Designing for the Behavior of a Sustainable Future

Natalia Arsand

We live in the Planet of Plastic Sea, and we don’t usually think this to be our fault, but what if that coffee cup we disposed for recycle is actually part of a Plastic Island at this very moment?

We are consumers and we are designers. That counts as some of the greatest powers someone can have these days. This talk comes to enlighten us on our responsibility as gate keepers, with demonstrations of simple acts we can take as consumers and designers to lead the behavior for a sustainable future.


Thank you for having me. I’m Natalia, I am currently living in Amsterdam working at the headquarters of, and I come from Brazil. You can find me online in any of the social media by typing in my username, nataliarsand. I’m from Brazil, and as you know Brazil is a big country, so just to localize you a little bit, this is where I’m from. It’s down there. It’s actually closer to Uruguay and Argentina than to Rio de Janeiro. No, I’m not from Rio, sorry about that.

Today I want to talk a little bit about history, we’re going to talk about consumerism, sustainability, design, and our responsibility in all of it. Not necessarily in that order. Bear with me. A lot of these topics were touched on by other speakers, so I hope this is going to complement it.

To start with a little bit of history, if you never heard about the regimen sanitatis salernitanum, it used to be the most famous manual on how to stay healthy during the medieval times. It was written in the form of short poems. It was written by the medical school of Salerno in Italy. In fact, there are a lot of truths in these poems, such as this one: “Should you need physicians, these three doctors will suffice: A joyful mind, rest and a moderate diet.” I almost feel like writing it on a Post-It and gluing it to my mirror to look at it everyday. It feels like a good thing to remember. From a diet perspective, basically, the only things you need to stay healthy, according to the royal doctors at the time, is bread, cheese, and wine. I guess this is a pretty good, decent diet. The thing I found most interesting about all of this is that these statements, even though not proved true by science and modern society, they’re still commonly spread out. Most of the times we don’t even realize it. Like this one: “Cheese after your other food properly ends the meal. Those who are not ignorant of medicine will attest to these things.” When I came to Europe, I found it very strange that in the dessert menu, I’d find cheese in it. In Brazil, dessert means sweet things. Why is cheese in there? It probably comes from the medieval times when doctors said cheese was good after the meal. Or this one that is self-explanatory: “If you develop a hangover from drinking at night, drink again in the morning; it will be your best medicine.” I guess everyone has already said it to a friend or another friend.

The thing to realize from all of this is that we don’t usually question cultural behavior. We just follow what has been done for a long time. That is passed on to us from generation to generation. Most of the time, it actually happens on an unconscious level. We’re not aware of it. Technology also works like that. I remember when I was a kid, and in order to play with a friend, I would call their home and their mom would pick up the phone and yell at them to go get the call in a specific room in the house, you know, where the phone lived. I tried explaining that to a 10 year old the other day. Note that she’s not even a five year old. This kid had been around for 10 years already. She looked at me with these scary eyes and confused face. She was like, “What do you mean you would call your friend’s house?” I bet she was thinking more of something like Alexa, other than reality.

And finally, design works like that as well. Today, we have this conceptual reference of what design means. Design is the thoughtful creation of products. In my case, as a UX designer, you can always dig deeper and deeper and find layers and layers of design work in it. But, in fact, everything around us is designed. Even the things without intention to be designed. If they exist, they were designed. Nature designs based on survival of the fittest, for example. Or biology and physiology are determined by matters of evolutionary design. It’s not a coincidence that we now continue improvement of products using evolutionary design. It’s what nature already does. But I believe that we are living in a moment that requires a different type of evolution. We need to think about an evolution of behavior in order to keep surviving. Centuries have passed since the times of the regimen sanitatis and today we have a deeper understanding of microbiology, germs, bacteria, and healthcare in general. That allows us to live longer and prosper than we used to in the medieval times. But we still have so much to learn and evolve as social species. We evolved our communication, we grew global. From a First World scenario, we’ve been living in the era of abundance. We have everything we need at our fingertips. We have even more than that. We have everything we can get at our fingertips. But we always want more.

