Form, Function, Footprint

Form, Function, Footprint

The “3-F’s” of Product Design for the New Age of Sustainability

By Mark Dwight

Posted February 8, 2009

Over the past decade “design” has become an essential component of most serious product development efforts. The notion that “Good Design is Good Business” is widely accepted and practiced today (though there are many notable exceptions). Technology has helped meld aesthetic design with functional engineering, and made the translation to physical products much more graceful, efficient and cost effective. It’s hard to imagine there was considerable debate about “form versus function” when I was graduating from college in the early ‘80’s – a time when “design” was often dismissed as a frivolous expense and “industrial designers” were largely regarded as “stylists” – disdained by engineers and dismissed by senior executives. Today “and” has replaced “versus”, as Form and Function have become the strategic twins of modern product development.

The marriage of form and function has yielded a generation of elegant, ergonomic, extraordinarily functional and economical products. Great design is no longer confined to high-end goods, as mass marketers such as Target have partnered with top designers to “democratize” great design. We are indeed in a golden age of product design.

But we are on the threshold of a revolution – the dawn of a new age – where sustainability will be the means and the measure of success. Soaring energy costs, rising labor rates, resource scarcity, economic hardship and ecological degradation are all forcing us to rethink our profligate ways. This is the Sustainability Revolution – the dawn of the Age of Sustainability – an age when we must confront the fragility of our habitat and the scarcity of our natural resources. It is time for us to collaborate with nature – to learn from the models of sustainability that nature has perfected over billions of years, and to develop products and processes that mimic these proven exemplars.

Pre-industrial mankind both feared and revered nature. Nature could be both powerfully destructive, and wonderfully regenerative – and we attributed its incredible extremes to supernatural forces beyond our control and understanding. Through the ages, a growing understanding of the laws of nature set the stage for the Industrial Revolution – the age of conquering nature with machines and brute force innovation. More recently, the Technology Revolution has allowed us to understand nature on a much deeper, microscopic level, and fostered an age of manipulating nature at its most fundamental levels. From a product development perspective, advanced technology, combined with cheap energy and cheap labor, has empowered the relentless – and often reckless – drive for “more, better, faster, cheaper”, and fueled our consumption-based society.

Product design for this new Age of Sustainability must move beyond the traditional considerations of form and function, and embrace a “third F” of design – the ecological “footprint” of the products and processes that yield the products of tomorrow. This new semantic of product design – “Form, Function, and Footprint” – embraces the environmental and social impacts in the design process itself. This will be an era of remarkable change and opportunity. New technologies, materials, processes and business models will be required. It will be an evolutionary process requiring tradeoffs, risks and heroic efforts. There will be success and failures along the way – but this is the essential stuff of progress. New ways of thinking must be taught, and this concept must be embraced explicitly at the educational level. True change requires a change in both mindset and behavior. Sustainability must be embraced as a core discipline and programmed into the educational process, in order to influence the formative years of critical thinking for the new students of design – the soon-to-be professional designers of the new generation.

Where the old notion of Good Design – the harmony of form and function – was good business yesterday, the new notion of Good Design – the explicit melding of form, function and footprint – is not only good business, but essential for our survival as a species.

Comments
16 Responses to “Form, Function, Footprint”
  1. DavidH says:

    Hey Mark, this really resonates with me. I read cradle to cradle about 6 months ago after a friend told me about it. I have worked in manufacturing and engineering for over 10 years and now run my own cost consultancy business but am still on the look out for being able to set up a business that would be both fun and do something to help future generations in living a full life without the worry and concern over the impact we have on the planet (I, like you, have 4 kids)
    I made it a goal this year to read more into this and see if I can start to look into the potential opportunity that sustainable design, planning and sourcing may bring.
    Have you seen some of the initiatives that Richard Branson and Virgin have begun to develop? You may find some of his ideas really click with your views especially in terms of the footprint that gets left and the view that if the whole of humankind puts its’ collective had together then we have a unique opportunity to develop products, technology and solutions that will benefit both us and the environment we inhabit without holding us back..
    Look forward to sharing ideas with you over the coming months.
    David

  2. Sam Mauck says:

    Mark, I loved the essay. I’m curious to hear thoughts about how we can make the “third F” economically viable when a “more, better, faster, cheaper” world has made many people (namely Americans) rich. What kind of capitalistic motivation exists to influence companies to change their perspectives? I can name environmental and moral reasons for the “third F” but I understand that change at the store usually occurs when companies believe they will ultimately increase their bottom line. My hope is that the design world can provide those answers. I applaud those in academia who are shaping more creative and responsible thinkers. I look forward to see what this generation can do.

  3. mmdwight says:

    At the most basic level, reducing “footprint” reduces waste, reduces cost and enhances profit. “Design” applies to processes as well as products. Some of the best examples of embracing the 3-F’s while enhancing the bottom line are Wal-Mart, Interface (carpet manufacturer) and Patagonia. Ray Anderson, founder/chairman of Interface, spoke at TED2009 last week — he’s a sustainability icon — as is Yvonne Chouinard at Patagonia. Also, I saw Charles Zimmerman, a VP of new store build-outs at Wal-Mart, speak at the 2008 Opportunity Green conference, and was thoroughly impressed with Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiatives. Here are a few links:
    Interface: http://www.interfaceglobal.com/Sustainability/What-is-Sustainability-.aspx
    Wal-Mart: http://walmartstores.com/Sustainability/
    Patagonia: http://www.patagonia.com/usa/footprint/index.jsp

  4. nancy says:

    thanks for this discussion…link below to info about a recent movie about ray anderson at Interface that chronicles what they’ve done and the leadership/vision involved.

    http://www.magicwig.com/WhatWeDo/documentary/index.html

    i’m interested also in how smaller companies without wal-mart’s buying power can influence manufacturing to affect change.

