This article was published in Temes de Disseny 34 in 2018. The graphic layout was changed in order to suit the
layout of this publication. The article in its original layout can be found here:
To site this article: Bak-Andersen, Mette. 2018. “When matter leads to form: Material driven design for sustain-
ability’.Temes de disenny 34: 12-33.
WHEN MATTER LEADS TO FORM:
Material driven design for Sustainability
By Mette Bak-Andersen
This article presents the argument that a conventional form-focused design process causes a lack of
knowledge regarding materials and as a result, creates a knowledge barrier between the designer and
the product – a barrier that acts not only against the implementation of so-called advanced materials
and new technologies, but also ends up as a major obstacle to the creation of sustainable industrially
produced products. A new type of design process is emerging, in which the material is present from
the outset and can be seen as the driver of the process. This material driven design process breaks
down the aforementioned knowledge barrier and has shown potential for being a design process that
enables design for sustainability. However, simply starting with the material does not ensure a sustain-
able outcome by default.
design for sustainability with the objective of testing to which degree it is possible to design a process
that guarantees results compatible with a circular economy. The research is based on constructive
in which the material driven design process was continuously tested, evaluated and adjusted through
involvement of expert designers and specialists from four different companies and institutions.
This article presents the quandary in the relationship between form and matter in established contem-
Finally, the material driven design process for sustainability is outlined step by step, including rele-
vant approaches for the experimentation. This article presents a design process that delivers products
which are compatible with a circular economy at the end of their life. The process does not necessarily
have to be used as a ‘standalone’ design process but can be combined with others and has reached a
Considering that all human-made materials surrounding us are made from elements that occur
naturally on our planet, it may seem paradoxical that using these same elements in materialising and
building our civilization should end up being so harmful to the same environment from which they
came. Nonetheless, it has become evident that we need to change the way we make things. A strategy
for sustainability that is being adopted by several governments and institutions is the circular econo-
my (Government of the Netherlands 2018; Su et al. 2013, 215-227; European Union 2018).
The circular economy is a closed loop material system that encompasses the human-made world
(Pearce and Turner 1990; Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation 2018). Developing the ability to design for a
system in which a product must either be recycled or biodegraded at the end of its life demands a pro-
found understanding of the composition and compatibility of materials. A lack of understanding of ma-
terials effectively creates a knowledge barrier between the designer and the product. This barrier acts
not only against the implementation of advanced materials and new technologies, but also becomes a
major obstacle to the creation of sustainable products.
During the last decade, variations of a material centred design process have been gradually emerging
from some design professionals and researchers: a process in which the material plays a fundamental
role from the beginning of the design process. It is described by most researchers involved as mate-
rial based or material driven (Karana et al. 2015, 35-54; Van Bezooyen 2013, 277-286; Hansen 2010;
Oxman 2010) (the latter being the term that will be used to describe the research in this article).
The main difference between a material driven design process and most conventional contemporary
design processes is that the designer plays an active role in designing, developing or manipulating the
A large variety of design processes intended for design for sustainability (Ceschin and Gaziulusoy
direction for product design as a result, or tailored after conventional design processes in which the
material is a secondary element that is selected.
Applying a material driven design process makes the designer the expert on a given material (Karana
et al. 2015, 35-54) and, thus, potentially provides the designer with essential knowledge when design-
ing for a circular economy. However, although published research on material driven design processes
material experiences (Karana et al. 2015, 35-54), to spark creativity (Van Bezooyen 2013, 277- 286)
or to achieve a more environmentally friendly outcome (Oxman 2010), results are neither sustainable
nor compatible with a circular economy by default.
To achieve the potential of material driven design as a design process for sustainability that results in
design process for sustainability and its potential contribution to a systemic change towards a circular
This article presents the quandary in the relationship between form and matter in established contem-
porary design processes and the fundamentals of material driven design (section 2) the methodology
for the research leading to development of the process is introduced (section 3), followed by results
sustainability with examples from research and practice (section 4), then the material driven design
process for sustainability, outlined step by step, including relevant approaches for the exploration of
materials (section 5). This is summed up by a discussion on limitations and prerequisites (section 6)
followed by concluding remarks (section 7).
