Sustainable Design with Intent: A Toolkit for Designers and Engineers
October 19, 2012 - 11:06am

Updated October 19, 2012

In this webinar recording, Dawn Danby reviews a range of sustainable product development strategies, focusing on ways designers can guide users to more sustainable behavior.explaining this work and how it can inform better sustainable design.

by Adam Menter, Autodesk Sustainability Education Program Manager

Designing with Intent

“Design is the first signal of human intention.” This is a powerful statement from William McDonough, co-author of the book Cradle to Cradle®. But what does it mean in practice and how can a designer’s intention lead to a more sustainable world by improving the environmental impacts of user behavior?

The designers of our products, buildings, infrastructure and services have tremendous power to determine both how people experience their designs, and those products’ ultimate environmental impacts. The two are interdependent and intertwined. 

For example, how people understand and control a building’s thermostats dictates the energy use of the HVAC systems. How people choose to drive their cars impacts their fuel economy. And how city planners design roadways and public transportation systems influence whether people choose to drive at all.

We designers can imbed the best of human intentions into the world we’re building around us. Design with Intent is design that is intended to influence or result in a certain user behavior (either consciously or unconsciously). Designers can improve the impact of a user’s behavior, by creating interactions that are intuitive, delightful and sustainable.

Designers don’t hold all of the cards. Businesspeople, marketers, and governments are just some of the myriad stakeholders that influence a product’s impact. But designers are the ones that guide and support the way a human interacts with his or her environment. 


The Design with Intent Toolkit

There are underlying patterns to how we interact with our environment and with each other. During his PhD research at Brunel University, Dan Lockton sought to unpack these patterns into a series of design strategies that designers can use to shape and influence how people behave.  

The result is the Design with Intent Toolkit. It includes 101 of these strategies and is organized in a series of method cards that can be used to prompt brainstorming.

DwI Card

One of the design patterns in the Design with Intent Toolkit

Similar ideas have been popularized in the book Nudge, which focuses on how to redesign some of our biggest and most important human systems like healthcare, education, and government.

Nudging towards Sustainable Behaviors

How can design inspire positive actions, prevent harmful actions, or provide real-time feedback for improved decisions?

An oft-cited example for sustainable behavior change is the Prius dashboard. When people see how much gas they’re using, they drive differently and save gas. Looking at this design through the Design with Intent toolkit reveals why this works. 

Prius II Cockpit

The Design with Intent toolkit tell us why the Prius Dashboard works for reducing fuel consumption: Scores, Transparency, and Real-Time Feedback

The miles per gallon act as a score that drivers want to improve. They now have motivation. The schematic diagram of the power train is a form of transparency that makes drivers see a direct connection between their actions and how energy is used. They now have agency. The fact that the dashboard provides real time feedback means they immediately know what works and what doesn’t. Drivers can now make decisions in the moment. These three strategies work together to create a more effective design.

Sustainable Design with Intent at Catapult Labs

We worked with Dan to pull from his original toolkit and focus it through a sustainable design lens. The card deck we assembled can be used as a brainstorming prompt during concept generation.

On May 17th, we joined the team at Catapult Design as part of an all-day series of workshops on Design to spark social change. We used this as an opportunity to test out this Sustainable Design with Intent Toolkit.

We broke into design teams and used the Sustainable Design with Intent toolkit to create more sustainable redesigns of some common products like coffee makers, toaster ovens, and space heaters.  Some of the redesigns were pretty clever and the cards did prove helpful for both spurring and structuring the team’s ideas. 

 Team Redesigning a Coffee Maker

A team redesigning a coffee maker with the help of the Sustainable Design with Intent Toolkit


 Perceived Affordances

If you’re trying to use waste-heat usefully in this toaster oven, how can perceived affordances help?


 Heater Feedback

What Kairos prompts or real-time feedback can this space heater provide to help you use less energy while staying comfortable?


 Heater - Modular Portions

 Can you use portions to make this space heater more modular so you can just heat the parts of you that are cold? 


By Adam Menter (Autodesk Sustainability Education Program Manager) and Dawn Danby (Autodesk Senior Sustainable Design Program Manager)

Sustainable Design with Intent Card Deck

Designers and design teams can use this card deck to spur ideas to design for sustainable behavior change. 

The 52 card deck that is arranged in four suits (or themes). The themes and the patterns are described below. You can either focus on one of the themes or using a randomized sample of cards to generate a variety of prompts.

Inspire positive actions

How can you steer people towards positive choices, and sometimes get people to go out of their way to “do good”? One way is to very clearly show them the way by highlighting a clear path. Along the way you can make them feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. You can also make users’ unconscious work for through smart framing and affordances.  Most people want to meet do the “right thing.” You can help them by making it clear, easy, and compelling.

The 13 strategies in this category are: Defaults, Tunnelling & Wizards, Serving Suggestion, Rewards, Levels, Worry Resolution, Simplicity, Framing, Prominence, Perceived Affordances, Expert Choice, Storytelling, Commitment & Consistency.

Preventing Negative Actions

How can you design-out or dissuade actions that lead to negative environmental or social impacts? One way is to either structurally block certain behaviors, thereby preventing the “wrong choice.” You can also make it harder to make the “wrong choice” by creating hoops that users have to jump through. You can also use people’s emotions. People want to avoid fear, uncertainty and discomfort – and they want to “be good” and avoid guilt. 

The 13 strategies in this category are: Are you Sure?, Roadblock, Interlock, Task Lock-in/out, Choice Editing, Feature Deletion, Hiding Things, Matched Affordances, Coercive Atmospherics, Poison Pill, Social Proof, Provoke Empathy, Peer Feedback, Surveillance, Do as you're Told, Scarcity.

Real-time feedback for better decisions

How can your design’s interface and information flow create a dynamic dialogue with the user that nudges them towards the “right choice” or away from the “wrong choice”? One way is just giving people more and better information that allows them to “see under the hood” at what’s really going on. Another is to give them constant reminders and updates of the results of their actions. 

The 13 strategies in this category are: Transparency, Kairos, Real-time Feedback, Challenges & Targets, Scores, Summary Feedback, Progress Bar, Conditional Warnings, Did you Mean?, Simulation & Feed-forward


This theme is a randomizer that can help spur new and different design ideas. If you’re trying to design the most sustainable thing, what’s the least sustainable thing? How can you make sustainability fun and playful? Will forcing tough design choices lead to better design? How can the size, shape, and space of the design direct user behavior in one way or another? 

The 13 strategies in this category are: Degrading Performance, Format lock-in/out, Style Obsolescence, Threat of Injury, Forced Dichotomy, Bundling, Make it a Meme, Playfulness, Emotional Engagement, Feedback through Form, Portions, Segmentation & Spacing, Nakedness


Designing a Sustainable Future

Autodesk is committed to helping designers and engineers create a future where we all live well and within the limits of our planet. We’re excited to lead the way with sustainable, forward-thinking business practices. Together, let’s design a sustainable future.

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