Design for new meaning as an opportunity for sustainability

Michael Geertshuis –

Now more than ever designers are able to define the products and services they bring into being and the process by which they are created. We have to keep in mind that in our acts of making, we are also always unmakers, expending limited resources in the production of marketable products.

“…we human beings live in a contradiction. In our endeavour to sustain ourselves in the short term we collectively act in destructive ways towards the very things we and all other beings fundamentally depend upon. Such longstanding and still growing ‘defuturing’ needs halting and countering. To do this effectively means radically changing how we humans think and act in the way we make and occupy our world and as we impose it on the world in general. ‘To be’ we have to be another way.” [1]

Besides attempting to create products that are successful in the market by any means, we as designers have an opportunity and responsibility to consider sustainability in the way we create products, the consequences of their use and the way they these products are disposed of.

My Position

I  believe technology is the driving force behind most, if not all major changes in society and business. Focusing on the development of technology and its implementation therefore offers immense opportunities for designers to have an impact on business as well as society.

Verganti [2] states that: “Technology is indeed one of the most influential factors that, in the long term, shapes the way we live. And actors who explore radical changes in technologies often also explore the implications of those changes for culture and life.”

The form and functionality of products create a certain product experience, but products are not only used for utilitarian purposes, they are also used to fulfill certain emotional, psychological and social needs. Designing for these needs, represented as different meanings is increasingly becoming a focus point in design, as more and more breakthrough technologies emerge.

Verganti argues that: “When a breakthrough technology emerges, it embeds many potential meanings. Some are immediate, usually promoted by those who have initially guided technological development. Other meanings are quiescent, but sooner or later they become manifest.”

These possible (quiescent) meanings can be explored through the creation of experiential prototypes during product development, which can provide designers with more insight on new meaning that can be given to products.

Role as a designer

As a designer I attempt to unify commercial needs with progression towards a (more) sustainable lifestyle. My role as a designer is to interpret and transform technologies creating value for business and society, while considering the entire product lifecycle and its impact on sustainability.


Innovation starts with an opportunity (often hidden within a problem). Designers can immerse themselves in the context to define the essence of the design opportunity. Einstein is quoted as saying that ‘A problem can never be solved from the context in which it arose’. Innovation requires external viewpoints and design therefore is very much about switching perspectives. In “The Nature of Design Thinking” Kees Dorst defines the activity of framing as a method to reposition oneself with respect to a context of use or problem.

“ ‘Framing’ is the term commonly used for the creation of a novel standpoint from which a problematic situation can be tackled—this includes perceiving the situation in a certain way, adopting certain concepts to describe the situation, patterns of reasoning and problem solving that are associated with that way of seeing, leading to the possibility to act within the situation.” [3]

Through our broad knowledge we know how to connect different fields in the design discourse and can shift between the unique perspectives they offer. The design discourse consists of producers of cultural and technological knowledge, which designers can and should use to inform their design process.

“…design-driven research is aimed at defining a product’s identity: its differentiating requirements and customer delighters that are the profound reasons people will buy it. Next, concept generation focuses on features that customers expect, that can be observed and understood through user analysis, and that, if properly designed, can provide incremental value (such as an effective user interface on a TV’s menu). Finally, product development focuses on the product’s mandatory elements: those that people take for granted and that the product cannot lack (such as a TV remote control).” [2]

There is an important role for designers in guiding companies in remaining faithful to the vision devised during research, as constraints emerging downstream in development can jeopardize the integrity of this vision. In particular designers can introduce interfaces between interpreters who participate in the initial research and the engineers and marketers involved during implementation.

As designers we are presented with the opportunity to have an impact on individuals as well as society through the designs we create. As technology interpreters we want to create value in business and society by translating the value of technologies existing companies have to offer into concrete proposals for implementation for different participants within the design discourse.

About the designer

My name is Michael Geertshuis and I am an industrial designer, currently finishing my MSc. in Industrial Design at the Technical University of Eindhoven. Prior to this I was graduated from Industrial Design Engineering at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

Please feel free to contact me for any inquires about my projects or future challenges.


[1] Fry, T. (2009). Design futuring: Sustainability, ethics and new practice. Oxford: Berg

[2] Verganti, R. (2009), Design-driven innovation: changing the rules of competition by radically innovating what things mean. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, USA

[3] Dorst, K. (2010), Interpreting design thinking, DTRS8

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