6 Moral Obligations of Product Deisgners

Do product designers, the ones often responsible for creating the trendiest gadgets, the most useful tools and coolest toys or accessories have any moral obligations to uphold? A quote from the 2002 blockbuster Spider-Man comes to mind, “With great power comes great responsibility”. With the tool set and creative liberty to dictate how a product is used as well as manufactured, and even discarded after it’s worn out or no longer wanted by the owner, I believe the simple answer is yes, a product designer does have moral obligations.

A moral obligation is based upon one’s own set of values, or what he or she sees as important in life. After decades of irresponsible manufacture, pollution and discarding of expired products, the toll more than the now 7 billion people have taken on this planet is undeniable. Without standards, regulations and monitoring of the production of and discarding of physical products, incentives to produce more, cheaper, faster result in careless disregard for our planet and people’s wellbeing. Of course various global, national and regional governing parties instate regulations in an effort to throttle waste, and pollution, but rather than just adhering to a set of rules, a more responsible decision would be to incentivize or instill a desire at the designer and engineer level to concept more innovative product solutions from a sustainability standpoint from the outset of product creation. 

To simplify matters, I’ve boiled the moral obligations of a product designer down into a concise list of 6 overarching ideas.

  • Reduce ‘Duplicates’
  • Use Recycled Materials
  • Increase Usefulness
  • Increase Longevity
  • Green Manufacture
  • Design a Product's ‘Death'

Reduce 'Duplicates'

I use the word duplicates with quotes to refer to products that are simply a newer version of an existing product that don’t serve any purpose other than to generate sales for a company by telling people they need the latest, greatest version of something they already own. Unfortunately, many product designers are employed for this very reason—to create desire in shoppers by making new versions of products more beautiful than before. This is often called styling. Rather than agreeing to style countless newer products, designers should demand more of themselves and create a more purpose-driven reason to buy a new product rather than just improving aesthetics.

Use Recycled Materials

This is one of the most obvious and basic ideas, but incredibly important. Not very long ago, nearly every company used virgin materials to produce their products. The costs of not using recycled materials to our environment are astonishing. According to this article the net carbon emissions when producing objects out of virgin glass, steel, copper and paper are 4 to 5 times greater than when using recycled materials. Producing virgin Aluminum, causes 40 times more emissions than when using the recycled material. Designers use story telling to sell ideas and products and convincing an employer or business to use recycled materials should be no different. Use your understanding of storytelling and empathy to sell the reason you need to use recycled materials.

Increase Usefulness

Usefulness is the main reason we hold onto anything. If your house is burning down, you grab a few things that have the highest value to you. In some cases, this could be sentimental objects, but if you’re going to need to survive for a few days without the assistance of anyone else, you’d grab the most useful things you own. One way we make things useful is by making them versatile. If a Leatherman multitool has 18 tools in one convenient, small package and each tool can solve a few problems, for its size, it’s an incredibly useful object (depending on the scenario of course). If designers focus on making objects as useful as possible, the the value of that product will outweigh others and lead to another benefit—to increase longevity. 

Increase Longevity

Increasing longevity means that the lifespan of a product is maximized by offering the owner a reason to both keep the product around, as well as making the product durable enough to last as long as is appropriate for the user scenario. One clever way this has been done is to assign multiple lives for the object. For instance, packaging that works as a carry case or display for a product and is actually proven useful after it’s served an initial purpose. This prolongs use before discarding, but most importantly, it reduces overall consumption of goods. 

Green Manufacture

This is one area where more regulations seem to take effect. When factories are required to monitor energy consumption, emission output and carbon footprint and are forced to or incentivized to reduce these numbers, some good is being done. Rather than waiting for a law to enforce regulation on a manufacturing plant, designers and engineers should be one step ahead in considering what the most responsible method of manufacture is for a given product. If one or two steps in the production process can be eliminated with a minor design change, then efforts should be taken to reduce production-caused waste. 

Design a Product’s 'Death'

Every product reaches a point in which it’s no longer needed, wanted, useful or relevant to the owner. What gets done with the product makes a big impact on the health of our planet and its people as we’ve observed in land fills and pollution which can be found nearly everywhere people live. One opportunity a designer has is to put some thought behind how the product will be eventually discarded. Products can deliver a message both metaphorically and literally. Packaging and marketing can remind people and try to appeal to their ethos. A company’s messaging can be one of mindfulness and social and ecological responsibility. Now, some companies offer discounts on future products or other incentives to get their customers to recycle rather than throw away discarded products. Donation and passing something on to a friend who may use what you no longer want or selling it again as a used item are all ways to give a product a second life. Designers however, should challenge themselves to consider how to minimize the impact a discarded product will have on the environment. Will it decompose quickly? Maybe it’ll get recycled 100% or reused. If you’d like to learn more about the subject of the afterlife of a product, there’s an entire book dedicated to this topic called Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart.

Product designers are responsible for creating or assisting in the creation of a lot of junk that has lead to lots of waste, pollution and mindless consumption. It’s a product designer’s duty to understand where opportunity lies to reduce the impact a new product has on our earth and health. By considering the above six areas and addressing even one of those is a good start, but the initiative needs to begin with the innovation, and that’s within the power of the product designer.