2 THE FUNDAMENTALS OF MATERIAL
To comprehend the prospective of using material driven design as a design process for sustainability,
it is necessary to understand the underlying principles of material driven design in general and, just as
important, how these differ from the present more established form focused design process. Although
descriptions of material driven design vary in the literature, there seems to be a shared understanding
of it as a process in which form is not prioritised over matter and the material is not merely introduced
be made (OED 2017). Material driven design is a design process initiated through the exploration of
material, or where a material is designed, grown or developed in the same process that determines the
2.1 The quandary of material selection
Established contemporary design processes include different approaches and strategies on how to
articles and research projects have been published addressing the critical importance of selecting the
right materials (Ashby and Johnson 2003, 24-35; Karana, Hekkert, and Kandachar 2010, 2932-2941;
Van Kesteren, Stappers, and De Bruijn 2007).
Likewise, there are several digital tools aimed at helping the designer in material selection (Ramalhete,
Senos, and Aguiar 2010, 2275-2287). Whether these encompass nearly all possible criteria and char-
acteristics like the comprehensive Cambridge Engineering Selector, CES, or whether they have a specif-
ic focus on cost, performance or environmental impact, they generally have one thing in common: they
are predominantly set up to support the designer as the creator of the form, and the material as an
(Material Connexion 2018), Materia (Materia 2018) or MaterFad (Materfad 2018) are usually set up to
aid the designer in a process in which form is primary and material secondary. They display a great va-
to be selected for a design.
The literature, research, tools and materials collections represent very valuable knowledge about mate-
rial technology, but, in the context of designing for a circular economy, it is a drawback when the material
nical properties and largely what decides the production method. It is the material or the combination
of materials in a product that determines future recycling options and/or the biodegradability of a
product. Thus, when the material is not present in a dialogue with form and function from the begin-
ning of the process, it can be hard for the designer to make appropriate decisions – not just regarding
sustainability. Leaving the material to the very end of the process, or even in the hands of others, pro-
vokes a knowledge barrier between the designer and the end product.
A designer who does not understand or know how to work with materials for a product is in many re-
spects as badly equipped as a chef who does not understand the ingredients for the dish she is preparing.
Qualities such as innovation and sustainability are not extras that can be injected into a product at the
However, if materials are to be a central element in the design process with the current complexity and
process. This question will be addressed in sections 4 and 5.
The research that led to the results presented in this article is primarily based on qualitative methods.
tive design research’ with a predominant Lab approach and elements from the Field (Koskinen et al.
2011). The aim of the research is to create a design process that is compatible with a circular economy.
This makes the design process the object of the research and the design process can thus, methodolog-
ically in the context of the research, be understood as a research prototype. The process has evolved
over more than 10 years. It initially began in my design practice with practical experimentation in
mon 1988, 67-82), and from 2015 by applying systematic inquiry using constructive design research
to imagine a new reality and building it to test whether it works (Koskinen and others 2011).
Design for sustainability is incredibly complex and is, as such, both ‘wicked’ (Rittel and Webber 1973,
155-169) and messy. Schön describes a situation like this as swampy lowland and argues that only by
possible to maintain technical rationalism. However, the problems of greatest human concern - in this
case sustainability - are in the swamp and demand a type of inquiry that is not likely to be amenable
2017). This affects both methods and research design.
3.1 Research design
This research is set up as exemplary design research driven by programs and experiments. The
program can be seen as a structure that acts as a frame and a foundation for a series of design experi-
through examples of what could be done and how, i.e. examples that both express the possibilities of
the design program as well as more general suggestions about a (change to) design practice’ (Binder
and Redström 2006). The dialectics between experiments and program are well described (Brandt et
al. 2011; Redström 2017). In this research, the experimentation initially dominated and informed the
program, but the program eventually took over (see table 2, A17 and B17).
which the design process for material driven design for sustainability is tested. Schön writes about
actions (Schön 2017). The work reported here can be understood in such terms as well and will be
described in greater detail below.
