Designing for the Greater Good is Good Business

#7 Think Forever; Design for Perpetuity.

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Imagine living and working in a world where the expression “not my problem” was obsolete. Can you picture all of the future challenges that would be obliterated before they hatched?  Can you breathe the fresh air of progress, untainted by the smell of someone else’s smoldering dreams?

With the seventh design principle – Think Forever; Design for Perpetuity – we are reminded that it’s the designer’s job to consider all the ramifications of a proposed solution. That means we must anticipate and own the consequences of our design for both the short and long term, for ourselves and our great-great grandchildren, in our own backyard, and in the world at large.

In the past, it was easy for companies to overlook the downside of their business plans by explaining it away as an externality. If the runoff from a plant polluted the drinking water downstream, or killed off the fish others relied on for their livelihood, it was a “negative externality” — an economics euphemism for “not my problem.” As long as the downstream victims weren’t paying customers, it didn’t matter to the business plan.

This business model isn’t only immoral, it’s unsustainable. It doesn’t account for reliance on resources that can’t be easily replenished. If you’re planning to light the world with whale oil, don’t expect your business to outlast the whale population.

“Sustainability is the baseline of 21st Century design,” says Bruce Mau. Examples are all around us. When a big retailer makes the decision to renovate its malls, and replace all its incandescent light bulbs with long-lasting, efficient LED lighting, they may incur a significant cost right away, but this will pay out over time in the form of lower energy costs and minimal maintenance.  Electric cars may cost a bit more up front, but they are inexpensive to operate and virtually eliminate traditional maintenance costs.

Bruce also references his firm’s work with Coca-Cola, which realized that, if 2 billion people drink a Coke every day, that adds up to 720 billion plastic bottles per year.  As a truly global brand doing business in every market in the world, they made a business decision to own the problem, instead of pushing it to some other country or some future generation. As they designed a long-term solution, what began as a corporate social-responsibility initiative became an entirely new, long-term approach to the business — one that reduced waste and reused material across the supply chain. It was good for business, and good for the planet.

“Perpetuity means we’re not trying to just get to a less negative way of doing things, by trying to mitigate our impact,” Bruce explains, “but rather, to understand how we get to a positive impact…. not just a positive economic effect, but an ecological system effect that’s positive…. You don’t just have to solve for the next quarter, or the next earning cycle, or the annual revenue. You really have to solve it in perpetuity.”

Freeman has done this historically with our aluminum MIS display systems, which are used over and over again. And the next-generation system we are developing will recycle this aluminum into a product that offers an even better user experience, while sustaining the recyclability of the material. Carpeting is another good example of a product that can be reused and, thanks to design-thinking at a molecular level, can be completely recycled.

Freeman has traditionally sought to do the right thing and avoiding waste is just good business. But as individuals and as design-thinkers, we need to be vigilant about looking for new ways to effect positive change … in perpetuity.

Bruce sums up the idea of designing for perpetuity this way: “We want greater and greater impact, with less material and less energy. So, if we think about the future of stewardship at Freeman, its understanding that idea, and making a long-term effort to apply it to everything we do.”

We are all focused on strengthening the core of our Freeman business. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by embracing business habits that work in perpetuity. Savings go straight to the bottom line. And untold generations will thank you for not making it “their problem.”