08.07.2009, 2:48 PM

Oliver Sacks portrait by Doron Gild

Richard Whitehall, an industrial designer and partner at the multidisciplinary firm Smart Design, is looking to make the green option the more convenient one. By shifting the focus from individual products to experiences and systems, he and his team seek to understand how people interact with objects and information. It's a design process that takes its cue from the cognitive and behavioral sciences, economics, and sociology. Whitehall doesn't aim to just create sustainable products, but to convince people to behave in a more environmentally responsible way.

Interview by Greg Boustead
Photographs by Nikki Schiwal

Clean Design, Messy Process

Clutter is pretty typical here. I design a lot of physical things, so there's always this need to have physical things in my space. As part of our process, we tend to gather what's currently on the market. Here, we have a number of toothbrushes and cleaning products. The question is: How do we persuade people, instead of buying plastic over and over, to buy cleaning products in, say, a large bag and then transfer it into a smaller reusable container? We've found that when people are shopping, they're not really thinking. It's very easy to pick the hand soap bottle that looks nice, instead of buying a bag of stuff, which doesn't look as nice. People have difficulty taking the imaginative leap to really see the impact of such small decisions, but when you extrapolate that behavior to an entire population, it has a huge impact. We're always looking at making the leap from a very small change in behavior to making millions of them throughout the product chain. So one of our goals is to persuade people, through cues and good design, to make that imaginative leap.

Flip the Script

We often use Flip cams as a sort of ethnography tool to document user behavior in home studies. It's an easy way to capture and edit video and examine all the details of how people use things. In our research, we don't only ask people how a product is used, we observe how they use it. Often people will say they act one way, when in reality they act quite differently, especially when it comes to sustainability. It's import to observe people using prototypes in real settings, over several iterations, before pressing the button and making millions of copies. It's crucial to step back and design things with some empathy for the people who are going to use them.


"Watt's Up?" is an energy-monitoring tool we're using. We had people plug it into different devices for a day to compare how much energy they were using versus what they thought they were using. One person with a wine fridge, for instance, was shocked by the enormous amount of energy the appliance uses. When we looked into it, we found that wine fridges are under a different regulation than standard kitchen refrigerators. And the usage is astronomical. Then there's the difference between searching something in Google, which drains the processing power of servers in some massive air-conditioned warehouse, versus just typing in the URL or using a bookmark. When you look at the granular details, there are opportunities to change small practices, all of which can add up.

Painting Without Paint

That's a piece of plywood from our materials library that's been machined to create this topographical pattern. We're experimenting with the idea of creating aesthetic effects on different materials and surfaces without using paints or chemicals. So we're not creating the pattern by applying anything extra; we're taking material away. Underneath the plywood is a white plastic sample with flecks of color in it. The flecks are regrinded polyethylene bottles, which provide an interesting pattern and texture. Depending on the sources, you can get all sorts of different colors. There are many ways you can achieve a decorative effect without paints or lacquers: It can be as simple as changing the texture of a surface to make it glossy.

Green Driving

We've been working on a project called SmartGauge for the dashboard displays of Ford's new hybrid vehicles. Our thought is that design can influence driving behavior. Ford engineers optimize efficiency of the vehicle; we optimize efficiency of the driver. There are two LED panels on either side of the mechanical speedometer gauge. A series of customizable tabs relay real-time feedback including battery charge and fuel consumption, opening a dialogue between car and driver that allows them to respond to each other in ways that lead to better driving decisions and fuel efficiency. Right now cars basically give information about what the car is doing. But we wanted to look at how a dashboard could communicate what the driver is doing to give the person the right kind of stimulus to drive in a more efficient way. The idea is to create a feedback loop to encourage green driving habits.

Smart Commute

We have a series of bikes that we make available to our staff to use for commuting to and from work or for running errands. They're produced locally by a friend of someone who works here. They're convenient and fold up really tiny and quickly. We're not only concerned with what staff does in the office, but also how they get here and leave here. That's my personal bike that I use to ride to the office almost every day. I was even able to use it when I recently broke my foot, the cast for which you can still see under my desk.

Breaking the Mold

Those are silicon molds we use to make prototypes. Often we'll make prototypes by hand or we'll create designs in CAD and produce them with rapid prototyping machines. This one is for a syringe design we were working on for an arthritis drug, which patients need to inject themselves. Having workshops in our office allows us to experiment with levels of iteration—come up with an idea, discuss it, build some rough prototypes, go out in the field and test them, and then make changes. If we do that, hopefully we can weed out the product failures that become landfill.

Bad Habits, Smart Changes

These pinned-up printouts are part of an internal awareness campaign we've launched. We've been measuring our carbon footprint for several years now, and we're recording all sorts of metrics. Everyone has to put their garbage in a specific place so they can see exactly how much waste piles up each week. It's a good way to explain what a carbon footprint means and sort of make that information real. The idea of the campaign is to get people thinking about little things like using bikes instead of getting a cab, or using less paper towels, and discouraging bad habits. It's all just a set of cues and nudges to get people to behave in a responsible way.

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