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Part 1: Learning About Sustainable Design with Dawn Danby

by Claire Lui on Tuesday, November 30, 2010 in Educational ResourcesFeatures

A series of new videos recently released by Autodesk is meant to help place environmental thinking right at the forefront of any design process. The goal for the videos: Suggest to engineers and designers that they think about the environmental impact of any design at the very beginning, including the brainstorming stage, so that the green thinking can have the most impact. Autodesk’s programs have become essential tools of the trade for engineers, architects, and designers, and the company wanted to use their products’ ubiquity to help change the way engineers approach designing.

The short videos star their creators, Dawn Danby, the Sustainable Design Program Manager for Autodesk, and her collaborator Jeremy Faludi, while they chat in straightforward terms about environmental ideas and a scientist character (“Mr. Imagination”) in a white lab coat quickly sketches out diagrams explaining the talk behind the speaker. The result is an easy-to-digest introduction to some key ideas about environmentally friendly design. Originally targeted toward mechanical engineering undergraduate students, the videos have covered lightweighting (how to include less material when manufacturing products—see below) and whole systems design (how to think about a customer’s entire user experience from beginning to end).

Today and tomorrow, we’re running interviews with Danby and Faludi; the pair talk about how manufacturing is responding to environmental concerns, some examples of successful whole systems thinking, and the response to their videos.

Living Principles: What made you decide to start working with Autodesk?

Dawn Danby: Seriousness, wide-open possibilities and a love of good tools.

Sustainable design was a very niche concept when I finished design school in 2000. By 2007, Autodesk was taking on sustainability as a strategic investment. I could tell they meant it: The company’s senior leadership realized that the company’s customers – nearly ten million designers and engineers around the world – were the ultimate leverage points. The challenge was to figure out where to focus and get to work.

Personally, though, I still carry with me the industrial designer’s geeky fascination with new tools for creativity, so it’s like an industrial-scale candy store.

How exactly would you define your role there?

When I started at Autodesk over two years ago, I worked with the product teams across the company to add sustainable design requirements into their specs for future software releases. But we’ve always believed that creating tools is only part of the picture. Sometimes we need to show the path, and help customers understand how to use Autodesk’s tools for sustainable design. We have over 1.7 million students on our online Education Community. We saw a huge opportunity to help them incorporate sustainable design into their projects. Adam Menter and I started to develop a program for the ones in mechanical engineering and industrial design, the result of which is the Sustainability Workshop.

Have you gotten any feedback on the videos? Have there been any specific companies or engineers who have pointed to how they have altered their thinking based on watching the videos or using the resources created by Autodesk?

The most exuberant feedback we’ve gotten has been from students and teachers who are looking for practical solutions and who appreciate the fact that the resources are short. Our material is now required viewing for the online sustainable design program at MCAD, and have gotten some serious interest from leading engineering programs in places like the Netherlands.

Since the Workshop was developed for students, we’re always happy to hear from professionals who are reassessing their assessment of “sustainable design.” I heard from a gentleman in the Midwest whose eyes were opened at the concept of externalities. He wrote to me, “85 pounds of waste for 1 pound of aluminum? Wow! I had no idea!” The fact that sustainability was a systems issue, going beyond just toxics and energy use, was a revelation to him.

How do you think the videos present information that is different from the standard curriculum of engineering or industrial design students?

Sustainable design is still largely missing from most design and engineering programs. Engineering courses focus on important theory and principles, but are often not meeting the demand for more applied resources for sustainable design: videos, examples, and a link from the theory to the practical and hands-on. We’re not trying to replace curriculum. Instead, we’re setting out to give students resources so that they can teach themselves concepts as well as new software tools. The material we’re covering is intentionally presented in short pieces. But everyone will understand it much better when they start using it in real projects, building digital prototypes and then getting into the shop.

Did you create your video about whole systems design as a specific a response to how you saw engineers or industrial designers designing previously? Were they overly focused on one part of the process instead of the whole? Or is it more of a summary and a reminder about how to make design more green?

Focusing on fixing small things, and not looking at the whole system, is a chronic issue among humans. Engineers and designers just happen to be the ones who make decisions that determine the energy used in your house, your transportation, or the materials in your electronics. Our partners at the Rocky Mountain Institute have been talking about whole systems for years. As Amory Lovins put it, “Optimizing components in isolation tends to pessimize the whole system—and hence the bottom line. You can actually make a system less efficient while making each of its parts more efficient, simply by not properly linking up those components. If they’re not designed to work with one another, they’ll tend to work against one another.” There’s a beautiful metaphor in there, too.

Regarding whole systems thinking, we knew the concept was so fundamental to sustainable design and that we needed to include it in the launch, even though it is conceptual. We introduced the concept in order to say, “Look, there are lots of factors at work here. Pause a moment. Don’t let all the variables blow your mind or discourage you.” Before you start applying your awesome cleverness to solving problems, you’d better figure out what the problems really are, where you can focus in, and how the solutions can work together.

How did you decide on the format of the videos (Mr. Imagination drawing in the background, etc.)? The videos remind me a bit of Alton Brown’s videos on the Food Channel—were there any particular shows that served as inspiration?

