Monday, November 8, 2010

Ideas on Designing Products for the 21st Century

As of November 5, 2010, the world population is over 6.8 billion.  The population of the United States is estimated at 310 million or 4.5% of the world population.  And yet with under 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. consumes 30 percent of the planet's resources and churns out 30 percent of its wastes (the U.S. is the #1 trash-producing country in the world at 1,609 pounds per person per year.)  In addition, the U.S. consumes more gasoline per day than 20 other large countries combined.

I have often thought on my trips abroad what the world would be like if every country was similar to the U.S. in its consumption and trash production.  As I visited China in 2005 and Vietnam in 2009 with their bustling economies and large populations, I wondered if there is enough raw material on the planet to support similar consumption habits.  If you include India, which is forecasted to become the world’s fifth-largest consumer economy by 2025 (up from 12th now) and the most populous country by 2030, it is easy to foresee much higher consumption and waste production on the planet.  Waste, raw material supply, and pollution issues already exist today and will only be magnified in the next two decades.

This posting recommends the world needs new design principles to be able to handle the increases in consumer demand in the 21st century and suggests a few design principle ideas.  These design principles should be implemented now all around the world to successfully manage the issues confronting us today.


All design considerations should strive to maintain or improve quality of life.  The current standard of living in developed countries is the baseline.

This does not mean that designs have to keep the same consumer behavior of today's developed countries.  Consumers have adapted to new designs in the past, and adjustments to lifestyles may be needed.  Marketing of products with these new design principles will play a major role in helping the necessary behavior changes take hold.

There are usually trade-offs in design.  And there are practical design decisions, too, which may override "better" designs.  Making a product to last 5000 washes when it typically will be washed 10 times in its lifetime may make it prohibitively expensive.  These should all be taken into account with preference given to 21st century design and the broader issues we face.

Here are some design ideas I recommend.

Design for compactness.  Benefits:  Smaller products use less raw material, require less inventory and shipping space, and reduce shipping costs because they usually weigh less.

In the past, many products were made large by design to give an appearance of opulence and prestige or to appeal to the "big is better" perception.  A combination of good design and marketing can help compact designs take on these attributes.

New designs leveraging new technologies can reduce the size of products with similar or better features.  Take televisions as an example.  The move from tradition television technology to flat screen televisions has reduced the weight and physical size in the last fifteen years.  For example, compare the Sony Trinitron 40-inch TV with the flat screen Samsung 40-inch HDTV in the table below.  This difference is a significant decrease in both weight and size and translates to all of the advantages of a more compact design.  Multiply these advantages to millions of consumers around the world to compute the tremendous benefits these new designs offer.

Television Model
Shipping Weight (lbs)
Dimensions (inches)
Sony FD Trinitron WEGA KV-40XBR800 40 inch 325 26.2 x 43.2 x 33.2
Samsung LN40C630 40-Inch 1080p 120 Hz LCD HDTV 46 10 x 38.5 x 26
Optoma HD20 High Definition 1080p DLP Home Theater Projector 12 19.4 x 13.1 x 7.3

The next step is to reduce the footprint further through additional compact designs and through new technology.  For example, projectors such as the Optoma Home Theater Projector is only 6.4 pounds out of the box and you can fit 20 of these projectors in the same space as the Sony Trinitron.

There are reasons not to miniaturize certain products too much, and these factors must be taken into account as well.  Poor eyesight can prevent the reading of any visual output on a product if too small.  The size of hands, fingers, other body parts, and other input mechanisms also set practical limits to certain designs.

Another example in line with the compact design principle is to move to higher concentrated products. Proctor and Gamble has begun selling many of their detergents in concentrates.  The same number of ounces of detergent cleans two or three times the loads of clothes.  The compact design results in less inventory and shipping space and costs.

Design for easy assembly.  Benefits:  Assembly of large products close to or at the final destination (rather than at the origination) often saves inventory and shipping costs.

Ikea's products are a classic example of this design principle.  Ikea furniture is sold in compact packages and assembled at the final destination.

Many people avoid buying products that require assembly because of the difficulty in assembling the product.  Some of the reasons are due to the difficulty in understanding the instructions provided, but often it is due to poor design that does not consider the assembly process early on in the design process.