  5. mmdwight says:

    Ray Anderson is a hero. He put his career on the line at the very company he founded to pursue sustainability long before it was a mainstream concept. I can’t wait to see this documentary.

    As for small companies (my own included), we can start by avoiding those things that are known-bad — such as PVC material in my case. I subscribe to the notion that “less bad is more good” (or “mo betta” for you urbanites). Less of all the bad things — waste, toxins — every little bit counts. This is the basis of our residential recycling system — if everyone pitches in, the cumulative effect — or the “network effect” — yields tremendous results.

    I’m an optimist, so I believe my small efforts do make a difference. And I strive to inspire others to do the same — each in their own small way. Small companies can also reach out to larger companies. Rickshaw, for instance, collaborates with Coca-Cola and Steelcase/Designtex on projects utilizing fabric made from recycled beverage bottles.

    This is a great discussion. I encourage everyone to chime in.

    -Mark (Rickshaw founder)

  6. jontrue says:

    Great post Mark. The time and place “where sustainability will be the means and the measure of success” is incredibly exciting to me as an entrepreneur. I hope it is here now or soon, for global economic meltdown and unquestionable environmental disaster we’ve sewn are meeting up with a really progressive and enlightened President with the capability to motivate a world. Let’s hope this is the chance for the Age of Sustainability to go mass

    You’ve pioneered the way and shown that good design, great function and zero footprint result in a “killer” product.

    Keep up the great work, and continue to lead the way forward.

  7. Suzanne says:

    Hi Mark,
    Great essay. As a student ready to re-enter the somewhat shaky workforce, I appreciate people like you that truly practice what they preach. Maybe things out there are changing for the better. I really like how you’ve synthesized your thoughts into the 3 F’s. I’m curious, are the F’s a mantra you’ve developed on your own through practice? If so, I’d love to hear more about your process of developing that poetic organizing theme.
    Thanks for continuing to inspire,
    Suzanne

  8. Mike Flynn says:

    Mark you’re a rockstar!

    Liz Coleman from Bennington College talked in TED last week about the need for wisdom… that brilliance can get you into trouble just as readily as anything else without it.

    I hear “Footprint” as the context within which form and function can lead to truly extraordinary design.

    Responsibility and integrity are required to develop TRUST with companies and build long term brand loyalty.

    Companies that continue to ignore the wisdom of designing with Footprint in mind will be surpassed by the next wave of upstarts and existing converts who get it.

    Thanks for your idea!

    Mike

  9. Hello Mark,

    Love the 3rd F and agree it is essential. Definitely should have this published. It will be interesting watching how companies shift in this direction. A conscious shift is in the works.

    Definitely an idea worth sharing!

    Good things,

    Patrick

  10. ghbrett says:

    Hi Mark,
    What a thoughtful piece. I’ve been engaged in Art, Craft and Design since the 70’s. Back around 1971 I ran across “Design for the Real World,” by Victor Papanek. It was first published in 1969. Much of what he wrote would support your model here. It’s still available as a 2nd edition. Later in 1995 he published “The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture,” another worthwhile read.

    On the more fun side were the two volumes of Nomadic Furniture which last year were combined into one volume, “Nomadic Furniture: D-I-Y Projects That Are Lightweight and Light on the Environment .” Having browsed your Flickr pix I think you all might find some inspirations in this volume for various purposes.

    Links:
    > “Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change” 2nd Ed. 1985 Amazon: http://bit.ly/at0SH
    > “The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture” Amazon: http://bit.ly/9CmBA
    > “Nomadic Furniture: D-I-Y Projects That Are Lightweight and Light on the Environment” Includes Vols. 1 & 2 of the original Nomadi Furniture books. Amazon: http://bit.ly/2a8l6

  11. Kavan Wolfe says:

    Mark,

    Great essay. I wonder, though, whether ‘footprint’ conveys ‘social impacts’ to most people. I suspect that ‘footprint’ generally connotes an environmental footprint, but not a social footprint, in the minds of most people.

  12. Susan says:

    Mark,
    Interesting to read your essay. I have been a product designer since the early 80’s and am now back in school studying Sustainable Design at MCAD in Minneapolis. I am presently taking the class; Product Design, Natural Inspiration and was reading this afternoon about the environmentally preferable fabric that McDonough developed with Design-Tex which took me to their site and on to your site. His biodegradable low impact fabric is a great example of changing the system in which we produce our products. This offers significant environmental, economical and social advantages. I was not familiar with your product and commend you for successfully bringing your low impact product to market. Another book that I am presently reading is “Making Meaning” by Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff, and Darrel Rhea. Good read-
    I look forward to listening to your TED presentation.
    Susan

  13. Kiciordiari says:

    Good article. Will definitely visit soon=)

  14. Jonis says:

    Hey Mark, this really resonates with me. I read cradle to cradle about 6 months ago after a friend told me about it. I have worked in manufacturing and engineering for over 10 years and now run my own cost consultancy business but am still on the look out for being able to set up a business that would be both fun and do something to help future generations in living a full life without the worry and concern over the impact we have on the planet (I, like you, have 4 kids)I made it a goal this year to read more into this and see if I can start to look into the potential opportunity that sustainable design, planning and sourcing may bring.Have you seen some of the initiatives that Richard Branson and Virgin have begun to develop? You may find some of his ideas really click with your views especially in terms of the footprint that gets left and the view that if the whole of humankind puts its’ collective had together then we have a unique opportunity to develop products, technology and solutions that will benefit both us and the environment we inhabit without holding us back..Look forward to sharing ideas with you over the coming months.David
    +1

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