10/16/2012 12:01 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Design and Sustainability: What's on the Horizon?

I believe design is key to building a futureproof brand.

It bridges cultural divides and invites new users; it lowers our confusion and trepidation around technology; and, hey, it makes us feel like we're moving civilization forward, even if that progress comes dressed as a new phone or blender.

Having led a green brand agency for five years, I was always intrigued by design's shifting relationship with sustainability. It was my experience that green couldn't be the driving design consideration if you wanted to create products that would sell. But ignoring green as a design consideration was recipe for irrelevance in today's market.

A short time ago, I chatted with Chris Sherwin, Head of Sustainability at leading design and innovation consultancy Seymourpowell, about the green balancing act in design. Had the relationship shifted, or found more stable ground?

One look at his company's website reveals projects that are both flagrantly green, as well as more subtle in their sustainability. Sherwin himself reveals that design's role in sustainability is a tricky one.

"We think sustainability is hard to sell as a lead proposition," says Sherwin. "But, our philosophy is to make things better. And sustainability can definitely be woven in as an element of 'better.'"

My own work with big clients backs Sherwin's thinking. More and more, I'm seeing large consumer-facing corporations create brands that have green credibility, without overtly trumpeting those green credentials. To them, green is definitely "better," even if -- for their own reasons -- they prefer to keep it out of the spotlight.

As Sherwin says, "Our clients are getting much better when it comes to sustainability in operations, supply chain and governance. What they want now is sustainability in brand, product and business model innovation. After all, brands are what they sell -- and sustainability can give those brands a marketing edge."

Green, Green, Go Away

Sherwin believes that all this talk of green/not-green design will soon go away.

"Green is rapidly becoming a de rigeur part of every design job we do. I see this whole confusing issue of green vs. not-green simply becoming a thing of the past. In five years, we want green to be integral to every project we do."

That, however, still leaves room for green to be a brand advantage. As all brands incorporate green into their design by degrees, those with a "sustainability first" agenda will -- by nature of the rapid pace of green innovation -- continue to create projects as distinctive as Seymourpowell's fuel-cell motorcycle. What's more, if green standards such as LEED are seen as precedent, the bar for "acceptable" green will continue to rise, forcing engineers and designers to constantly push the envelope.

The Next Frontier -- Designing Social Innovation

Sherwin believes design has an important role to play in making the everyday things we buy and use greener and more sustainable. But, he sees the true power of design in creating sustainability breakthroughs and social innovation.

"Design is a human-centric endeavor, unlike engineering," says Sherwin. "It can tap into the emotions, inspiring people to make their world better. And, it can make it easier for people to collaborate, accelerating that change for the better."

One need look no further than the concepts like open innovation and the creative commons to see how people can be inspired, and accelerated, in their creativity by well-designed collaboration platforms.

As Ezio Manzini, design strategist and leading expert on sustainable design, says, "What most interests me is catalyzing the most abundant resource we have on the planet, which are our human capabilities. The planet is very rich with potential intelligent operators. What does it mean to enable all the potentialities of so many intelligent people?"

Lessons For Futureproofers:

1. Insight first, design second. As Chris Sherwin says, green needs to be a design consideration. But, it's difficult today to lead with green. Consumers need to be acclimatized to it. Can your consumer handle a "sustainability first" brand, or is it a bridge too far?

2. No green? No way. Sustainability, even if it isn't in the spotlight, is necessary if your brand wants to survive in a market where consumers are enabled and vigilant about green. And it better be legitimate, if you don't want to end up getting the wrong kind of attention.

3. Enable your consumers to innovate with your design. Design can only create brands that save the world if it taps into the creativity of our greatest resource -- people. Build consumer usage and consumption changes into the product design itself -- rather than simply putting out messages of change. That's means low-flow showers, not "turn off the tap" campaigns; electric cars, not eco-driving training. Consumers will give you credit if you give the tools.