Stuart Walker. Designing Sustainability via Progressive Design Praxis 

Design can be understood as a discipline that seeks to improve the existing condition by synthesizing practical needs with human values. However, a form of design that is truly capable of offering improvement and benefit – as typically claimed by designers – demands careful consideration of the ideas and values that inform design judgements. Moreover, it is important to recognize that these judgements cannot be sufficiently informed by deductive and/or inductive methods. There is also a need for interpretation and imagination, both of which are not only fundamental to creative activities and but also associated with our values. For sustainability, such values-based judgements have to be grounded in a culture’s philosophical and spiritual traditions because these traditions typically prioritize those things that are critical for sustainable futures including concern for others and community, ideas about appropriateness and sufficiency, and ideas about inner fulfilment and meaningfulness.

I begin by considering values in the context of modern society and how they influence our attempts to address the social good and the environmental crisis. Importantly, when our activities lead to outcomes that are divisive or that exacerbate existing problems, which often seems to be the case, it becomes necessary to challenge our assumptions and our values. This is an important step in developing a different approach, one capable of balancing the opportunities offered by techno-scientific innovation with the wisdom contained in our philosophical and spiritual traditions. Attaining such a balance can help cultivate an outlook in which concern for others and the natural environment plays a far more prominent role. This is essential if we are to develop more meaningful and lasting ideas of ‘improvement’.

These concerns are made relevant to the designer through the articulation of an interpretive, imaginative process that combines practical needs with enduring human values. Based on a hermeneutical circle of interpretation and the writings of Gadamer, among others, this approach integrates multifarious considerations within a simultaneous act of interpretation, understanding and imaginative application. I refer to this values-based process that strives towards virtue as Progressive Design Praxis.

A Question of Values
To delineate the potential role of designers in contributing to positive, meaningful change, it will be useful to briefly review some of the most prominent values and priorities evident in modern society.
Human development from the mid-18th century to the present is characterized by major developments in science, industry, urbanization and secularization. This period of human history has emphasized philosophical materialism, individualism and, especially since the early 20th century, an economic system based on consumption and growth.1,2Fuelled to a large extent by the advent of mass production and corporate marketing, it has been a period in which there has been a major expansion in the acquisition of material goods. This includes ‘positional products’, which are promoted by emphasizing self-enhancement values.3,4,5 These developments are closely associated with the emergence of unsustainable ways of living. They are also related to the so-called disenchantment of the world and an erosion in our sense of meaning and significance.6,7 Additionally, since the deregulation of the markets in the 1980s and the rise of neoliberalism,8  economic inequity and social disparity have increased not only between rich and poor countries but also within those richer countries that have well-developed consumption-based economies.9

This trajectory is fundamentally tied to current debates about public sector services and the common good, environmental destruction and sustainability. Emphasis on individualism and egocentric values has a negative effect on our concern both for the welfare of others and for the natural environment.10 Moreover, the worldview that has arisen during the modern period has eroded the relevance and contribution of those traditional routes to meaning-seeking and virtue that emphasized compassion and care for others and the importance of moderation; values that are far more attuned to the principles and priorities of sustainability.11 Here, it is worth noting that contemporary understandings of sustainability are not restricted to environmental factors but embrace social concerns as well as issues related to the individual, such as personal fulfilment and spiritual well-being.12,13

Misguided design for the environment
As might be expected, these developments are affecting the ways in which our approaches to the environmental crisis are being tackled. Perhaps the most prominent route is based on the production and implementation of innovative, technological solutions. Known as eco-modernism, this approach is incremental, pragmatic and fits smoothly into our current system. Corporations and politicians tend to be enthusiastic about it because it supports rather than challenges the current system. However, its potential to contribute to significant and lasting change is limited and it can be counter-productive, for the reasons indicated in Table 1.

Table 1: The inadequacies of eco-modernist, technological routes to sustainability

Designing Sustainability via Progressive Design Praxis by Stuart Walker

In many ways, design and perhaps especially industrial design – that is, product design for mass production together with associated services – has been an integral part of these developments, along with transport design, architecture and urban planning. Much of the problem in the way many product designers have been tackling sustainability has to do with the values that have been fostered within the profession, which are closely tied to the values of consumer society in general. The Industrial Designer’s Society of America describes the discipline as being concerned with designing products and services that “optimize function, value and appearance” and provide improvements that “benefit” manufacturers and users.26 Notably, no basis is offered for judging what is meant by optimizing or benefiting. Another description suggests that design is concerned with “the definition of the physical form of the product to best meet customer needs”.27Computer scientist Herbert Simon suggests that, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”.28 Again, neither of these descriptions offer any basis for judging ‘best’ or ‘preferred’. The World Design Organization claims that design can “create a better world” and defines industrial design as “a strategic problem-solving process that drives innovation, builds business success and leads to a better quality of life through innovative products, systems, services and experiences”.29 This, of course, takes for granted that “driving innovation” and “innovative products, systems, services and experiences” are all essential factors in the creation of “a better world” and “a better quality of life”. However, given the cumulative effects of such methods, this is by no means self-evident. Significantly, the implicitly favourable view ascribed to innovation, originality and optimization in these descriptions is not a scientific fact but a value judgement – one firmly anchored in modernist philosophical principles.30

