Can you discuss the ways you’ve refined your approach and understanding of sustainability over time?
It’s always a journey, and there are always changes in the road as you go, because technology gets better, or something happens and you learn that something is not as good as you thought it was. Having a single-minded approach is probably not the right way to think about sustainability. It has to be thought about as an evolving idea.
How would you define sustainability?
We as designers make stuff. And sustainability is about making that stuff as light on the planet as we can. It’s as simple as that, frankly.
You’ve been giving a presentation about your sustainability work to audiences of designers. What are your goals for this?
Designers are at the heart of how things get produced in our world, and are key to the process of making things. My mission is to get people to think about sustainability as a part of their day-to-day life. Because the reality is that if you think about sustainability in the process of your design work, it doesn’t necessarily cost more. And in my experience, it actually drives creativity. In the work we do, we’ve actually done better design work because we approached it in this way, in terms of thinking of sustainable materials or sustainable processes, and it took us in a direction that we wouldn’t have gone—it almost always takes us in a better design direction. I do the presentation to designers to be provocative to the design world, to get people to think about the work they do in a different way.
And some of these choices can actually save money.
Yes. We did the Splenda box where we removed literally a half-inch of paper on the opening flap—and that saved 90 tons of paper and $700,000. It’s a half-inch less of paper, and it’s easier for the consumer to open the box, and it’s a better solution. And there are all kinds of those examples.
You’ve spoken about how your design philosophy is to leverage sustainability to create more value for the consumer.
Our approach is about making sure that while we’re doing this, we’re also mindful of the end-use experience. We’re not just making sustainable things for the sake of doing sustainable stuff—our real job is to make sure that we’re providing a really great consumer experience for people.
With the new Tylenol packaging, you got rid of the box packaging completely. How do you get your colleagues to agree to this, when the change could be seen as something negative?
Can you talk about your list of “seven questions to ask before designing anything”?
The idea of that is to have designers think about what they’re doing from a sustainability point of view while they’re solving the problem that they’re working on. So if you take a peek at that list and ask, “Can
I do it with less?” you might decide, “Oh, yeah, I could get rid of this part, or I could make this box thinner, or change the format of this to use less board.”
How about outlandish ideas, like zero waste—how much is that a part of what you’re looking into?
The idea of always stretching to the “next” is what we have to do as designers and as people interested and engaged in sustainability. When I started at Aveda, the big deal was making recycled content as high as we could make it. And now, we’re there, which is great—everybody’s doing 50, 60, 80, 90, 100 percent of post-consumer content. What do you do next? Because you’ve got to keep improving.
One conundrum for designers beginning in this arena is what you describe as “so many opportunities, where do I start?”
I think that is paralyzing for a lot of designers. They think, “Oh my God, if I do this, I’m going to get into a morass that I can’t get myself out of.” And the reality is that you just have to pick one aspect to focus on and start the journey. That can jar you out of that overwhelmed state.
The J&J credo is of enormous use—something you use to explain the importance of sustainability. How can designers working at companies without such a credo make it part of the culture?
If you’re working with a team of designers, and you have like-mindedness on this subject, you just do it. Companies come to designers to design things—and we do it in the best way we can. And if we believe in sustainability, we use sustainability as one of our tenets of how we design things—that’s just part of the process. And if it doesn’t cost the company more, or you figure out how to save the company money, that’s a good thing.
In companies where it’s less obvious, think how you can do it and try to convince people. It’s about bringing your colleagues and boss along in this transformation: pointing out how other companies do things in a good way, saying, “We ought to be doing that, too.” People who believe in it have to be advocates for other folks who don’t have the easy ability to get there because their company doesn’t have a credo. It’s an essential responsibility of being a designer on this planet right now.