Form, Function and Footprint

Posted Apr 28, 2014 11:26:25 AM

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The “3-F’s” of Product Design for the New Age of Sustainability

Design has become an essential component of most serious product development efforts. The notion that “Good Design is Good Business” is widely accepted and practiced today (though there are many notable exceptions). Technology has helped meld aesthetic design with functional engineering, and made the translation to physical products much more graceful, efficient and cost effective. It’s hard to imagine there was considerable debate about “form versus function” when I was graduating from college in the early ‘80’s – a time when “design” was often dismissed as a frivolous expense and “industrial designers” were largely regarded as “stylists” – disdained by engineers and dismissed by senior executives. Today “and” has replaced “versus”, as Form and Function have become the strategic twins of modern product development.

The marriage of form and function has yielded a generation of elegant, ergonomic, extraordinarily functional and economical products. Great design is no longer confined to high-end goods, as mass marketers such as Target have partnered with top designers to “democratize” great design. We are indeed in a golden age of product design.

But we are on the threshold of a revolution – the dawn of a new age – where sustainability will be the means and the measure of success. Soaring energy costs, rising labor rates, resource scarcity, economic hardship and ecological degradation are all forcing us to rethink our profligate ways. This is the Sustainability Revolution – the dawn of the Age of Sustainability – an age when we must confront the fragility of our habitat and the scarcity of our natural resources. It is time for us to collaborate with nature – to learn from the models of sustainability that nature has perfected over billions of years, and to develop products and processes that mimic these proven exemplars.

Pre-industrial mankind both feared and revered nature. Nature could be both powerfully destructive, and wonderfully regenerative – and we attributed its incredible extremes to supernatural forces beyond our control and understanding. Through the ages, a growing understanding of the laws of nature set the stage for the Industrial Revolution – the age of conquering nature with machines and brute force innovation. More recently, the Technology Revolution has allowed us to understand nature on a much deeper, microscopic level, and fostered an age of manipulating nature at its most fundamental levels. From a product development perspective, advanced technology, combined with cheap energy and cheap labor, has empowered the relentless – and often reckless – drive for “more, better, faster, cheaper”, and fueled our consumption-based society.

Product design for this new Age of Sustainability must move beyond the traditional considerations of form and function, and embrace a “third F” of design – the ecological “footprint” of the products and processes that yield the products of tomorrow. This new semantic of product design – “Form, Function, and Footprint” – embraces the environmental and social impacts in the design process itself. This will be an era of remarkable change and opportunity. New technologies, materials, processes and business models will be required. It will be an evolutionary process requiring tradeoffs, risks and heroic efforts. There will be success and failures along the way – but this is the essential stuff of progress. New ways of thinking must be taught, and this concept must be embraced explicitly at the educational level. True change requires a change in both mindset and behavior. Sustainability must be embraced as a core discipline and programmed into the educational process, in order to influence the formative years of critical thinking for the new students of design – the soon-to-be professional designers of the new generation.

Where the old notion of Good Design – the harmony of form and function – was good business yesterday, the new notion of Good Design – the explicit melding of form, function and footprint – is not only good business, but essential for our survival as a species.

-Mark Dwight

Filed under: Form. Function. Footprint, custom design