Plastic Products: Designing to Do The Right Thing

Posted on: 13/04/2022
GRIPS Sustainable Design Plastic Animation Image

Using design to ‘do the right thing’ is at the heart of Innovate UK KTN’s new Design Innovation Network, and the plastics industry is just one area where a good design can yield huge benefits.

The potential to use design to impact the sustainability of plastic was discussed at Innovate UK KTN’s Global Research & Innovation in Plastics Sustainability (GRIPS) Conference. Abi Hird, Design Innovation Network Lead at Innovate UK KTN, and a panel of experts explored the importance of developing processes to accommodate sustainability.

Five actionable insights for designing plastic solutions

The session provided a wealth of practical insights. We’ve distilled five actions you can implement now to ensure you are Doing The Right Thing as you design and develop plastic products.

1. Challenge designers

Encourage your design team to push back on your brief.

Designers are not being commissioned to figure out what the right thing to do is. Briefs are narrowly defined and there often isn’t space for negotiation. Designers have the capacity to help you answer some difficult questions about whether what you are doing is actually needed and useful and can help you navigate the possibilities in a commercially and planet sensitive way.

Legislation and policy are heading this way so get ahead of the curve.

Designers are often not allowed the time and resources to make the changes that they would like to make to do the job justice. Competition and cost-value pressures cap funding for materials development and limits design freedom.

Granting designers time, support and resources as well as taking a more strategic approach to design would make a significant difference.

2. Make sure to innovate and create purposefully

Nicole Agba offers some great insights: “We have a greater responsibility to think about people and the planet. Why are we making the things that we are making? Do we need to make the things we are making? We have a responsibility to think about our contribution to  overconsumption and the role we play as designers in that.”

“It’s not necessarily knowing the answers to the questions, it’s knowing what the questions are…Materials are really at the core of everything to do with sustainability because it is in physically making something that produces carbon”. – Chris Lefteri

3. Focus on user centred design and systems aware design

For so long Design rhetoric has been focused on the user and design for the individual. We need to move beyond this singular approach and think about other systems, as well as people. We need to think about infrastructure, the planet, the whole life cycle and the wider systems our products fit into.

Systems Thinking approaches and principles have been around for a long time but are not yet routinely used in innovation practice. The Design Innovation Network has been established to enable innovative businesses and individuals to consider wider systems issues as they develop new products and services.

4. Upskilling Designers

From a functional point of view, it is clear that we have had a learning curve about plastic. Originally all designers had was data sheets and behaviours were not really well understood. Now we need to have the same learning curve when it comes to understanding the degradation of the material and the circular aspects.

“We’ve had a love-hate relationship with plastic…People’s attitudes were very pejorative. There was an aspect where people didn’t understand how to use this new material. This is where design was good and bad.” – Susan Mossman

5. Meaningfully communicate

Telling meaningful stories is fundamental to improving understanding of the ‘good; and bad’ use of plastics. Biodegradable and compostable materials are often considered good whilst plastics are often less so. Sometimes the reality of Doing The Right Thing is counterintuitive and wider perceptions and social norms need to be challenged.

“Plastics have an enormous functional use. It is a material that is functional, practical, colourful and inexpensive which is really important for inclusive design, it has revolutionised the way we have lived our lives for the better.” – Cat Drew

“It’s about the information available to designers and It’s about the role of the designer to communicate information so consumers know what to do with it. It’s a challenge but it’s happening really quickly” – Chris Lefteri

“A lot of people see plastic as the problem and there is a lot of talk about going plastics free but actually they don’t know what plastics are and they can’t and they shouldn’t. What we do is show where it is right to use plastics. Part of the problem is the view of design as the creator of desire” – Susan Lambert

Join | Connect | Change

If you are passionate about using design and innovation to improve the sustainability of plastics as well as the sustainability of products in a variety of industries, make sure to join the Design Innovation Network by clicking here.

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