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A New Breed of Design Thinking, Part 1

Given the magnitude of 21st Century challenges, it is increasingly clear that effective designers and engineers will need to be capable of designing for sustainability.

By DAVID BRUER, Intern, Beyond Design

DAVID BRUEREveryone should have something they are passionate about. For me, that passion is an extreme interest in anything and everything eco-friendly. I cannot explain how this passion arose — it might be from the values my parents taught me through my upbringing in Sweden. Nevertheless, it has come to define whom I am and what I want to pursue in my career as an industrial designer.

While interning at Beyond Design, a product development consultancy in Chicago, I saw that when deciding to go the eco-friendly route on a project, costs usually go up for the client, and in the real world, cost is what always dominates. Hence, I began to contemplate if there was a way to unite eco-friendly solutions and financial profit, and if we, as industrial designers, can make a contribution here.

Given the magnitude of 21st Century challenges, it is increasingly clear that effective designers and engineers will need to be capable of designing for sustainability. Although key terms on the subject of sustainability do exist, and dictionaries, Wikipedia, guidebooks and textbooks all offer definitions on the subject from multiple perspectives, there is still a running debate about how we might define the term and how we can integrate it in our design process in a tangible way.

This becomes an important issue since the field of industrial design, as well as many other disciplines today, is undergoing a paradigm shift from a focus on performance to eco-efficiency. This ongoing change further necessitates a shift in the way we think about sustainability.

Therefore, I took the opportunity to investigate the different mental models we use when we think about and approach the term sustainability, and also contemplate the effects they have on our design process and corporate business strategies.

The Triple Bottom Line

Within the conversation about sustainability, many often refer to the ‘triple bottom line’ mental model, which uses net gains in social, economic, and environment considerations as a design or decision-making criteria. This is depicted with a set of separate, but overlapping, circles.

Sustainable design is characterized as the region where all three systems overlap.


Whereas traditional models were mostly about profit, the triple bottom line recognizes something completely different. It says that, without satisfied, healthy people to serve as customers and to staff a business, and without the natural environment’s ability to sustain those people and supply resources for trade, business in the long run is unsustainable.

Of the hundred largest economies in the world, 51 are businesses and the other 49 are countries. This is why many regard the triple bottom line concept to be so important; it's not just about commerce — it's about civilization.

The triple bottom line’s good intention of paying equal attention to all three of its constituting parts is seldom the case in reality. In fact, the triple bottom line implies an accounting system in which one can weigh and trade off the gains in between these three categories. It implicitly treats the environment, society and the economy as separate, competing and substitutable for one another.

In practice, the often-unstated mental model is a set of three axes along which designers must optimize and balance. Optimizing the tradeoffs in the triple bottom line is much like distributing an insufficient number of points across the three axes.

What’s your take? Please feel free to leave a comment below. Tune into the Chemical Equipment Daily for part two of this two-part series. For more information, please visit

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