Category Sustainability

Measuring the value of design

In the 20th century the role of designers was majorly understood as that of shape-makers, skilled folks who refine the way objects look. Think car-styling, or how the fashion industry delivers new clothing styles every season. Beyond surface and form, design is a skill that creates new products or services. Design has been embraced by business schools, like Rotman School of Management, and even governments, like Singapore or South Korea have incorporated a design culture to improve on public services.

However styled, or invisible the outcomes of design might be, design has the ability to deliver financial value. For many years the Design Management Institute tracked how design-driven companies, like Apple, IBM, Nike, Starbucks, or Procter & Gamble outperformed others in the Standard & Poors 500 index by over 200% between 2005 and 2015. In their studies, designers have a seat at the C-level of these corporations and are able to consistently innovate across their industries.

Graph of Design Value Index 2005-2015
Design Value Index 2005-2015


How can designers demonstrate the value of the work they do?

Ultimately, designers can demonstrate value on a before-after basis, before and after a product re-design. For instance, increase in sales of a product, customer satisfaction, overall revenue growth.  The Design Management Institute has a tool to help frame how designers add value in four parameters: revenue, customer experience, organizational learning, and processes. 

In another project I was personally involved in (The Sustainable Design Standard), a cohort of designers created a framework for evaluating the value of design incling metrics beyond financial value. Based on the premise that designers can also create social, cultural, and environmental value, we created metrics to determine whether designers are helping create products that are healthy, that promote human rights, or that do a lesser damage to the environment. Spoiler alert: Virtually all products designed today are not sustainable.

Provenance is a good example of how designers can gauge the performance of the things they design. The Provenance tool enables both consumers and companies to trace who and how products were made. The tool visualizes the supply chain of participating products and is connected to a verifiable database that rates suppliers and materials.

Provenance app

Designers are known for their skills to create attractive products. As the design practice continues to evolve this century, we can expect the design industry to lead the way in making complex information easy-to-understand and actionable.

SD Standard

How can a designer have a positive impact on the planet? What should designers consider? Should designers be accountable for the emissions they contribute to producing from the products they design? Or should we be held accountable for the human rights we promote? Or fail to support?

The SD Standard is a project I’ve been working on with other colleagues, mostly Valerie Elliott, and Tuuli Sauren. It is a rating system where a designer can self-assess her or his design, and one’s own practices as a designer in terms of social, cultural, environmental and economic impact. This system is focused on communication design projects, such as editorial, graphic, illustration, and web design. While the current system can also be applied to product and environmental design projects, it needs further testing in those categories.

To make this a practical set of tools, our core team is developing focused metrics per design category. A book, for example, carries different environmental factors than a website. While it makes environmental sense to design a durable chair, it makes little sense to design durable packaging for cookies. The current SD Standard encompasses about 60 metrics, which are being fine-tuned and focused, based on the nature of a given project.

You can learn more about this project on the SD Standard website.

Remembering Hassan Fathy

Some designers such as Karim Rashid, Hani Rashid (Asymptote), both born in Cairo, Karim Mekhtigian, Rami Makram (Alchemy), and Tarek Naga are some of the contemporary designers and architects from Egypt. At a critical moment in the history of the African country, after four days of protests against President Mubarak, I remember the architect Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), a pioneer of what today would be considered sustainable architecture or appropriate technology.

Astonished by the lack of good design in marginalized areas of Egypt, Fathy rescued the ancient building techniques of his country and reintroduced the use of adobe in the construction as well as the vaulted ceilings that improve the thermal and ventilation efficiency of buildings and potentially can contribute to the buildings duration for hundreds of years. Materials and technique dictate the proportions and shapes of Fathy’s buildings. The curves of the ceilings harmonize with the walls, creating well-lit spaces, but most importantly: spaces that are accessible to the population with fewer resources.

In his project that encompassed a set of houses for 900 families in Gourna, who were forced to evacuate a cemetery they had invaded and converted into a residential space, Fathy tried to integrate the character and culture of the inhabitants in their design.

“Design should not be a false tradition or a false modernity imposed, rather architecture must be a living and permanent expression of the character of the community,”

explains Fathy in his book Architecture for the Poor. His architectural considerations included a ventilation, solar orientation, social integration, environmental surroundings, food production, drainage, among other factors.

During his career he designed shelters for refugees in Gaza, Palestine. Also within its repertoire of works exist residences, mosques, hotels, and buildings of mixed uses in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United States, among other countries.

Fotos of the new Gourna village: Chant Avedissian, Christopher Little, Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Sustainability Actors Map

In recent months I´ve collected basic information on how organizations, companies, and public sector institutions are using design methods to solve sustainability problems in three broad categories (social, economic, and environmental impact).

Sustainability map, from research to action. How organizations understand and apply sustainability practices.

