Good Design is Environmentally Friendly

I recently gave a talk at WordCamp Maine about good design. In this presentation, I had a section on Dieter Rams’ principles of good design. When I was writing the presentation, I thought about how I could apply one of Rams’ principles, “good design is environmentally friendly,” to the web. This principle states:

Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

“Environmentally friendly” is easy to understand when we’re thinking about industrial design and the production of physical goods. Eco-friendly design is sustainable; the creation, production, and eventual disposal of that product does not harm the environment. Like a good girl scout, our well-designed products might even leave the environment better than we found it.

This concept is a little bit trickier when you think about the web. As designers and developers, the products we build don’t often impact the environment at all. (The exception is perhaps our physical tools themselves: computers, tablets, and phones.)

Instead of the physical environment, we can apply Rams’ principle to the digital environment. Eco-friendly design does not harm an online community or its denizens. This means protecting our users’ information and privacy, and shielding them from abuse and harassment. If our designs don’t protect our most vulnerable users, then they are not eco-friendly.

We need to design to reduce anxiety, and design for people in crisis situations. Above all else, we should design so we don’t need to build sites like this.

Eco-friendly design becomes even more important as our world becomes more connected. More than three billion people now use the internet. That’s a lot of people whose lives we can fuck up through laziness, neglect, or malicious intent.

Mike Monteiro has given a great talk on this topic, entitled How Designers Destroyed the World:

I had the privilege of seeing Monteiro present in person. His talk has made a lasting difference on how I think about our roles as architects of the web. The decisions we make can, and often do, have a huge impact on the lives of our users. It’s our responsibility to see that our impact is positive.

Let’s leave the web a better place than when we found it.

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