We wanted to get complex ideas across, fast. Attention spans are short. To do this, we worked with the team at Free Range Studios, who make the films for the Story of Stuff project. They specialize in showing complex ideas using simple stories. After all, this is the creative team that managed to make product life cycle interesting to the masses.

As Free Range’s creative director Jonah Sachs explained to me, the visual and verbal tracks of the brain need to work together. “Illustrations need to work in tandem with words if you’re going to deliver a heavy transfer of information in a simplified, quick way. We had charismatic presenters; how can we leverage them, and create interesting dynamics to go with them? By embodying their imaginations as a person, we could give an interesting feeling of what’s happening inside designers’ brains. We thought about shows from our childhood, like Mr. Wizard’s World. His approach was to tell little stories: every piece needs to be based on a tangible thing, something you could hold in your hand. He’d bring 7-year-olds on to the show and use hypothetical experiments to teach science. Start with the application, and then talk about the theory behind it.”

Can you speak a little bit more about how specific Autodesk software programs are helping designers to create more “green” products?

Sure. By creating a 3D digital prototype, Autodesk software helps you estimate the impact of something before it’s made, by seeing how it looks, works and performs. This has a profound effect, since a great majority of a product’s environmental impact is determined by decisions made during design.

Engineers can use tools that test how strong designs are, prevent them from failing. Analyzing models can also help improve a design’s energy and material efficiency.

We recently announced a partnership with GRANTA Design, which will help designers make better materials choices by providing more detailed information about how they perform, how much they cost, and their environmental impact.

If we look at Bloom, a prototype laptop computer made possible in part by Autodesk’s modeling software, you’ll see it was designed so that its user can easily disassemble it without any tools in just 30 seconds. The LCD, motherboard, and battery easily separate and can be placed inside a prepaid envelope, hidden behind the screen and mailed to a specialized recycling facility. The rest of the computer can be tossed in the average household recycling bin.

Digital prototyping went hand-in-hand with physical prototyping.Once the team had refined the design to the point that they needed a finished physical prototype, they used their digital model to create 3D prints of all the parts through. Publisher helped communicate how their design worked so that anyone could understand it quickly.

Is there an inherent contradiction between the push to create new products and the efforts to reduce consumerism? Does focusing on “reduce” of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” end up edging out “reuse and recycle”?

We don’t see sustainable product design as a zero-sum game between competing approaches. Nor are we single-minded about the “reduce” strategy. For the Sustainability Workshop, we started out by showing how to reduce materials through lightweighting, but stay tuned for more videos in the months to come. Right now, we’re working to help educate on how to to extend product life through modularity, reparability and disassembly – all of which encourage reuse and recycling.

I know what you mean about the push to create new products, and this is particularly tricky when our ultimate goal is to work towards zero waste. But as long as things are still getting manufactured (and they are), there’s an opportunity to make things in better ways. Consider new, cleaner energy technologies: there’s broad agreement that we should be investing more in clean tech. But those industries rarely incorporate sustainable design in their manufacturing, and are – ironically – still more wasteful and toxic than we’re often willing to admit. There’s lots of opportunity to reduce material intensity and recycle components and materials – just to start.

Your videos are a little bit vague about just how to create more environmentally friendly products. Could you briefly describe a very specific example of how this was done with a product now on the market?

Our high-level intro videos are like mini-lectures that introduce concepts, so they don’t launch into the technical details. But you learn how to create greener products by doing it: Our site has a wealth of detailed videos that get right into showing how to reduce materials in a design, using our Inventor software. If students sign up for our Education Community, they can download free software and 3D datasets and play with these concepts directly.

Our first area of focus is material reduction through lightweighting: How can you make something strong enough to work, with the least amount of material possible? Several of our tutorials are based on a project with Utility Scale Solar, a clean tech customer. As their name suggests, USS makes large-scale solar installations that arrange thousands of mirrors in a heliostat array. USS decreased their need for steel significantly by making a digital prototype of the Heliostat, and lightweighting one of their major steel components. For a power plant with 1,000 arrays, this simple design change will save as much as 250 tons of steel.

Do you think that greener thinking is the new direction of engineers today? Or do you find that there continues to be substantial resistance?

Greener thinking is the way forward. We’ve talked to a lot of young engineers who are fully committed to taking on grand challenges like material waste, energy scarcity or access to clean water. They realize they can bend the future in good directions, and all they want is the immediate access to the tools and opportunities to do it.

I have never once met an engineer who had set out to damage ecosystems. It’s sort of a bad way to make friends. Any skepticism we’ve run into simply reflects an outmoded idea: that to address the environment, everything will cost a lot more and be a big hassle, and is therefore not worth the attention of real grownups. This is a false dichotomy. Engineers work hard to save energy and materials, because these things cost money. If we respect their intelligence by being specific, avoiding platitudes and showing them how to engineer to conserve resources, they appreciate it and are hungry for more.

Check out Autodesk’s Sustainability Workshop to get more information and to see more videos.