Can Design Help Solve Our “Wicked” Problem of Waste?

We can start by teaching design students to make the connection between abstract concepts, the design process, and environmental impact.

We have a wicked problem. As a society we waste an awful lot of materials. Consider, for instance, the sheer volume of packaging that hits the recycling bin after we open cheap consumer electronics and then replace them in rapid succession, and discard easily.

Yes, we can recycle, but we’re still using a lot of raw materials when we don’t need to. This, of course, is an unsustainable system. There are many new ways of looking at this problem and to solve it. These may include better recycling practices, minimal packaging, designing longer-lasting products, and things we haven’t thought of yet. This is what Dr. Kyle Whyte, professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, calls a wicked problem.

Many companies are working hard to solve these wicked problems. Yet we still live in a largely unsustainable world. So where’s the disconnect? Jathan Sadowski, a graduate student of ethics and sustainability at Arizona State University provides an insight: While he sees students showing interest in sustainability, he says that they have trouble connecting the abstract social, environmental, and economic factors that contribute to an understanding of the concept as a whole.

Few students become industrial designers because they want to save the whales. Yet industrial designers are poised to reduce waste, make better use of resources, and extend product life. It’s a wonder that few do. Many get into design because they care about objects or buildings or graphics, but not always because they want to make those things sustainable. So how can we convince them? Only five students attended a meeting of the Kendall College of Art and Design’s sustainability interest group, my school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Those who came were mostly interior designers, whose curriculum seems to involve sustainability more than other programs.

When I talk to students outside our group, they tell me it seems that sustainability isn’t relevant to them, or at least it isn’t something they worry about. This is shocking to me. So I mentioned this to Dr. David Rosen, the new president of Kendall. He said that sustainability is something that students must care about; that they don’t have any other choice but to care. Yet saying it will not make students consider it. When I think about sustainable design, I assume that my peers think about it too. So it made sense that design students living in Grand Rapids—Fast Company called it “America’s Greenest City”—would be working towards a more sustainable system. I thought that maybe the reason we aren’t living in a sustainable utopia is that once designers leave school, they work with clients who have needs that supersede the desire for sustainability. But Grand Rapids manufacturers all have sustainability programs.

I ask, again, where’s the disconnect? If we’re going to live in a sustainable world, we’ll need to get students to want to be part of it. If they’re already including sustainability in the design thinking, we need to help them make the connection between the abstract concepts and the process of design. As an industrial design student, I am not the person who can tell everyone what they should be doing, but I have some ideas. I think we need to integrate sustainability into all design disciplines. I think that it should be more than requiring students to take a sustainable design class. Sustainability needs to be at the core of every area of study; it needs to be connected, seamlessly, with learning about functionality, usability, and aesthetics. Again and with emphasis: We don’t need separate sustainable design programs. We need sustainable design to be a part of every program, to be fully integrated into how students think about design and the world they live in.

Samantha Macy is a design student and writer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She blogs about art and design at

Categories: Design Education, Sustainability