Film Editing/Art Direction
Business Model Generation
Self-Directed / Masters' Thesis
Design Strategy / Product Design
Design at the Intersection of People and Planet
This project began with a question: why do educated and conscious adults with the means to make value-based choices seem unaffected by the reality of climate change when they shop, consume and make decisions?
The challenge was to reimagine what sustainability could look like by making it more personal, practical, and attainable.
The goal was to empower individuals to live more sustainably by understanding their challenges and priorities, and creating tools to align their values and goals with their habits and behaviors.
2019 was the year that the planet slapped us hard across the face and many of us finally woke up.
We watched, helpless, while wildfires devastated almost a million hectares of the “earth’s lungs”, the Amazon rainforest. We acknowledged that deadly heat waves, droughts and floods were going to be frequent and devastating events, even in the richest countries. We felt the first hand effects of warmer water temperatures whipping up ocean waters providing unlimited fuel for hurricanes and typhoons. Iceland held a funeral for the first glacier lost due to climate change.
It was the year when people who hadn’t considered their environment previously, sat up and conceded that maybe this was a topic worth talking about.
It was also the year that I moved from Rhode Island to Miami Beach. As I flew over south Florida on a clear August morning, minutes from our descent into MIA, I peered out my window, blinded by the reflection of the sun from the vast expanse of water below me. I simply could not believe how much of Florida was water. I had two immediate reactions:
1. Florida may actually be underwater in the next decade if the sea levels continue to rise at their current rate.
2. Why are there no solar panels on any of the rooves below me?
For a state that records an average of 300 days a year of sun, that struck me as kinda weird.
I have cared about the environment for as long as I can remember. I have taken the health of the planet and climate change personally since I was a teenager. I live by the “reduce/reuse/recycle” mantra and encourage everyone I live with to comply. If you give me a minute I’ll talk your ear off about the thrilling process of compost and the tragedy of our dependence on single use plastic.
So my first impression of Southern Florida was that it was the epicenter of the climate change crisis due to its climate and topography and yet it was not utilizing alternative energies (like solar) even while being perfectly situated in its natural surroundings to do so. I also quickly learned that many of these communities were full of highly intelligent and innovative people with the influence and financial means to make change.
These conflicting ideas intrigued me and piqued my curiosity.
About a week after I landed, I began my second year of grad school in the School of Design Strategies at Parsons and knew I wanted to dedicate my year of design research and strategy to the topic of climate change and sustainability specifically as it affected the people and culture of my new home, Miami.
Climate change is an enormous topic and how to save Florida from its devastating effects was not a problem I felt I could tackle alone over the next nine months.
But weather wasn’t the only difference I witnessed after living in Miami Beach for even a few short weeks. Miami is a vibrant city full of culture, diversity, liberalism and money. My friends and neighbors were wealthy, well-educated and worldly. On the surface, we probably seemed cut from similar cloth.
But these people drove Tesla Xs, presumably at least in part to reduce their use of fossil fuels, yet thought nothing about flying back and forth to Aspen multiple times a year. They brought usable cloth bags to Whole Foods, yet had flats of flavored water in plastic bottles stacked along the walls of their pristine garages. They bought local, organic grass-fed butter and other “essentials” were delivered daily via Amazon Prime, packed in copious amounts of bubble wrap. They followed Greta Thunberg on Instagram and bemoaned the reality of climate change when the moon was full and the king tide dangerously high on Miami Beach because their driveways were flooded and they had to take their boats out of the water.
This was simultaneously infuriating and fascinating to me. I saw an opportunity for exploration and possible change. I knew these people, I walked among them. Maybe if I could understand what was driving their conflicting consumption habits and how they personally felt about climate change and its effects on them, I could uncover some missing link between the two. It forced me to question what sustainability actually means and what it means to “live a sustainable life”?
Working with my indefatigable research partner Carolina Bianchi in Argentina, I embarked on weeks of quantitative research to understand the cultural ramifications of climate change and sustainability, not just in Florida or the US, but globally.
