Guest Article #2

The Contribution of Design to Sustainable Development

The ability to think critically and to visualize innovative and better solutions to problems, particularly in relation to usability, form and ergonomics, makes designers key players in shaping the way we live. Consideration, however, has rarely focused on the contribution that design and designers can make towards making that future sustainable. To draw attention to the role of design, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) set “Designing the Future” as the theme for this year's World Intellectual Property Day outreach campaign.

Good design not only makes products easier, more comfortable and safer to use, it also involves decisions about the materials from which they are made and, often, their projected life-span – key factors in how these products will affect our environment. It is estimated that over 80 percent of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product.

Sustainable design seeks to minimize a product's total carbon footprint, from its conception to its re-use. Responding to increasing consumer demand for ecologically-sound living, the philosophy and practice of sustainable design are gaining popularity within design communities as diverse as architecture, urban design and planning, engineering and fashion.

Sustainable design is not a luxury, it is a necessity. We simply cannot afford to continue living as though there are no limits to the Earth's resources. Moreover, using less more efficiently makes sound business sense. Worldwide production of aluminum drinks cans, for example, is growing by several billion a year. The first cans of the late 1950s weighed over 85 grams; they now weigh less than 15 grams. By means of industrial designs that do more with less, producers have been able to make considerable material and cost savings.

Ecologically designed buildings offer another compelling example of the advantages of sustainable living. Such buildings are, on average, 30 percent more energy efficient than conventional buildings, and use between 30 and 50 percent less water. On top of significantly reduced utility costs, they also command higher rental and re-sale prices.

Recognizing broad public support for sustainability, companies are increasingly looking to strengthen their green credentials by delivering products that enable consumers to make the right choices. Examples range from Procter and Gamble, the largest consumer packaged goods company in the world and pioneer of lifecycle assessment, which has the expressed aim of using 100 percent renewable materials for its products with zero consumer and manufacturing waste going to landfill, to companies like Recycle Runway, which creates wearable high fashion goods out of trash.

A growing number of companies are developing tools that enable their product designers to make sustainable choices from day one of product creation. The Green Design Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, for example, makes its environmental life cycle assessment tool available on-line. And Nike, Inc. has invested six million dollars over seven years in developing its Environmental Apparel Design Tool, to help “designers make real-time choices that decrease the environmental impacts of their work.” Such tools enable manufacturers to improve their bottom line and strengthen their brand as environmentally responsible commercial players.

The intellectual property (IP) system has a key role to play in encouraging and rewarding innovative sustainability solutions. Designs make these innovations stylish and appealing. By protecting the look and feel of products, designers, and the companies that employ them, are able to obtain a return on their investment. A financially viable, dynamic design sector promises environmental benefits, particularly in terms of the availability of more competitively priced and aesthetically pleasing, eco-friendly products that enable consumers to make “green” choices.

Around 700,000 applications for industrial design protection are filed around the world each year – in all sorts of areas of industry and commerce, from fashion and footwear to automobiles, watches and jewelry. One of WIPO's functions is to run the Hague System for the International Registration of Industrial Designs (, which simplifies the task of obtaining such protection in multiple countries. The Hague System offers companies a rapid and cost-effective route to protecting their designs against unauthorized copying and imitation in international markets. International design activity under the Hague System saw strong growth in 2010 with a 33 percent increase in the number of design applications received.

Sustainable design has emerged in response to a global problem – the need to maintain environmental integrity. Global problems require global platforms that support and facilitate the dissemination of sustainable products. The global filing and registration systems that WIPO offers, including the Patent Cooperation Treaty, the Madrid System for the International Registration of Marks and the Hague System promise to become such platforms.

Design, often associated with the playthings of the wealthy, is now realizing its enormous potential to help lighten our carbon footprint and move towards a sustainable, low-carbon future. Each day, new innovative solutions appear in the market bringing us ever closer to this goal. Design is a key factor in making these products attractive, appealing to consumers, and providing for their protection, to help ensure that designers continue to apply their creative talents and acumen to shaping an eco-friendly future.

Photo credit: Dhillon Photographics