3.2 The design trials
A trial is a ‘Test, usually over a period of time to discover how effective or suitable someone or some-
thing is’ (OED 2017). The ‘design trial’ created as method for this research project is to some degree
can, to some degree, be compared to serial design experimentation (Krogh, Markussen, and Bang 2015,
39-50). However, the experiments tend to be evaluated individually and consecutively, and not set up to
The early version of the process for material driven design for sustainability tested in trial 1 was based
on previous practice-based design trials. At that stage, the process was relatively unsystematic and
mostly focused on exploring the experiential values of the material. The results were often creative and
produced with unusual materials. However, they were predominantly artistic. As a result, they were
pre-trial material driven design experiment in 2014).
not always very functional nor were they compatible with a circular economy (illustrated in Fig. 1).
The only explicit framework for trial 1 was a restriction on raw materials, which had to be locally
Material Design Lab at Copenhagen School of Design & Technology, a space designed to test, explore
and design materials.
Data was primarily collected from the evaluation of the results (the products produced) and, to some
degree, through observation and conversations with participants and collaborating partners from
the industry. Documentation was done by writing and photography and by material samples and
prototypes created in the process. An overview of the trials is presented in table 1. Table 2 shows the
progress of developing the process of material driven design for sustainability through a method of
3.3 The evaluation
The evaluation is focused on the products produced from testing the process as the products are the
with the development of the process (see table 2). The following aspects are considered obligatory
for the evaluation, but, depending on the focus of the brief in question and the type of project that the
process is used for, different traits can be given more importance. The evaluation starts with a focus on
1. Fully biodegradable
2. Fully recyclable
3. Waste material for recycling
6. Abundant resource (must be combined with at least item 1 or 2)
7. Socially responsible production (must be combined with at least item 1 or 2)
1. Fully biodegradable
2. Fully recyclable
3. Designed for disassembly (in components that are compatible with items 1 and 2)
Additional aspects such as toxicity, durability, weight, aesthetics, meaning and carbon footprint are
for example, if it is possible to measure how long something takes to biodegrade. However, sustaina-
bility always relates to context and thus the primary goal of the material is to suit the function of the
product. This means that in some cases it is a quality that the material biodegrades rapidly and in
other cases, when a product is designed to last many years, it is important that the material is durable
and only biodegrades very slowly.
received very positive feedback from the designers in the collaborating company. However, the material
would need to be developed further to be durable enough for a shoe. Also, because of this apparent incom-
patibility between material and the functionality of the product, the shoe decreases the perceived value of
the material to some degree. (Trial 4)
Likewise, weight can be an issue for sustainability if transportation over long distances is involved, but
it can also be an important feature for the functionality of the product. A larger carbon footprint can
be accepted for a spoon made from stainless steel that will last for at least a lifetime than for a spoon
made from biodegradable corn starch that is likely to be used for less than an hour then disposed of.
and aesthetics. A material that might have excellent technical properties and score high on all other
sustainability parameters might be considered unacceptable to users because it comes with a connota-
tion that is offensive to them. An example of this was products made from human hair in trial one (See
high value, the user will have an emotional attachment that will ensure the product’s care and durabil-
ity (Harper 2017).
collaborating company participated in the evaluation (see Fig. 3). In the following section, a map of the
in section 3.2.
4 MATERIAL DRIVEN DESIGN FOR
SUSTAINABILITY: THE FIELD
In material driven design for sustainability the creation and manipulation of the material is central.
Even though different specialists might contribute to this part of the process, it is mainly performed by
the designer. One could claim that this is the job of a material scientist, but there is some research indi-
tion should ideally be cross-disciplinary.
One example of this is the research and work by material scientist Mark Miodownik. Both at The
Institute of Making (University College London 2018), of which he is the director, and in his research,
he pursues the development of both physical and aesthetic properties of materials by reviving what he
perceives as a mutually rewarding collaboration between the arts and the sciences (Miodownik 2003,
36-42; Miodownik 2005, 506-508; Miodownik 2007, 1635-1641).