We explored which major cities were succeeding in their efforts to:
+ reduce their reliance on fossil fuels
+ promote healthier lifestyles through alternative forms of transportation and thriving local organic agriculture, and
+ improve land use and waste management systems
We looked at how sustainability was influenced by politics, media and technology. We did a deep dive into food and what it actually means or if it’s possible to produce “sustainable food.”
We distilled this mammoth amount of information we had compiled into an infographic highlighting the main forces that could drive change toward a more sustainable future. For visual impact we superimposed these insights over a graphic of a thermometer that measures just 3 degrees demonstrating where we are (1.5 deg) on the urgent climb to stop the climate from warming a deadly 3 degrees.
We moved into what was for me, what is always the most fascinating part of the design thinking process, observations and ethnographic interviews. Over the next few weeks, we watched, followed and listened, both in Florida and Buenos Aires, recording hours of audio and video. Some questions we asked were:
How do you process all the news and information regarding climate change?
What effect does it have on you?
What kinds of things do you do that you consider “sustainable”?
Where does sustainability fall in your priorities?
Does knowledge about climate change influence the things you buy or how you make decisions when it comes to your consumer purchases? If so, how much does it influence you?
What are the biggest influences when it comes to decisions you make surrounding your purchases, product choices or household decisions?
There comes a point in many projects when you've been down a research rabbit hole for weeks, and you need to step back and remind yourself what the initial question was that you were trying to solve. And for whom were you trying to solve it?
Our quant research had taken us down a path on which it seemed that the only way to make change was through major, top down, governmental initiatives. I felt that I had lost touch with the humans I was actually designing for and editing that observation video brought me back to them. I remembered the reason I started this project in the first place, and my ideas began to converge around a concept:
Climate change feels overwhelming.
How might we empower people to take small actions in order to feel that they are contributing to a better future?
How might we make sustainability personal?
What stood out to me were the contradictions in what people said - how important climate change was, but how convenience was more important and the frustration they felt at having to choose between their families and the well being of the entire planet. There was an overwhelming feeling of disempowerment. This was what was truly interesting, and these were the people I wanted to design for.
I went back to my research video and really listened this time. This is what I heard, saw and felt.
Lack of Empowerment
Longing for change
The Power of Community – that only together change could happen
Maybe sustainability is like quitting smoking or starting to exercise or saving for the future - we know it’s something we should be doing, but can’t take those first steps to start.
How can we design ways to help them start?
Make it easy.
Make it feel good.
Though I could be designing for all of them, I wanted to get very specific, and chose to focus my strategy on Melissa. She became my target user because of her high degree of awareness and personal stake and her low degree of empowerment and resources.
Now what did Melissa need? These were her “jobs to be done”
1. Reduce my climate anxiety
2. Make me feel like I have an impact
3. Help me align my values with my consumer habits
4. Make sustainability a priority without sacrificing any of my other priorities
5. Help me feel that I’m creating a better world for my children
6. Reduce my confusion about what works and what is a waste of time
7. Help me spread a message and grow a community
CONCEPT + STRATEGY
I realized that living a sustainable life was like many other actions that are good for you (and others around you) yet require sacrifice: losing weight, stopping smoking and saving for the future, are all examples of this. And with all of these actions, there was an initial threshold problem: starting is the hardest part.
Conquering the Threshold Problem
How might we design a point of entry for people to make changes that are empowering and align with their values without having to sacrifice the other priorities that already exist in their lives?
The concept began to materialize through my experience blueprint. I knew I was designing a way to empower people by helping them align their values and goals with the way they are actually living. The goal became to gently nudge people who may be on the fence about the possibility of living a sustainable life, but also a life that fits into their existing lives and priorities – to help them jump off the fence to the other side.
The tool I was designing needed to delve deeply and thoughtfully into people’s needs and desires but also be aspirational and a bit whimsical. There couldn’t be any feeling of evangelizing or judgement. And the user needed to be constantly rewarded for their efforts.
This was not about converting people or making them feel guilty but about helping them define their lifestyle goals and achieve them in a sustainable way.
