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Design, Emotion, and Sustainability
Adam Kenvarg
July 19, 2012 - 1:26pm


By Alex Lobos

I recently offered a new class on design and sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Industrial Design department. We explored topics such as emotional attachment, materials selection, and timeless design, in order to improve product sustainability and encourage a longer, more meaningful lifespan.

The spirit of the design process was heavily influenced by Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa’s “Super Normal” philosophy. According to this philosophy, some products are created with such simplicity that they become icons of their own category. These products are so ordinary that they actually become extraordinary. 

Another key element covered in the class was emotional attachment. Products that connect deeply with their users often turn from plain artifacts to bridges that connect users with other people, enjoyable experiences, and the overall environment. The implications of emotional attachment are important for sustainability since products with these attributes have longer lifespans.  In order to achieve products that aligned with these concepts, students applied the following strategies.

TIMELESSNESS: Good design never goes out of style. 

Students tried to create products that looked like they had been around for a long time and were durable enough to be handed down to future users. 

Mortar and Pestle by Robert Fish  Mortar and Pestle by Joshua Rivers

Mortar & pestle sets. Robert Fish (top) and Joshua Rivers (bottom)

In the case of Rob Fish and Joshua Rivers’ mortar and pestle sets, there was a lot of attention put into creating shapes that were simple, elegant, and engaging. Human factors played a big role in making sure that the products felt “just right” in hands of the user, from proportions, to shape, to even weight. Models were created using rapid prototyping as well as aluminum sand casting, combining state-of-the-art technology with traditional manufacturing processes. The end result are artifacts with strong personalities that make you wonder if they been around for many years. 

Teapot by Will Alusitz

Will Alusitz - teapot

Will Alusitz’s teapot shows an interesting combination of features that reflect traditional Asian designs with contemporary, contrasting details in the handle and lid.

PRODUCT EFFICIENCY: Nothing superfluous.

Design concepts went through multiple iterations, each one stripping away unnecessary components, shapes, parts, processes and interaction. The goal was to bring products to their most basic form and function. 

Tape Dispenser by Robert Fish

Robert Fish - tape dispenser

A tape dispenser by Rob Fish is created out of single pieces of sheet material, using simple processes like bending, pressing and cutting, in order to create functional details without compromising usability and appearance. Imperfections in the metal add personality and the perception of longevity to the product. 

Tape Dispenser by Leslie Rose

Leslie Rose - tape dispenser

Leslie Rose’s tape dispenser design pushes minimalism to a higher level by attaching only a small cutting piece to the tape roll, maximizing user interaction with the product. 

Tape Dispenser by Gino Santaguida

Gino Santaguida - tape dispenser

MATERIAL EXPLORATION: Strong, graceful, and unadorned.

Students focused on materials that were easy to manufacture and that could last for a long time. The idea of materials that could “wear-in” and “age gracefully” were important considerations. 

Students noticed that wood, metal, glass and ceramics often had these characteristics, confirming why those materials have been used throughout history by so many civilizations. The final designs celebrate the materials chosen; turning them into focal points of the design and avoiding hiding them with unnecessary processes or finishes. 

In some of the projects, the same design was manufactured out of two materials. At this point, students used “Eco-Materials Adviser”, a plug-in in Autodesk Inventor that enabled them to evaluate and compare the environmental impact of many materials. This tool was extremely useful to students in determining which material offered the best environmental advantage, and then connecting that information with notions of perceived value and physical appearance. 

Salt and Pepper Shakers by Chen Guo

Chen Guo - Salt & pepper shakers

Chen Guo’s poetic set of salt and pepper shakers shows how plastic is a good option for high-volume production, while wood offers character and durability for shorter runs. EMA also made evident that for the wooden version, eliminating finish coatings improved environmental performance while enhancing wood’s natural beauty. 

Salt and Pepper Shakers by Alex Bennett

Alex Bennett - salt & pepper shaker set

In the case of Alex Bennett’s design, it was interesting to discover how glass proved to be very good material for low-energy manufacturing and easy recycling.  Additonally, a glass version allows for a more traditional manufacturing process that makes each individual piece slightly different and unique.

Salt and Pepper Shakers by Abby Hogg

Abby Hogg - Salt & pepper shakers 

Salt and Pepper Shakers by Angela Corrado

Angela Corrado - salt & pepper shakers

For more information on the course, CLICK HERE or email me at



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