Colorblind Examines All Shades of Consumer Behavior Beyond Just “Green”

A self-initiated research project uncovers some surprising findings about why and how people make sustainable decisions.

Designers Accord


As a global innovation and design firm with multiple offices that work on a range of consumer and medical products and services, Continuum had long been engaged with the process of making their work more environmentally responsible. But a few years ago they began to get questions from their clients that they couldn’t answer. “A lot of clients were coming to us and asking how the consumer felt, wondering how consumers made decisions about sustainability,” says Kelly Sherman, design strategist. “We wanted to be an advisor on that conversation and needed a better point of view.” In September 2007, Continuum embarked on a year-long research project that could help explain how and why consumers made those sustainable choices. They named the project Colorblind.

Continuum’s own culture focused on sustainability–they had an internal “green team” and a group called Aware, which conducts a kind of competitive review for to identify if a project creates an opportunity to impact sustainability. Continuum’s clients were also more like partners who were interested in making changes in their own company simply because it was the right thing to do. Both of those conditions encouraged them to spend their own money and invest in this self-initiated project.


Due to this experience, when the designers began looking into the project, they were fairly aware of the kind of studies that had been done. “A lot of the information out there were studies on what people did–statistics on how many people recycled,” says Sherman. “But there was no way to enter into why people did things.” Partnering with the research firm Communispace, Continuum set out to study how people really felt about being and buying green. Their research included an astounding 21 in-home interviews and more than 6,800 online participants across the country.

To fully engage the subjects–average citizens who had no idea they were going to be surveyed for a green study–the researchers began what they called an “exhaustive conversation,” about why consumers did what they did. For the members of the 21 households surveyed in Boston, Atlanta and Fort Collins, Colorado, the process was most thorough, looking in all their rooms, clothes, food, trash, even going shopping with them. “Homework” included a Madilbs-type workbook, making collages, and keeping sustainability journals where people could record their thoughts.



An insightful process for the designers was an “environmental tour” that took place in the family’s home. “We had family members take us through room by room
and tell us what they thought was the worst thing for the environment,
in each room, and what was the best,” says Kristin Heist, project
manager. “It provided an opening to talk about very different topics
like water use, secondhand clothing, even pets! It was also a good way
to get the kids involved.”

Continuum released a comprehensive study of their conclusions, but perhaps most shocking to the designers was the fact that across the board, people cared more about “their world” than they did “the world”–altruism by itself was not a motivator. “Rarely did we hear that people were doing things for the environment specifically,” says Sherman. “People make sustainable choices when they are the best for themselves, their family and friends.” Another surprise? Although almost everyone recycled, people are more likely to focus on issues of trash and waste over areas like food sources where their purchasing power could make more of a statement. This came down to a general finding that consumers are more likely to change a behavior when it has a visible connection: touching and seeing materials, use and disposal.

The designers believe that the most important piece of insight they uncovered was that they could distill any so-called “green” behavior down to very basic human needs–long-term value, instant gratification and self-expression–concepts that not only go beyond sustainability, but will be very familiar and resonant long after current trends change. It made them reconsider their choices when designing, since it became obvious that consumer demand would not drive sales of the necessarily “greenest” product. “All of the things we’re talking about designing, it doesn’t change when you’re designing for the environment,” says Sherman. “You still have to make things that people want, things people need, things that delight and please them.”


One challenge that confronted Continuum throughout the process was the perception that their work could be considered judgmental. Sustainability touches on all sorts of personal issues–finances, politics, religion–even the designers found themselves opening up about their own frustrations in order to empathize with their subjects. “We also needed to make sure our participants felt comfortable sharing their views,” says Heist. “We would often start of by telling them about some of the stuff that we do, that we felt guilty about. It was a nice way to break the ice and say, ‘We are not the green police.'” This also informed the design of the materials and the site, which presents information matter-of-factly rather than urgently (and appropriately avoids the color green).


After incorporating the findings into a Web site, like another Designers Accord case study, Continuum chose to put the material online, as a free PDF. Continuum has begun to incorporate this knowledge into their practice, and already feel like they have a better handle on consumer behavior that can be more valuable to their clients. But more importantly, they hope their results can aid environmental decisions made by designers, consumers–and as a country. “One of my favorite quotations from the study was, ‘If it was really that bad, would the government let me do it?'” says Heist. “It is a good question. I hope the findings of Colorblind inspire us to find additional ways to make environmental responsibility the right choice for more people and more companies, right now.”


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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato


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