A corollary to this design principle is design for easy non-destructive disassembly. If a product is easy to disassemble and reassemble elsewhere, it is more likely to be reused, which reduces waste.

Design for durability.  Benefits:  Durable products last longer, use less raw material over a longer period of time, and reduce waste.

Some companies design products for failure so they will be replaced and new sales can be made.  That makes business sense, but it does not make 21st century design sense.  The markets in emerging countries are large enough to sell products that last a lifetime.

Convenience has taken a priority in the design of many products, often creating a throw-away culture with one-time use products and little need for durability.  While the use of recyclable materials can help reduce its impact somewhat, the convenience through throw-away design principle must become secondary in the 21st century.

Design for minimum waste in manufacturing.  Benefits: Minimizing manufacturing waste has always made business sense to keep cost of goods low.  But it does require extra design work that is sometimes not on the priority list of designers and even for some businesses where the cost of raw materials are low.

The waste can occur in raw materials for the product itself and in materials used during the manufacturing process.  For example, water is used not only as a raw material in a soft drink beverage itself, it is also used in the manufacturing process, such as rinsing bottles and cans, cleaning equipment, heating, and cooling.  A conscientious effort is needed to make improvements.  As an example, Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. reduced its water use ratio to 1.67 liters of water used to make one liter of product using water-saving technologies and monitoring and targeting systems, which is an improvement of more than 3.5 percent from 2008.

Design for easy replacement of parts.  Benefits: Fixing existing products reduces the likelihood of a perfectly-good product being thrown away because one part broke that is too expensive or difficult to repair or replace.

Easy replacement of parts requires careful design.  Some businesses count on repair services for income or new sales as parts break down.  These need to be called out by consumer groups and reviews as part of the total cost of ownership.

Design for easy removal of hazardous materials during disposal.  Benefits: Reclaiming or proper disposal of hazardous materials reduce toxic waste.

The most desirable situation is to eliminate the use of toxic materials altogether from products.  Apple has been example of a company looking at replacing hazardous materials from their products.  In 2010, Apple stated that that their entire product line is free of lead, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), mercury, and arsenic.

If the current state of technology does not allow for a comparable replacement, easy extraction and proper disposal of hazardous materials should be part of the design.

Design for recyclability.  Benefits:  Recycling reduces waste, allows reuse of raw materials so less mining/drilling/logging is needed, and conserves energy in making new products compared to new sources of the raw material.

If a product contains both recyclable and non-recyclable components, it should be designed for easy separation so the proper materials can be recycled.

Design for easy upgrades.  Benefits: A product that is easy to upgrade is more likely to be used longer, reducing waste and use of raw materials.

One of the best ways to upgrade an electronic product is through software.  This typically does not require any additional material resources to improve an existing product.  It also allows fixes and refinements to be made to existing products without requiring replacement and extending their life.

Design for minimal energy usage.  Benefits:  No or low power consumption reduces the need for non-renewable energy sources and reduces pollution generated from the production or use of energy.

Designs prior to the industrial age worked on designs focused on human, animal, water, and wind-powered devices and gaining efficiencies from these energy sources.  The introduction of electricity, gasoline, and battery power shifted designs to new uses; efficiencies were secondary as the energy costs were low enough.  Focus should now be put on designing "no power" products (for example, the perfectly useful flushing toilet uses no batteries and leverages gravity), lower-powered products, more power-efficient products (for example, more efficient motors, software that prolongs battery life), and differently-powered products (for example, hand cranks that store power in flywheels, products powered by light, products powered by movement such as walking.)


As the world population, disposable income, and consumption increases around the world, these and other design recommendations can help address some of the issues confronting us.

But another trend should be started.  While there is a human desire for material goods, we need to encourage less unnecessary consumption and encourage spending on more services and experiences that require less use of our planet's natural resources.  Challenging and positive experiences are what are important to happiness, not the temporary pleasure of much of our material goods.  More on this in another posting at a future date.

Happy designing!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ideas on Designing Products for the 21st Century ~ DANIEL SKLAR