Doing a scan of 116 organizations and companies that are using design methods for business, social, or environmental innovation, some highlights became apparent:

  • There appears to be a tipping point at which companies first begin learning about sustainability, and only later start applying sustainability in their own practices and in the services they offer clients.
  • Only 20% of the organizations act on the three areas of sustainability.
  • The next most common areas that organizations work on are: environmental and economic factors (also, around 20%), hinting at the fact that social sustainability may not have a business case for the organizations.


The results of this research helped create a better picture of how design methods are applied to sustainability issues, and get a better sense of the current best-practices.


Here are the 116 people, and organizations used in this infographic.

Access Project
Alt, Mark (See Center for Sustainable Design, AIGA)
Amatullo, Mariana (See designmatters)
Architecture for Humanity
Alexander, Christopher
BaSIC initiative, University of Texas, Austin
“Batten Institute, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia “
Bishop, Steve (See IDEO,
Beilenberg Institute
Benyus, Janine (see Biomimicry)
Biomimicry (concept)
Bolton, Steve (See MBDC)
Brown, Tim (see IDEO)
Buckminster Fuller Institute
Burke, Anita
Capra, Fritjof
“Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit (BAWB), Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University”
Center for Sustainable Design, AIGA
Center for Sustainable Innovation
“Centre for Sustainable Consumption, Sheffield Hallam University
“Centre for Sustainable Design, Surrey Institute of Art & Design”
“Charter, Martin (See Centre for Sustainable Design, Surrey Institute of Art & Design)”
Conserve India (bags & accessories)
Corporate Design Foundation
Cottam, Hilary
“Cox, Maurice. Director of Design, National Endowment for the Arts “
Cradle to Cradle (design framework)
Danish Design Center
“Designing for the 21st Century, University of Dundee”
Designmatters, Art Center College of Design
Designworks (See Rotman School of Management)
Design 21 Network
“Design and Innovation for Sustainability (Unita di ricerca), Politecnico di Milano”
Design for All Foundation
Design for the other 90%
Design for the world (ICOGRADA, ICSID, IFI)
“DKDS (Danmarks Designskole /
Danish School of Design)”
Domus Academy
Doors of Perception
Design that Matters, MIT Media Lab
DOTT, Stanford University Institute of Design
Earth Institute, Columbia University
EKOS International
Forum for the Future
Frog Design (Sustainable Design Initiative)
Fuad-Luke, Alistair
Global Academy
Global City (Aarhus)
“Global Poverty Mapping Project, Japan Policy and Human Resource Development”
GOOD magazine
Greener World Media
Hawken, Paul
Herman Miller
Herron School of Art and Design
“Heskett, John (See Hong Kong Polytechnic University)”
The hippo roller
Hirshberg, Gary (See Stonyfield Yogurt)
Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Inamori Foundation
INDEX: Design Awards
Innovation Lab (DK)
Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology
Integrative Design Collaborative
Kaos Pilots
Keely, Larry (See Doblin)
Kelly, Brian (See Sustainable Enterprise Academy)
Kotchka, Claudia (See Procter & Gamble)
Learning Lab, Denmark
Liedtka, Jeanne M. (see Batten Institute)
Light, Andrew
The life-straw
Lovins, Amory (see Rocky Mountain Institute)
MaDe In Lab
Makower, Joel (See Greener World Media)
“Manzini, Ezio (see Design and Innovation for Sustainability)”
Melican, Jay
Meyer, Michael (See Batten Institute)
The Moderns
Monday Morning (DK)
Natural Logic
The Natural Step
NatureWorks LLC
NextDesign Leadership Institute
Ocean Arks International
“Open University. Department of Design and Innovation”
Orr, David
Owen, Gary (See ResponseABILITY Alliance)
Palleroni, Sergio (See BaSIC initiative)
“Parrish, Bradley D. (See Sustainability Research Institute)”
Pré Consultants
“Prestero, Timothy (See Design that Matters, ThinkCycle)”
Procter & Gamble
Product-Life Institute
Reason, Ben (see live|work)
RED Unit, Design Council
Rematerialise project
ResponseABILITY Alliance
Richardson, Adam (see Frog Design)
Rocky Mountain Institute
“Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto”
Rural Studio
Ruxin, Josh (See Access Project)
Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N. (See MakeTools)
Schumacher College
Sheltair Group
Sinclair, Cameron (See Architecture for Humanity)
Slow Design (movement, philosophy)
Social Design (movement, philosophy)
Stanford Institute Of Design (see
Stonyfield Yogurt
Strauss, Carolyn (See SlowLab)
Sustainable Edge
“Sustainable Enterprise Academy, Schulich School of Business, York University”
Sustainable Everyday Project
“Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds”
Thomas Matthews
Todd, Sara (See Frog Design)
Todd, John (See Ocean Arks International)
Verganti, Roberto (See MaDe In Lab)
Willard, Bob
World Changing

“21_21 Design Sight Museum,Issey Miyake Foundation”