Let’s see how design became this tool that shapes the world around us. Pardon me if you’ve already heard this story over and over, but I think it’s important for us to recollect things that we learn in school that were taught to us, from the design perspective. Design is a faculty. It started to get traction in the 18th and 19th centuries, in the middle of Industrial Revolution. Especially with the Arts and Crafts movement that was emerging from a reaction to the soulless results of machine-made products. A designer of the time, William Morris, who is this beautiful guy here, campaigned for the return of traditional craftsmanship. Even though it was not enough to stop the mass production, a few decades later Morris was the inspiration to the Bauhaus school of philosophy. The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 as an arts, crafts, and architecture school in Germany. It’s considered to be the school that gave birth to design as we know it. The school embraced the industrial movement that was happening at the time but also valued the craftsmanship that Morris was talking about. This is said to be the beginning of industrial design. As the Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius, stated: “Form follows function.” The beginning of designing for function, not only for form. For me, this phrase from Gropius is actually the foundation of what design and usability mean. Form follows function. It’s pretty simple. The Bauhaus school closed its doors, but it’s philosophy and approach to design sticks to us until the present moment. The moment that we live in, that is basically the global economy.

With industrial manufacturing becoming cheaper and cheaper, and mass production readily available to any business, that’s where we got to now. Plus the possibilities that the global economy has brought to us. As consumers, we can wish and buy almost anything imaginable from anywhere in the world. We live connected. But we also live busy, quite busy. In order to keep navigating our busy lives, more businesses are coming up and simply find things for us. So we have time to care about the things that really matter to us or that should really matter to us. The consequence is a social behavior that developed to become the default consumption habit of our generation. I call it the use-and-throw-away mass behavior. While there is little doubt about the convenience of to-go, disposable ethos, the enormous amount of waste it creates results in an atrocious way.

During the time when art, craft, and technology were studied in the Bauhaus, a lot of effort was put into understanding the possibilities and consequences of material usage on ergonomics, aesthetics, and function. Teachers would take their students to the guts of form and function, materials and processes. Now is the time we add one more element of study to our design mindset: the environmental impact, or sustainability.

I believe that, as designers, we should be the gatekeepers of what excess means. We have to get to the guts of sustainability. It doesn’t matter if you’re designing software, brand identity, or brochures. We play a part in responsibility because we are instructed to design. Design, at its core, solves problems. Consumerism is the only decorum problem that we have, even though we don’t often look at it in that way. Because we’re busy, right?

As designers, we constantly ask ourselves, “Are we solving the right problem? Is this a reasonable way to solve this problem?” I’d like to invite you to ask one more final question before putting something out there in the world: “What problems are we creating?” We research to understand the world. We design to change it. The user experience professional’s world exists in this continuum between research to understand the user and designing something that changes and hopefully improves the user experience. Designers have this saying, I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but I like it: “People before pixels.” In the environmental movement, you often hear: “People before profits.” I say, “People before getting sh*t done,” pardon my French. The point is, one of the most important disciplines of modern design is empathy, as was mentioned in this conference already. Let’s really think about people before getting sh*t done, just for the sake of it. What is the further impact of what I am building on my users lives? Think outside your product and business spectrum. Let’s ask more frequently: Does what I’m designing or making or doing need to exist? Is this really necessary and is it important to people? What impact will it have in the world or in the environment? Does it solve more problems than it generates? Is this something that is going to leave the planet, the world, and humanity in a better place? Let’s start questioning the answers we assume we already have.

I want to bring in four things we can do as consumers and designers to end the presentation. It might sound a little bit extreme, but bear with me.

As a consumer, watch what you’re eating. The cattle industry is one of the most inefficient uses of resources on the planet, even though we don’t often hear that. To give you an example, to make one hamburger, the amount of water consumption that it has is equal to two months of showers. If you’re like me and you like the facts, you can access the Cowspiracy website. Great documentary, by the way. They have a huge list of links and research that this infographic was based on. I’m not telling you to become a vegan and join a hippie community for anything. I’m just saying, you become aware of the facts and maybe think about consuming less meat. There are tons of people going to Meatless Mondays or allowing meat only on weekends. No matter how you do it, just be mindful and remember these things. Looking for organics, seasonal, and local produce also helps, and they tend to require less transportation and don’t apply heavy chemicals. It’s less water and air pollution and less waste of energy.

How to reflect that on your design approach? When designing, try not to emphasize meat. If you open any of our food applications, like here we have examples of Foursquare, Foodora, and even Uber Food. Even though Foursquare knows that I’m a vegetarian, for instance, when I type in “lunch”, most of the options they give me are meat-related. Or in Foodora when they’re loading their application, it’s a meat image that appears. Or even for icons, we’re talking about food. Most of the icons are meat-related.