Today, the benefits of such directions are becoming increasingly doubtful, which behoves us to ask what basis we have for judging notions of better, preferred, improvement and optimization. The fact that the design profession’s explanations take the answer for granted is problematic because doing so perpetuates the fallacious idea that ever more products, services and choices will automatically improve our lives and make us happier. These inferences are highly questionable because the directions they encourage focus exclusively on extrinsic goals and rewards. In the current context, this continued emphasis on technology, innovation and breaking new ground warrants further examination and critique. Indeed, more fundamental change is needed – change based in a deeper consideration of human values, the development of a rather different philosophical outlook, and the envisioning of lifestyles that tend towards post-consumerism. Such a direction suggests less extravagant ways of life in terms of material acquisition and greater emphasis on more enduring notions of human fulfilment, characterized by self-transcendence values and intrinsic goals and rewards.

The complete discussion (Download link for complete text – PDF 3MB) continues by arguing for:

  • The need for greater balance in our approaches
  • Going beyond instrumental reason
  • The importance of self-transcendence values
  • The critical role of interpretation – for a more balanced, restorative way forward
  • The practice-based approach of Progressive Design Praxis

Figure 3: Progressive Design Praxis

Stuart Walker, Progressive Design Praxis

We would also like to recommend to read his book: Design Realities: creativity, nature and the human spirit, available at Routledge Publishers.


1 Taylor, C. (2007) A Secular Age. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, p.25.

2 Pratt, V., Brady, E., and Howarth, J.  (2000) Environment and Philosophy, Routledge, London, pps.81-84, extract available at:, 12 February 2014.

3 Crompton, T. (2010) Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values, WWF-UK, Woking, Surrey, pps.9-11, available at:, accessed 8 May 2016.

4 Kasser, T. (2009) Psychological Need Satisfaction, Personal Well-Being, and Ecological Sustainability, Ecopsychology, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers, New Rochelle, NY, Vol. 1, No. 4, December 2009, p.178.

5 Lansley, S. (1994) After the Gold Rush – The Trouble with Affluence, Century Business Books, London, p.134.

6 Schwaabe, C. (2011) Max Weber – The Disenchantment of the World, translated by J. Uhlaner, Goethe-Institut e. V., available at:, accessed 14 February 2014.

7 Schwartz, B. (2004) The Paradox of Choice, HarperCollins, New York, NY, pps.109, 132-133.

8 Monbiot, G. (2016) How Did We Get Into This Mess: Politics, Equality and Nature, Verso, London, p.219.

9 Bourguignon, F. (2015) The Globalization of Inequality, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, pps.47, 117-118.

10 Crompton (2010) pps.9-11.

11 Ibid.

12 Walker, S. (2014) Designing Sustainability, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, p.42.

13 Ehrenfeld, J. R. and Hoffman, J. (2013) Flourishing, Stanford Business Books, Stanford, CA.

14 Davison, A. (2001) Technology and the Contested Meanings of Sustainability, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, pps.22-29.

15 Knowles, B. (2013) Re-Imagining Persuasion: Designing for Self-Transcendence, CHI 2013: Changing Perspectives, April 27–May 2, 2013, Paris, France, ACM 978-1-4503-1952-2/13/04, p.2715.

16 Crompton (2010) pps.9-11.

17 SponGes (2016) SponGES: Deep-sea Sponge Grounds Ecosystems of the North Atlantic: an integrated approach towards their preservation and sustainable exploitation, University of Bergen, Norway, available at:, accessed 18 June 2016.

18 Defra (2007) An introductory guide to valuing ecosystem services, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK Government, London, p.4, available at:, accessed 23 June 2016.

19 Kingley, P. (2013) Masdar: the shifting goalposts of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious eco-city, WIRED, 17 December, available at:, accessed 14 March 2016.

20 Larson, C. (2009) China’s Gran Plans for Eco-Cities Now Lie Abandoned, Environment 360, Yale University, New Haven CT, 6 April, available at:, accessed 14 March 2016.

21 Goldberg, S. (2016) Masdar’s zero-carbon dream could become world’s first green ghost town, The Guardian, 16 February, available at:, accessed 14 March 2016.

22 McGirk, J. (2016) Why eco-cities fail, China Dialogue, 27 May, available at:, accessed 14 May 2016.

23 Kingley (2013).

24 Sze, J. (2015) Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis, University of California Press, Oakland, CA, p.159.

25 Kingley (2013).

26 IDSA (2015) What is Industrial Design, Industrial Designers Society of America, Herndon, VA, available at:, accessed 20 February 2016.

27 Ulrich, K. T. and Eppinger, S. D. (1995) Product Design and Development, McGraw-Hill Inc., New York, NY, p.3.

28 Simon, H. A. (1996) The Sciences of the Artificial, Cambridge, Third Edition, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, p.111.

29 WDO (2017) World Design Organization (formerly the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design), Mission at:; Definition of Industrial Design by Professional Practise Committee , 29th General Assembly, Gwangju, South Korea, available at:, accessed 3 September 2017.

30 Scruton, R. (2016) Confessions of a Heretic, Nottinghill Editions, London, p.6.

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Prof. Stuart Walker

Stuart Walker

Professor of Design for Sustainability, Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.