"Looking for Hacks"

By Matthew Power | 8/7/2013

Designing products to encourage sustainability is no easy task, but one pathway may be to “hack” existing products to change their life expectancy.


Each year, I attend several conferences, including one at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), called A Better World by Design. The most recent conference, held last fall, although a bit weaker than previous iterations, did yield a few new ideas. Most notably, a presentation by Dawn Danby of Autodesk offered thoughtful tips on where eco-conscious product design needs to go next.

Danby’s thesis is quite radical: “We can’t make some things that much more efficient,” she says, “but if we get them to last longer, that’s a real efficiency gain. What we’re looking for is hacks. How to hack into the current lifecycle and extend it.”

At the same time, she notes, some goods actually last too long, such as certain medicines or luxury goods. They are too hard to dispose of or recycle. “Play-Doh, for
example,” she says. “It will be around practically forever, long after it has outlived its function. A big problem is that things often end up in the middle somewhere—not lasting long enough or lasting too long.”

Danby adds that too many product designs have little to do with how real people use items. When they actually observe behavior with efficiency in mind, they may come up with major design tweaks. She references a UC Berkeley study for ECO-Fridge, produced by the Mexico-based Mabe company. “They began by looking at how people use a refrigerator,” she says. “What are the biggest energy wasters? Open it and all the air goes out. So they developed a quick-view window and bottom compartment to reduce air loss.

Seems like common sense, right? But think about how many products (and home floorplans) seem to have been designed on a drafting table, with little real-world observation. Many lessons can be learned from good product design. At her presentation, she offered several design tips, based on work by Dan Lockton, titled “Design With Intent,” (http://architectures.danlockton.co.uk). We include here several of Lockton’s product design strategies. Note that most of the text is his, but we have replaced some of the imagery for clarity.

Click on the image below to view the product design strategies.



This article, from our June 2013 issue, can be viewed in its entirety in our Magazine Archive.



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