Similar ideas can be found in Cyril Smith’s research into the historical interaction among science, art
tion of an activity as science, technology, or art is relatively recent (Smith 1970, 493-549). In a similar
vein, material scientist Mike Ashby and designer Kara Johnson point out the potential that emerges
when principles of materials science and technology merge with other specialities such as engineering,
chemistry, biotechnology and information science (Ashby and Johnson 2003, 24-35).
Considering this, a material driven design process can be seen as inherently cross-disciplinary. This
involving art, technology and natural science (Fig. 4).
Art brings qualities such as aesthetics, form, experiential values and tactility. Technology offers tools,
techniques and a strong link to industrial production. Natural science contributes with the composi-
tion of the material itself and holds most of the answers when it comes to solving compatibility with a
circular economy and technical challenges. As presented in the examples in the following section, some
tion of art, technology and natural science. Others have a strong connection with one or two constitu-
ents and lack the balance described above. (See position numbers 1, 2, 3, ….in Fig. 4).
science and technology. The numbers indicate where the different examples of material driven design, pre-
sented in section 3.1, are placed.
4.1 Examples from research and practice
as material driven by the creator. The work of fashion designer Suzanne Lee demonstrates how design
can include knowledge from science by exploring the use of living cultures of microorganisms, such
as yeast and bacteria, to grow biomaterials like cellulose into sustainable, compostable materials and
products for fashion (Lee 2018) (Position 1 in Fig. 4). The comparable, but more artistic designer, Car-
ole Collet explores the fusion between biology and design in what she calls ‘biofacturing’ (Collet 2012)
(Position 2 in Fig. 4). However, the project is mainly conceptual and thus, lacks the technology compo-
nent. As a result, it is not placed in the centre.
The Dutch design prize ‘New Materials Award’ (Het Nieuwe Instituut, Fonds Kwadraat, and Stichting
doen 2018) is presented as ‘on the cutting edge of science, design, art and technology’. The prize aims
to challenge participants to think beyond their own discipline in applying new materials and seeking
sustainable solutions for the future. Many of the nominee projects can be described as material driven
design for sustainability. A good example is the 3D printed mycelium chair by Eric Klarenbeek. The
basic raw material is vegetable waste with mycelium used as ‘living glue’ (Klarenbeek 2018) (Position
3 in Fig. 4).
Another researcher who is using 3D printing in a material driven design process is the architect Neri
Oxman. In her ‘Material Based Design Computation’ thesis, she describes her process as nature’s way
of designing and building, a process in which material always precedes shape. She points out that
early forms of craft as well as some of the most innovative new developments in materials science and
engineering apply a material-based approach with the role of material as the substance of form, rather
than form’s progenitor (Oxman 2010).
While drawing on research on materials and biomimicry, her use of materials in the early projects
project ‘Pneuma’ that is inspired by phylum porifera animals, such as sponges (Oxman 2018) (Position
4 in Fig. 4). The sponge is used for structural and mechanical inspiration, but the material used for the
fabrication is not related to the sponge. As a result, it lacks the natural science component and is placed
outside the centre. However, Oxman has started designing materials and adapting printers to suit the
material. An example of this is the 3D printer she has built with her team to suit the chitin paste made
from a large quantity of crustacean shell waste (Mogas-Soldevila 2015) (Position 5 in Fig. 4).
driven design for sustainability does not necessarily have to be as technologically complex as the work
of Oxman or Klarenbeek. A good example of this is the mycelium-based designs by designer Maurizio
Montalti (Montalti 2018), which are produced simply by growing the material in a mould (Position 6 in
Some of the most avant-garde research on design and materials that has been published over the last
few years did not come from design, but from biotechnology; research on creating materials by the
means of synthetic biology and research on material design in biology (Weiner, Addadi, and Wagner
getting close to material driven design for sustainability.
Examples of this are the synthetically grown honey-bee silk developed by Tara Sutherland and her
team from CSIRO in Australia (Sutherland et al. 2010, 171-188) (Position 7 in Fig. 4) and the “Grow
Your Own – Life After Nature” exhibition in which various design trials starting with the implemen-
Science Gallery 2017) (Position 8 in Fig. 4).
