Business Week:

The benefits of downscaling


Open any magazine and you’re likely to find an article on how to “go green.” The Web, meanwhile, is awash in sustainability sites. An eco-zeitgeist is forming, and designers and manufacturers are moving quickly to adapt. But while those of us on the supply side can start to deliver greener products, we can’t control demand. How quickly will consumers adopt our green products?

While there has been an impressive shift in consumer consciousness, the truth is that consumer habits change gradually. For that matter, it takes time for new, greener materials to become truly affordable. This means designers and our corporate clients need to focus less on finding a killer green technology or selling consumers on green products, and more on the small design changes that can make a large impact immediately.

Design teams work with the three basic building blocks of sustainability: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Much has been accomplished on the recycling front, and even reuse has a newfound footing—witness eBay (EBAY), Craigslist, and certified pre-owned cars. But it is time to get serious about reducing. For companies, the problem is that it’s difficult to thrive in an expanding global market by making fewer products and it is hard to make products using fewer natural resources. For designers, well, we love making cool stuff. Reducing is even difficult for consumers who have learned that variety is the spice of life. But the fact is, of the three building blocks, reducing is the most direct. What green design needs today is not a silver bullet, but the simple notion of small improvements across large volumes.

Downscaling Equals Downsizing

Call it downscaling, a design approach that focuses on a product’s material and energy use. Downscaling entails small, consistent improvements across one (or more) of three dimensions: size, features, and longevity.

Taking size first, look around and count the number of things that are just plain big. The SUV is the most prominent example of oversizing in the U.S., but we also love big everyday items, such as spacious wheeled luggage—whose overstuffed contents help increase jet fuel consumption. Our culture remains dominated by the idea that bigger is better. And these oversized products not only expend more material, they also increase shipping costs and retail space.

Fortunately, a “go small” counter-trend has yielded successes in minimal architecture and micro-marquee products, proving great design trumps bigger-is-better thinking. Sales of streamlined prefab housing are rising, and the revamped Mini line by BMW (BMWG) has elevated the compact car. In each case, architects and design teams have stressed size optimization as a key criterion of a well-designed product. While these “right-sized” products might represent niche markets today, the trend lines are clear.

Reducing Features

The second way to downscale a product is to reduce features. Most companies add features as a way to stand out from their competition; marketing believes new features are key to sales, and R&D believes they are the natural outcome of technology. Of course new functions can be wonderful, but we have all experienced feature overload, as brands including Sony (SNE) and Hitachi try to outduel one another.

Apple’s (AAPL) iPods, whose minimal interfaces redefined digital music players, began to change that game. The recent success of Pure Digital’s Flip Video Ultra camcorder continues this trend (BusinessWeek, 4/17/08). Smart Design led a team that discovered that capturing memories easily was what most people really wanted, so we dropped advanced features, in favor of everyday niceties such as one-touch uploading, single-handed use, and pocketability.

Curtailing features also improves the ability to recycle a product, because recycling relies on the ability to efficiently separate a product into its individual components.

Increasing Longevity

Longevity is the third frontier for downscaling. In this case the goal is to reduce the product replacement cycle, or simply stated, to make a product last longer. A great exemplar is Carhartt, whose hard-wearing clothing and no-nonsense image made it a standard for tradespeople, farmers, and outdoor enthusiasts. The understated image has propelled the brand to new levels with young adults focused on basic values. Often criticized as nostalgic, durable things conserve raw materials and encourage care and preservation.

Another way to increase longevity is through adaptability. Patagonia’s Lightweight Travel Tote converts easily from a tote to a backpack, and its MLC bag adapts similarly from suitcase to backpack. These designs increase product utility and alleviate the need for multiple purchases.

Obviously many companies view longevity as an impediment to new sales. But new strategies can help manufacturers sustain income without habitual replacement. Higher margins could be sought: today we see this primarily in luxury markets, but what if the bar were raised en masse? Manufacturers should also be compensated for investing in product longevity, perhaps getting a piece of the action when their long-lasting goods benefit multiple owners.

Designing Sustainability

Just as design movements such as ergonomics and interaction came into existence through a need to address important and related factors collectively, downscaling can evolve as an expertise within the design industry, benefiting companies, consumers, and the earth. Today, no design team would think of releasing a product without checking the ergonomics. Given our environmental situation, should we continue to release products without attempting to downscale them?

Renewable materials, recycling, and improved production methods are critical to attaining sustainability, but are not enough without finding ways to reduce what we produce and use. Downscaling doesn’t need to wait for government regulations or new technology—we can do it now. And as designers, we don’t even have to stop making cool stuff—as long as we keep it in check.

Clay Burns is a principal and sustainability leader at Smart Design, where he initiated the innovation engineering team and opened the Barcelona studio.

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Jul 2008