The word “design” usually evokes images of furniture and gardens, logos and architecture, and people who draw up blueprints or choose fabric. We assume it lives in the provinces of money and pleasure: Fashion runways, shelter magazines and good restaurants, all inspired by Denmark, France, and Italy.

But design also lies at the intersection of human endeavor and the natural world. Whether we devour or conserve can be helped by design. Whether we connect – with nature, with our bodies, with our work, with each other – can be helped or hurt by design. The design of products and stores, of homes and workplaces, of cities and public spaces, of corporate supply chains and of campaigns for change all contribute either to living more joyously and lightly or to becoming disconnected, destructive consumers.

This is true whether we think of design as beauty, as function, or as active planning with intention. A design that works well, from a product to a home to a cityscape or even a production line, is often beautiful to behold in efficiency, play, even color and light. Good design has imagined the outcomes, invites real engagement, helps us do more with less, and satisfies.

Poor design doesn’t take its full ecology into account. Poor design is wasteful, disposable, designed not to last, isn’t either beautiful or utilitarian, is ornate without function. Signs of poor design include: Size that is more than needed and causes other problems; materials that are destructive to make and impossible to recycle; incorporates technology for the sake of technology, even when it’s not needed; complexity that is at the same time low-functioning. In natural settings, like landscaping, poor design is overly reliant on inputs, such as water and pesticides, to keep it going, while barren in the ecological functioning that would naturally keep it beautiful.

Site organization. I’ve organized this blog into these four categories of design’s connection to the environment:

the design of Connection. Design choices can connect us with or disconnect us from the natural world, even our immediate surroundings. These choices include the colors that we use in our homes, how we manage whatever outdoor space that we have, what products we buy and how much waste we generate, our energy use, and how we interact with the broader environment around us, such as nearby waterways.

the design of Commerce. We are all a part of global commerce, even if we are usually blissfully unaware of the chains of activity that are conducted just to bring us simple products or food. The harvesting of natural resources, the production of goods or the industry of agriculture, and the transportation of everything that we buy are just a few strands. Many companies are becoming concerned with how to make those chains more efficient and less destructive, while many others are not. What we do, on our end, can send signals that help make shifts in the right direction.

the design of Construction. How our homes, cities, roads, buildings, fueling stations, parks and recreational places are constructed makes a difference in how we live, where we live, and how much we use — electricity, natural resources, chemicals, etc. — to do it.

the design of Change. Many people want to reduce humans’ impact on nature. But not all campaigns for change make the difference we want to see. New designs of campaigns, of public education, and even of our workday — if started from considering the outcomes we want to achieve — could make the difference.


About me  I’m originally from the Chicago area, currently living in Massachusetts. I have a strong pull toward certain parts of the Midwest, and though I have always lived in more urban environments I spend a lot of time in the country. There is something about open grasslands that just gets me every time. But I also care a lot about designing my house and garden here in town. I spent a good part of my career working on environmental policy, particularly on climate change campaigns, policy, and legislation. Like you, I’m curious about the world and all of its aspects, from science to commerce, nature, and people, and I want it all to survive and thrive.

Disclaimer: No suggestions in this blog are meant to substitute for better energy policies, more large scale conservation, and other major efforts to support the environment. But we live in a high-consuming culture, and we’re all responsible, at least in part, for the survival of nature in the world at large and in our own little corner where we live.

Thanks for reading! – Nicole St. Clair Knobloch