The Bio Academy or ‘How to grow almost Anything’ is a course on synthetic biology directed by George
Church, professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School (Church 2018). This could potentially be
the stepping-stone to a very advanced version of material driven design for sustainability. However,
despite the fact that the program is rooted in the FabLab community, at least for now, it appears to lack
the component of Art (Position 9 in Fig. 4).
Similar thoughts and approaches to materials and design are seen in various smaller bio-hack labs like
New York City’s Community Biolab ’Genspace’, where professionals from biotechnology and program-
mers have started working with materials and design at a very advanced level (Kean 2011, 1240-
Biotechnology makes it possible to use living systems, organisms and almost any source of biomass to
develop or make products. This is widely applied in agriculture, food production and medicine. When
material driven design. The value of tinkering with design and materials is well-described (Wilkinson
and Petrich 2013; Rognoli et al. 2015, 692-702). The activity in some of the less established bio fabri-
As these examples have shown, an ideal example of material driven design for sustainability strikes a
balance among art, technology and natural science. When art is overrepresented, the outcome can lack
function and usability (e.g. position 2 in Fig. 4). When art is absent, the result lacks experiential values
and becomes indifferent and hard to apply in practice (e.g. position 9 in Fig. 4). When natural science is
to apply to mainstream products. However, when it is missing, the result is rarely compatible with a
circular economy (e.g. position 4 in Fig. 4).
When technology takes precedence, the products – even though they might be highly complex – can
appear indifferent and mechanical. However, when technology is missing the results tend to lack
driven design for sustainability. Based on this, the theoretical foundations presented in section 2 and
5 MATERIAL DRIVEN DESIGN FOR
SUSTAINABILITY: THE DESIGN PROCESS
Karana et al. describe how ‘Over time, the designer who takes a MDD [Material Driven Design: a Meth-
od to Design for Material Experiences] approach is expected to become a master of a given material:
he/she will know how the material behaves under different circumstances or how it reacts when
subjected to different making techniques or manufacturing processes’ (Karana et al. 2015, 35-54). This
can be seen as a shared advantage for a design process in which ‘the material has been moved from the
with the material evoking and concretizing ideas’ (Van Bezooyen 2013, 277-286).
Fig. 5. Participants from trial 3 are being introduced to the raw materials (see table 1 for details).
Fig. 6. Hannah Michaud was a participant in the 2nd trial and continued by forming a company around
the material and products that she designed. She initially struggled with the fact that she was trained as
a fashion designer and, thus, insisted on her material being used for fashion products. Finally, after more
than a year, she accepted that by changing her focus to packaging, her material had a much higher value.
In 2017, Michaud was rewarded with the Danish start-up award ‘Ivækst’ for her work.
such a design process, in which the material is present and explored from the beginning, eliminates the
barrier of ignorance described in the introduction to this article. Nevertheless, this kind of process will
Karana et al.
As can be seen by following the progress from D1 to D17 in table 2, it requires explicit actions during
the process to guarantee the compatibility of the product with a circular economy. The main constitu-
ents of the process related to sustainability are the initial circularity check (5.2.1), requirements about
research into social and environmental impacts of the raw material, before deciding if the raw material
is suitable for the process (5.2.2), research of the chemical composition (5.2.3), designing for biodegra-
dability, recycling and/or disassembly in the material manipulation (5.3.1) and other more subjective
issues like understanding the value (5.2.5) and the cultural and historical meaning of a raw material
ceived as low value or culturally unacceptable could result in a lack of emotional attachment from the
user and, consequently, affect the product’s longevity (See F9 – F11 in table 2).
brief. In this situation, the material research, exploration and design should be carried out in relation
to the function the end product must comply with (see table 2, B13). Using the process with a specif-
ic design brief was tested in trials 2 and 4 in collaboration with the company Nike. Examples of the
results from this variation of the process are illustrated in Figs. 2, 3, 8 and 9.
