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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Designing for impact: How good design benefits humanity, the environment, and innovation

Design for the future should only have one goal: positive impact. If we can’t answer the “why” behind a new product, it deserves a hard pass.

Designing for impact: How good design benefits humanity, the environment, and innovation
[dimj; Worawut / AdobeStock]

Designers are optimists. They’re good at imagining things that don’t yet exist. But ideas are a dime a dozen. Not every concept merits the luxury of graduating to execution. Despite brands’ reassurances that their products are “sustainable,” most things that surround us will eventually wind up in a landfill.

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Does the world really need another electronic device that looks only slightly different from the previous iteration? Do we need the billions of garments we’re buying each year and discarding thoughtlessly? This kind of consumption is harmful to the planet and our own well-being and is something we can no longer afford.

Many sensible designers have faced an impact-related existential crisis with regard to their work, asking questions like, “What’s the point of reskinning the same things all the time?” “Am I responsible for an enormous amount of trash that ends up in landfills and pollutes ecosystems?” and “Is my work benefiting a collective better future?”

The good news is that there’s some highly impactful design out there today seeking to benefit humanity, the environment, and innovation.

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DESIGN THAT BENEFITS HUMANITY

Creating a healthy, balanced world requires moving people from a state of surviving to thriving. A common frame of reference is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—a multi-tiered pyramid with basic human needs (food, clean water, air) and safety (jobs, home) at the base. Once these primary needs are met, we naturally seek to access higher tiers, enhancing our lives as we pursue friendship, love, esteem, and self-actualization.

One of our most basic physiological needs is sleep. We can’t function without it for long—and yet many of us find it challenging to get even a decent night’s sleep. Prolonged sleep deprivation leads to issues with focus, stress, mood, and even shorter life spans.

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Sleep is emotional. And attempting to “cure” sleeplessness is big business. People are desperate to invest in anything that might work for them. The internet offers an abundance of tips on how to get better sleep, but many of these are hit-or-miss at best.

Fitness trackers and smartwatches are training us to monitor our individual biometrics. Researchers have learned how to use that information to create tools that can actually “fix” sleep instead of simply monitoring it. UC Berkeley neuroscientist Robert Knight, MD, and research scientist Ram Gurumoorthy, Ph.D., have discovered that gentle electrical stimulation of the brain before bedtime can ease your brain into falling asleep quickly.

My design firm worked with the researchers to develop an electronic headband applying that gentle electrical stimulation to the forehead to mimic and enhance healthy brainwave sleep patterns. From there, the brain knows what to do, running through the cycles you need to fully recover and feel rested the next morning.

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Imagine a world where everyone gets a good night’s sleep. People might experience life more fully and may even make more compassionate decisions, creating a positive ripple effect in their homes and communities.

DESIGN THAT BENEFITS THE ENVIRONMENT

Designers have long been focused on products and branding, and the release of “new and improved” stuff at ever-shorter intervals. The result is overflowing landfills and polluted waterways on a global scale. Correcting this dangerous course requires a major shift in systems design before, during, and after a product reaches a customer.

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That means considering the product, its materials and where they’re sourced, where they’ll end up, and what it takes for products to be transported and eventually recycled. We need to rethink everything we create from consumer electronics to clothing to cities—and make responsible choices from the outset.

One of the ways we can do that is by designing with the circular economy in mind. A Dutch company already doing a good job with reducing its environmental footprint is Fairphone. They’ve understood that customers desire high-quality, well-functioning smartphones instead of constant, insignificant design changes. Fairphone encourages users to keep their devices and replace parts as needed, including the battery, camera, and screen. Not only do consumers save money, but they also save the planet from excessive waste while not sacrificing their technological needs.

The ripple effect of companies like Fairphone, which are disrupting outdated practices by changing design rules for a complex and ubiquitous product, could be huge. Smartphones are already replacing our need for a myriad of devices by consolidating features like flashlights, cameras, and calculators into a single product. Think of how this concept could be applied in other areas, perhaps even reshaping our values as consumers as we aim for quality and longevity over throwaway culture.

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DESIGN THAT BENEFITS INNOVATION

Sometimes we must travel far to create a path to solutions in our backyards. For instance, it may be tough for the average person to understand the point of spending billions of dollars on space exploration. But the fact is that working in extreme environments like space can accelerate innovation back here on Earth.

NASA’s mission is to “drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality and stewardship of Earth.” Would the world be the same without GPS, solar cells, water filtration systems, artificial limbs, insulin pumps, or scratch-resistant lenses?

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These are all products that exist thanks to space exploration and benefit us here on Earth in significant ways. The purpose of these innovations might have been different at first, but adapting them to Earth-based needs has been responsible for countless advancements in quality of life and environmental responsibility.

Innovation isn’t linear. Sci-Fi reflects innovation well ahead of its time and has been a source of inspiration in science, medicine, technology, and the arts. What would the world look like without the imaginations of Jules Verne, Star Trek, or Philip K. Dick?

Design for the future should only have one goal: positive impact. If we can’t answer the “why” behind a new product, it deserves a hard pass. Moving forward, if we can look back at the way we did things a decade prior with chagrin and be proud of how far we’ve come, we’ll know we’ve made real progress.

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Phnam Bagley is a partner at Nonfiction, a San Francisco-based design firm that turns science fiction into reality for a better future.

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