Fernd van Engelen

It’s time for industrial design to think beyond the beautiful and useful

Foresight is inherent in design. A central part of our role as designers is to look ahead, propose a vision of what might be, and help navigate towards the products and experiences we imagined. In the early days of design, we worked to create products that were appealing and easy to use. Then, we broadened our view beyond products to create experiences that are helpful and desirable. Today, it is easy to see the many ways designers contribute to human well-being by making technology more useful, usable and beneficial.

Yet that progress has also come at a cost to well-being. Many of the items we so thoughtfully designed – and the packaging used to deliver those items – have ended up in an enormous patch of discarded plastic in the Pacific Ocean. The fossil fuels that supply the energy to operate these products contribute to climate change, and many of the most beneficial products we design are beyond reach for all but a privileged few.

These – and many more – are hairy, complex, wicked problems.

The occasion of World Industrial Design Day is an appropriate time to reflect on the many great things we have accomplished, but it is also a good time to ask: if we contribute to unsustainable practices, do we also bear a responsibility to help address these issues and prevent future ones?

Beyond beautiful objects and delightful experiences, designers have indeed contributed to improving individual human health and well-being – but we have set our sights too narrow. It is time to shift our focus beyond the objectives of design towards the outcomes we wish our design to deliver. Using outcomes can guide us to create things that surpass the immediate benefits of use to contribute to the greater well-being of individuals, society and the environment. Here are three ways designers can start putting outcomes thinking into practice.

Design beyond the stakeholder bubble

If the old adage used to be “you are not the customer,” today we need to acknowledge that the client and target audience are far from the only stakeholders. A successful product not only contributes to the client’s bottom line, but impacts its employees, suppliers and community. By building broader stakeholder maps that include user groups, secondary stakeholders and wider society, we gain a deeper understanding of the systems and connections that underpin our work.

In looking at user stakeholder groups we should ask not only “who is included?” but also “who is excluded?” Microsoft’s Xbox Accessibility is an admirable example of doing more for audiences that have previously been excluded. The objective “To make gaming accessible, equitable, and sustainable for all,” inspired the creation of gaming systems with wider reach: from screen narration for the visually impaired to adaptive, customizable controllers for people with motor disabilities.

Of course, the products we create affect secondary and tertiary stakeholders beyond the user. In medical design, for example, we are accustomed to considering not only patient and caregiver, but also loved ones, biomedical technicians and hospital administrators. Similarly, we should acknowledge who or what in wider society may disappear as a result of a product or service. While self-driving cars promise to make driving safer, they likely also eliminate jobs that currently sustain millions of families. It is our responsibility as designers to consider these broader impacts of a product on people, company and humanity.

Shift narrow objectives to holistic outcomes

Shifting our thinking from objectives (our goal) to outcomes (what we wish to happen as a result or consequence) helps us gain a deeper understanding of the changes we wish our design solutions to deliver. One way to do so is by asking yourself, “To what end?” in a process similar to the five whys.

Say you are designing a medical device. Your objective might be: “To create an extremely usable and intuitive injection device.” Identify the outcomes by asking, to what end? “So that patients can better manage their chronic condition day-to-day, so that they can have fewer serious health complications.”

When you continue to ask the question from the standpoint of different stakeholders, you gain an even broader perspective. For the patient, a desired outcome may be “So that I can have greater freedom, and less dependence on medical personnel.” For the device manufacturer, it may be “So that patients associate our devices with that freedom,” and for the caregiver “So that our relationship with patients is focused on the big health picture, rather than day-to-day problems.”

Identify both sides of the coin

Identifying outcomes-focused mission statements helps you design with a more holistic outlook. In practice, however, systems are complex and interconnected. In addition to the positive outcomes we aim to deliver we must also consider the potential negative outcomes we want to avoid.

Consider the design of food packaging. Focusing strictly on the positive outcomes of “Every item of food we deliver is safe, uncontaminated and devoid of any physical damage” can produce unwanted packaging waste. A better outcome statement might be “Every item of food we deliver is safe, uncontaminated and devoid of any physical damage (the positive outcome) while eliminating non-biodegradable waste and minimizing added cost, bulk or weight (the outcomes we wish to avoid).”

Six-pack rings are notorious for ending up in oceans and harming wildlife who eat or become entangled in them. How might outcomes thinking help avoid this negative consequence by minimizing the harm that discarded six-pack rings inflict on turtles, fish and birds? The company E6PR has actually created such a product: the Eco Six Pack Ring. While nobody claims they constitute a healthy diet, the Eco Six Pack Ring is completely biodegradable and harmless if eaten. Going a step further might be to turn that neutral into a positive: what if those six-pack rings could actually provide beneficial nutrients for those turtles, fish and birds?

Outcomes as a compass

A disclaimer: this is both hard and complex. Outcomes thinking is not black and white, and even the most well-intentioned initiatives can result in unexpected financial, behavioral and environmental consequences. When a global nonprofit supplied mosquito nets to communities at risk of malaria, people used them instead to fish – sustenance the more pressing concern in the eyes of the local community. An additional unintended consequence, the fine mesh of the nets caught young fish as well as mature ones, posing a threat to sustainable fish populations. How do these outcomes alter our way of looking at the scenario?

There are no easy answers to the many problems of human – and humanity’s – well-being. But that shouldn’t stop us from tackling these challenges in our work. Let’s champion a broader set of stakeholders; think in terms of outcomes instead of objectives; and address not only the positive consequences we wish to deliver but the negative ones we wish to avoid. When we put these approaches into practice, we can build toward a more sustainable and equitable world – and truly begin to improve human health and well-being. As designers, let’s embrace the role we play as integrators, connectors of dots, visionaries, explorers of opportunities and navigators of uncertain futures. Let outcomes be our compass.