It is also possible to use the process in a more open and explorative way, in which the qualities of the
when the objective is to explore the value and use for certain materials. This could be from waste
materials as tested in trials 3 and 5 (see table 2 B14 – B16 and Fig. 5). In these trials by-products from
local industry were used as raw materials. In the continuation of both trials, the Danish Technological
Institute provided additional technical support to students who wanted to continue with their material
and product. An example of this was Hannah Michaud (Michaud 2018) from trial 2 (Fig. 6). Naturally
using the process in this way could also be used to explore other types of materials, such as new ma-
terials created in laboratories. In the following sub-sections, the process of material driven design for
sustainability is introduced step by step.
5.2 Step one: material research
5.2.1 Circularity check
From the outset, it is essential to identify if the raw material at hand is suitable for the process. The
material needs to be biodegradable and/or fully recyclable. Likewise, it should not contain toxins from
The material research requires studying the source of the material: how the material is excavated,
grown, or produced – and by whom. This information is essential in deciding whether the material is
appropriate for the process, from an ethical, social and environmental point of view. For practical rea-
sons, it is also necessary to study supply, especially if the availability of the material is seasonal.
Studying present use will help understand what potential it might have for the future. This often
means looking at other industries such as the food industry, agriculture or the medical industry. In the
case of new materials or new material technology, relevant information might still only be at research
standing of the composition of the material and its circular compatibility with other materials. It is
tools to identify patterns and structure.
5.2.4 Historical and anthropological research
An important part of understanding the material is to look into how the raw material has been used in
earlier times, in different cultures and how it used to be manipulated, processed and treated. Inspira-
tion from traditional techniques and processes often results from this and can be useful when trans-
lated into a modern manufacturing context. Often, there are historical narratives about the use of the
material and these can represent an emotional value to both the designer and the user.
It is, of course, important to identify the monetary value of the material, but just as important is the
value perceived by a potential user. Certain materials that might have good technical properties can,
because of tradition or culture, be perceived negatively by the user.
5.2.6 Hands-on Exploration
material to see how it behaves and changes in all conceivable situations, both from a technical and a
sensorial perspective. Describing the experiential experience of the material, such as a soft touch or
resistance, biodegradability or water resistance. Both form part of identifying the inherent qualities of
the raw material.
5.3 Step two: material manipulation and design
Applying as many relevant techniques, tools and processes as possible gives a comprehensive under-
standing of the material’s potential and enables the designer to creatively manipulate the material’s
With the information acquired about the material in step one, the designer has the basic knowledge
necessary to start the manipulation and transformation of the material into something new. This re-
quires both utilising mechanical and chemical processing to achieve good material properties, and often
suit the material. The material and product must be designed for biodegradability, recycling or disas-
sembly. Once at this point, it is often evident which of these it should be. It is possible to mix biodegrad-
able materials in a composite without jeopardizing the possibilities for biodegradation, but working
with materials for recycling generally means working with mono-materials or design for disassembly.
5.3.2 3D sketching
The value of sketching in the design process is well documented (Cross 2006; Goldschmidt 1991, 123-
143). Ideally, sketching in material driven design for sustainability should be done in the material and
form and the sketching at this stage of the process should be centred on the different possibilities of
transforming the material into a three-dimensional structure or form.
5.3.3 Challenging weaknesses
Different materials have different inherent properties, but it is important not to accept unnecessary
weaknesses. Thus, identifying and addressing issues such as fragility, unappealing aesthetics or smells
is crucial at this point in the process.
5.3.4 Enhancing strengths
The material’s worth is in its strengths – both technical and experiential - and these will later be im-
portant for the product’s quality, thus an effort should be made to enhance them.
5.4 Step three: product development
The material driven design process is not strictly linear, but can be seen as an ongoing dialogue
development starts and is still likely to need minor adjustments to suit function and form.
5.4.1 Form & function
At this stage the actual product starts taking form. At this point, the material should meet the require-
ments of the design brief. If the process is used more openly to explore the value of a material, this is
the moment to decide on a suitable function for the material.