A. A LIFESTYLE QUIZ + BROWSER EXTENSION
I began to explore the idea of a shopping assistant to help guide you toward choices you can be excited about – without taking extra time, doing a ton of research or even necessarily spending more money.
To test how people could potentially use this sort of service I designed a prototype for a browser extension. But really what I wanted to see was how willing people were to actually define their goals when it came to sustainability – would they answer some questions about themselves and their shopping habits and how did they see themselves when compared with others? Did they even want to compare themselves with others?
5 Question Quiz
BROWSER EXTENSION - Prototype A
Takeaways from Prototype A
Participants had fun - overall sense of enjoyment
Participants wanted more boundaries (what does it mean specifically to be a Greta or a Harry/Meghan?). They wanted to understand the potential ramifications of their choices. Also curious about where the other path would lead them.
Participants were eager to participate. The call to action was strong enough that many people identified with the simple target user that was articulated.
Participants were interested in seeing a result of their quiz: where did they fall on the spectrum? How did they measure up to others? [people have an innate desire for comparison]
Goals for Prototype B
How can we fulfill that desire to learn more about themselves through the experience?
How might the actual tool be more fun/gamified?
How can we provide validation for their choices? What do they get for their good work [Ideas: monthly impact report, levels with badges, etc]
Assumptions to Test
Will getting a “report”/learning about yourself inspire you to make bigger changes?
Might this tool make you become a more conscientious buyer?
Might it contribute to your feelings of hope about the future? Will is reduce any amount of stress or anxiety about climate change?
Will being a more conscientious buyer make you feel more empowered, more part of the solution, more excited to be a part of a movement (and perhaps become a leader or inspire others)?
Expanded Quiz + Results
Tailored Product Recommendations
Delivered via an interactive digital experience built on this website
QUIZ RESULTS - Prototype B
BROWSER EXTENSION - Prototype B
User was able to toggle between results to see how their recommendation would have changed depending on their answer
Takeaways from Prototype B
Participants had fun navigating the tool and learning about themselves at the same time. They enjoyed the game like structure and acknowledged that it felt very low pressure and non-judgmental. They felt like they couldn't lose.
Participants all said they would definitely try the product recommended to them. Whether they purchased it or not, would depend on the price and user reviews (is it as effective).
Most participants agreed they would spend @ 10% more on a more sustainable option but not much more.
For many, who the information was coming from was a highly important factor in their buy-in. Where were the recommendations coming from? Was it an independent, third party? Did they have any financial stake in the purchase? They also wanted the sustainability claims substantiated - VERY wary of green washing.
There are many tools to help people make more sustainable purchases, from websites to extensions to apps. This idea is not revolutionary. But what I learned from this process is that people actually are yearning for help. They want to do the right thing, they want to make good choices, they just need it to be easier and more obvious what the right choices are. There are many obstacles to this, chief among them being the CPG industries confusing labeling and the lack of regulation about environmental claims, which have made people extremely skeptical about greenwashing (as they should be!).
Writing this now through the lens of the COVD-19 pandemic into which we were thrust mid-way through this project, it may feel tone deaf to talk about the existential threat of climate change when so many have lost their loved ones, jobs, health and way of life. But we cannot lose sight of our future while we rapidly place band aids on the present.
“The storm starts, when the drops start dropping.
When the drops stop dropping then the storm starts stopping.”
- Dr. Seuss
My greatest takeaway from this project is the strengthening of my conviction that despite the obstacles to mass sustainability, what we cannot do is become apathetic to the cause. It matters little that the problem seems to huge to tackle. What’s important is for every person to feel EMPOWERED to make change, and to believe that their choices matter.
We must uphold the ideal upon which many great cultural movements were built: that one person can make a difference.
I am committed to making change on the smallest level, in my own household and with those people I can directly influence through rational fact based discourse and perhaps more importantly, through opportunities and tools to make small changes and better choices that will slowly and gradually impact the greater good. Because when we change ourselves and our children, we prepare ourselves for the giant shifts that must transform the way we live if we wish to continue the path of humanity on planet Earth.