What you buy and how you buy it. Ask yourself if the things you’re buying are really a necessity. Stop yourself from purchasing by impulse or just because there is this new awesomely advertised product in town. You know how advertising goes, right? Ask yourself, “How long will I keep it until it goes here?” Or here. Or even here. What we can do is try to live in a more minimalistic way. Bring our containers to bookshops in our bags, bring our mugs to events when it’s not an online event like this one. Avoid buying waste. Are you buying more packaging than actual products? Think about these things. Take back tap water. In most countries, especially in Europe and I believe in the United States as well, there’s no danger at all in drinking tap water. If you’re still in doubt, and I have a lot of friends that do, opt for a filtering system or boiling water before consuming it. It really works.

That reflects on your design approach. If you’re designing offline products or packaging or print materials, think about what happens to it after your consumer uses it. If you’re designing for a client, you can instigate them to think about what is left behind when the consumer uses their products. What happens if they don’t want it anymore? Design products that last longer and provide an efficient way for people to discard them afterwards. Here are a few examples. H&M has a program where they collect your used clothes for donation or recycling. You even get a discount out of it. If you’re printing or using offline material, opt for things that are recycled over new materials. Even give your users a chance for virtual access instead of printing only.

How and how much power you consume. Bill McKibben said if we are to stay below two degrees Celsius of warming, we have to stay at 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the future. fossil fuel companies have more than five times that amount in coal, oil, and gas in their reserves. He also says that it’s not that we have a philosophical difference with the fossil fuel industry. It’s that their business model is destroying our planet. Things we can do: if we can bike to work, why not? At least here in Amsterdam, it’s pretty easy. Biking leads to a healthier life and generates zero carbon footprint. Also think about other transport options that could reduce your carbon footprint. Turn off the lights when the rooms are empty and consume energy from green resources whenever possible. There’s a bunch of apps that already help you with that.

When talking about design, guide your users to think about green transportation whenever possible. In this example, you can see Apple Maps suggesting first a driving option, even though the address that I entered is quicker to access by walking or biking. Google Maps actually does the same, but at least Google Maps has the biking option, while Apple Maps doesn’t have it. Also, what we were talking about before in another talk, minifying files, such as CSS, JavaScript, and using new technologies that allow for less space, such as SVG images and optimizing images for the web, also reduces energy. Hire a hosting company that uses wind or solar energy instead of fossil fuels.

Last, but not least, and the harder one, especially these days, is try voting for leaders that care about the issue. In the picture you can see Senator James Inhofe from the U.S. that brought this snowball to a discussion on climate change just to prove that the earth is not warming. What we can do is research our candidates to know if they are committed to fighting climate change, by proposing renewable energy over fossil fuels, supporting green and local businesses, and also a price over carbon consumption. It’s harder these days, but there are still good people out there. We have to unite and be together, at least now. This is the most important time for it. As Barack Obama has said: “What makes climate change difficult is that it is not an instantaneous catastrophic event.” It’s a slow-moving issue. On a day-to-day basis, people don’t experience it and don’t see it.

To summarize, use your consumer power to zap new behavior trends. Use your design powers to accelerate and facilitate this collective evolution of the human race. Let’s try using our powers to save the only planet we can inhabit. That’s basically it. I just want to do a quick advertisement as well. Booking just released this Booster program, which is a three-week startup accelerator program to promote sustainable tourism. If you’re working in a startup that works with sustainable tourism, you can get a grant up to $500 euros if you join. Take a look at it. It’s pretty cool. I’m really proud of this project. See ya! That’s it. Thank you.

Cowspiracy Booster


I’ve been working with design and technology for more than 8 years now, and I am passionate about it. I believe it can change the world for the best.

I love helping teams understand real life problems from real people, and the many iterations that follow until we find a suitable solution. I enjoy it even more when dealing with society’s critical problems.

I like usability challenges, clever questions, sketching sessions, intuitive interactions with technology, impeccable markup, color harmonies and killer typography.

For about a year now I’ve been trying to connect the dots of these two great passions of mine: Design & Sustainability, as I believe we are in the first steps of a great revolution that will lead to the new way of living in deeper connection with our planet.

I’m also a yogi and geek, and I blog about my experiences on going Zero Waste.