5.4.2 Handmade for digital manufacturing
Designing a physical object using a material driven design process requires the same laborious con-
sideration of form, function and usability as other design processes. However, as the designer in this
process also designs and manipulates the material, there is an opportunity to simplify and optimise
prototype, to a large extent, might be handmade. However, when it goes to production it will likely be
industrially produced with the means of modern technology, and therefore typically improved in terms
making of the prototype: a woven prototype hand made on a homebuilt loom will potentially be manu-
factured by means of CAD/CAM 3d-knitting technology in industrial production.
5.4.3 Presentation of the prototype
al. This will give the truest picture of the technical, sensorial and functional properties of the product.
In some cases, if the product is very large, a fragment of the product can be presented. In this case it is
important to choose a fragment that demonstrates the material’s suitability for the product.
5.5 Three approaches to the exploration of materials
As described in section 4, material exploration is ideally cross-disciplinary. This affects the approach-
es in material driven design for sustainability. Thus, both phenomenological sensory-based methods
measurement and systematic observation should ideally be applied. From the early trials it became
clear that this balance did not come naturally to most participants. As a result, this guideline including
details regarding the development).
5.5.1 The phenomenological approach
There is perhaps a tendency in the artistic professions to take a phenomenological approach, even when
it is not explicit or if the participant is not introduced to the method. The testing and exploring of the
material is often based on subjective experiences and the immediate perception of the material. Such a
process can be systematic, but it is more often based on freely studying and developing both technical
and sensorial properties through handling and creatively exploring the material using all senses.
smells, how it behaves and feels and which associations this might provoke in the user. It will make
the designer consider aspects such as the aesthetics and cultural perception of the material, and it is
typically through the phenomenological approach that the designer starts to tinker or play. Mistakes
and unexpected results are common and can be very useful.
Initial exercises to encourage a phenomenological approach can include blocking vision when intro-
ducing materials, for example blindfolding designers, presenting them with various materials and ask-
ing them if the materials they have in their hands are sustainable or good quality. Both characteristics
depend to a large degree on how the material is used, but the exercise makes us realise how subjective
and biased our experience of a material is.
5.5.2 The scientiﬁc approach
There are many things that cannot be measured and described with data. But being systematic and
peating or elaborating on earlier tests and the data necessary for technical comparative assessments of
such as the performance or the characteristics of the material and how it can be measured. For exam-
ple, if the biodegradability of a material is an important feature for the product, how can this be tested
and improved by adjusting the chemical composition? Or, if the tensile strength is vital for the function
Measuring and documenting every step of a trial or a process seemed unnatural to most participants
in the trials, and apart from lectures and demonstrations, it proved useful to introduce practical tools
such as lab diaries and requirements about labelling to ensure systematisation and accuracy in the
development of the material.
5.5.3 The biomimicry approach
Biomimicry, as understood here, is learning from then emulating nature’s forms, processes, and eco-
systems to create more sustainable designs (Baumeister 2014). Nature is a treasure trove of sustain-
able solutions for material design and the structure of organisms, optimised for their environment by
evolutionary selection over millions of years. If only we knew how to read it entirely, nature would be
the perfect design guidebook for a circular economy. However, even with the limited knowledge availa-
ble, it is relevant to include biomimicry as an approach in material driven design for sustainability.
relation to nature does not make the bullet train considerably less harmful to the environment than
other trains. This is because biomimicry is used to mimic nature for mechanical qualities and form
but it ignores material composition and structure. Examples of biomimicry focusing on the material
wing catches light in a way that makes it look bright blue. Biomimicry as an approach is relevant for
Fig. 7. Participant exploring plant textures, structures and strategies for survival at the botanical garden
in Copenhagen. (Trial 3)
material driven design when studying material composition and structure is primary and large-scale
form is secondary. The approach was tested and included from trial 3 with the help of The Biomimicry
study plants (Fig. 7) (See table 2, D6 – D10).
Until these approaches were introduced into the process, the quality of the results from the trials were
uneven. A lack of a systematic approach would result in sloppy results, and a lack of creativity in the
material exploration would impede innovation in material, process and product. As a result, from trial
3, the approaches were introduced and the participants were asked in their presentation to be explic-
it about which approach they were using in which situations. In trial 3, the requirement of using lab
journals to record all data and actions was introduced. This made the material exploration and devel-
opment more methodical and easier to repeat.
