Why Design Is Key for Positive Impact

Design is on everyone’s lips, so we asked our design team to share how they integrate design in our work. In this interview, Nikola Berger, Head of Creative & Communication and Eva Rudolf, Senior Designer at the CSCP explain how design can be a lever to achieve greater impact.

The CSCP lives by a holistic and impact-oriented understanding of design. Can you explain what this means in a nutshell?

Nikola Berger: Design has been an integral part of how we work for more than a decade: to translate research into language and visuals that can be grasped by a wide audience has supported our goal to mainstream sustainability and often sets us apart from other organisations in the field. Beyond translating, we use design processes (design thinking, service design, human and non-human centric design processes) to bring holistic sustainability perspectives to people in change processes—which is a core aspect of our work.

The majority of our projects have a change component, where design helps achieve solutions on many levels and through different means. Sometimes this happens in creative workshop formats that bring experience and interactive participation into the focus in order to support collaboration and inspire. We call it “getting unstuck!“ Other times we support impactful solutions by working with non-human personas to challenge fixed conceptions and open the door for new ideas.

Can you give us an example?

Nikola Berger: In our Sustainable Island Mauritius (SIM) project, our design team was tasked to support over 40 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to develop new products or redevelop existing ones more sustainably. Most of these organisations don’t have a product designer and consist of rather small teams that multitask to grow their business on an island with limited local resources. For this group, we translated the enormous amount of design resources that is now available (through many great organisations) into basic modules focused on values and impact closely linked to the local context. We started with sustainable design concepts but included the CSCP’s handprint approach. Then we created a co-creation process between SMEs and the tourism industry to work together to have a positive impact but our approach applies to any design process: A video summary shows a detailed account of our work in the SIM project, highlighting the co-creation process. In addition, our Creative Guide Book summarises our extensive work on the island for 5 years and shares some of the tools that SMEs can adjust and use based on their needs.

You mentioned the handprint approach, how does that apply to design?

Eva Rudolf: We start off with basic sustainable design principles, which means considering the whole lifecycle of a product (or a service, infrastructure, or system) and its impact across all stages. We take a look at the negative impacts of all lifecycle stages and try to reduce it as much as possible. This is key, but an additional aspect that we are trying to include is to also to consider what positive impacts (handprint) a product or the whole organisation/system can have.

In real contexts, how do you design for positive impact?

Nikola Berger: We should design with people and the environment in mind. Is this product (or a service, infrastructure, or system) needed? How will it make the world (someone’s life) better? Does it have to be a product or can we develop a service or experience? Then, as we develop sustainable products or services with the smallest possible footprint, we can consider the positive and regenerative effects we want to have. This often means that we need to collaborate, maybe with the community, across sectors, with civil society organisations (CSOs) and our clients.

So, basically, we need more design in our projects?

Eva Rudolf: Exactly! A lot of the things that we use, look at, or are surrounded by are made by humans. No matter if you use your mobile phone, read a newspaper, watch an ad, use an APP or commute to work – all these things and processes have been designed by people. To make it short, our world is permeated with design and this is what brings it to the centre of transformation processes, making design a key driver of change. To bring it to the sustainability field, it is claimed that about 80% of the environmental impact of a product or service* – in particular its resource and energy consumption along its entire value chain – are already determined in the design phase.

To fully leverage this potential, we advocate bringing experts from our creative network from various disciplines (e.g., product design, design for sustainable behaviour, design for sustainable social innovation, design for system innovations and transitions, and others) into projects and onto the table. For example, when we run a project where developing circular products/models is at the centre, a product designer in the mix of stakeholders is very important.

Across all our projects, we work toward achieving the goals and visions set in major frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the EU Green Deal. All of these frameworks refer to design as a core tool in change processes.

For further questions, reach out to Nikola Berger or Eva Rudolf directly.

*Ellen MacArthur Foundation