6 LIMITATIONS AND PREREQUISITES
As presented in this article, material driven design for sustainability, both in the design process and
the approaches, has been developed through design trials involving design students as participants.
Expert designers might not necessarily have a more profound understanding of the circular economy,
but they are likely to have a more solid foundation of skills, knowledge and experience to draw from
and will perhaps quickly be able to internalise the approaches presented in the previous section. The
following subsections will discuss limitations that have been exposed through the research, different
variations of using material driven design for sustainability and prerequisites required for using the
means or facilities to explore the potential for growing this type of material. As a result, the project ended
up in what might be deemed a thought-provoking statement, but not strictly a result of a material driven
design for sustainability. (Trial 4)
Material driven design for sustainability opens up a different variety of resources that are not habitual-
ly used by designers: resources that are often abundant and at present have little value or are consid-
ered waste, or new resources made by means of biotechnology that are just leaving the laboratories.
However, a considerable part of the materials that are considered waste or by-products at present are
a mix of biodegradable and synthetic materials. These are hard or impossible to separate and, as a
result, there are waste materials so polluted or mixed that today’s technology cannot separate them.
Thus, they are ill-suited as raw materials in material driven design for sustainability. Furthermore,
the technical circle of recycling is not perfect. Some recyclable materials, like most thermoplastics,
will deteriorate when recycled many times. This means that, in a future where a circular economy is
established, we will need to consider if materials such as non-biodegradable plastics should even be
produced or if they could be substituted by biodegradable alternatives.
Finally, the knowledge and skills of the designer and the characteristics of the physical space in which
the process is conducted represent both possibilities and constraints for the process and the results.
Depending on the facilities, some materials are more suitable than others. Some materials will perhaps
even be impossible to work with, despite the fact that they are fully recyclable. This could be due to the
Even though material driven design for sustainability begins with the material, it does not mean that
bonding, the form of the texture on the surface and the form of the structural components to the over-
all form of the product. A fully biodegradable and/or recyclable chair still needs to be comfortable or
it will be discarded very quickly. Likewise, it must be aesthetically pleasing in a way that lasts and not
too dominated by the whims of fashion. Otherwise, the design will soon be perceived as obsolete. This
is a reality for a material-driven design process as well as for any other design process (Harper 2017).
Thus, a designer who does not have skills, techniques and experience with designing three-dimension-
al forms, is at a disadvantage, even in a material-driven design process. An example of a participant
who managed to strike a good relationship between form, function, aesthetics and material qualities is
7 CONCLUDING REMARKS
As described in the introduction, the aim of my research was to test material driven design as a design
process for sustainability and its potential contribution to a systemic change towards a circular econ-
ity and potential impact, it would be ideal to involve expert designers and the design departments of
companies that have stated an interest in sustainability – such as IKEA, NIKE, Patagonia, etc. To test the
scope of the process, it would also be relevant to test it in an environment dominated by technology or
expands, technology advances and we gain a greater understanding of how nature builds.
For now, however, it can be concluded that the process has shown potential in the following respects
Material driven design for sustainability enables the designer to work with sustainability in a material
reality that is already quite cross-disciplinary at present.
Material driven design for sustainability makes the designer aware of alternative, readily available
resources, such as large amounts and variations of cheap biomass by-products from the industry.
Material driven design for sustainability makes the designer a specialist in the material in question.
Regarding the contribution to a systemic change towards a circular economy, the trials have shown
that following the process of material driven design for sustainability will result in a product that is
recyclable and/or biodegradable. However, following the process does not guarantee that the user will
indeed recycle a product designed for recycling when it is no longer wanted nor does material driven
design question whether a design problem can be solved in a non-material way via service design,
reusing, sharing and so forth.
To change the way we make things requires holistic thinking and a systemic design-for-sustainability
instructions for the product designer are lost. By contrast, the scheme of material driven design for
sustainability presented in this paper is not a systemic design-for-sustainability approach, but it does
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Table 2: shows the progress of developing the process of material driven design for sustainability.