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In the heart of Paris, the Notre Dame Cathedral stands as a testament to the power of intentional design and long-term thinking. Started in 1163, the cathedral’s construction spanned nearly 200 years, with master builders and architects devoting their lives to creating this architectural masterpiece. Despite the challenges and changes in architectural styles over the years, they remained committed to their vision, incorporating flexibility into their designs and ensuring their successors had the necessary guidance to complete the cathedral.

This story of the cathedral builders is a powerful reminder of the importance of foresight and long-term thinking in the design process. In the modern era of rapid technological advancement, the values of intentionality and forward-thinking can be applied to create digital products that are useful, sustainable, and beneficial to society.

Unintentional Design

We live in a world where convenience reigns supreme, and digital products cater to our every need. From ride-sharing apps to food delivery services, these products are designed to make our lives easier, but how often do we consider their long-term impact on society and the environment?

Take the case of Waze, a popular navigation app known for its real-time driving directions based on live traffic updates. While the app helps users find the fastest route to their destination, it has inadvertently turned quiet neighbourhood streets into dangerous, congested shortcuts for impatient drivers. Unfortunately, this lack of foresight on the part of the app’s designers has left residents powerless to stop the influx of traffic in their communities.

Similarly, Airbnb, initially designed as a platform for homeowners to rent out their properties, has unintentionally contributed to housing shortages and rent increases in popular tourist destinations. The convenience of short-term rentals has led landlords to convert long-term housing into vacation properties, shrinking the rental market and driving up prices for local residents.

These examples highlight the potential pitfalls of unintentional design – the unforeseen consequences that arise when long-term impacts are not considered during the design process.

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Why Intention Matters

In the story of the cathedral builders, we see a stark contrast to the short-term thinking dominating the modern design. These master builders understood the importance of planning for the future, even if they would not live to see the final result. They laid the groundwork for generations to come, ensuring that their creations would endure the test of time.

This mindset is essential in today’s world of rapidly evolving technology. To create products that are sustainable and beneficial to society, we must consider not only their immediate impact but also their long-term consequences. By taking into account the needs of future generations, we can foster a sense of responsibility towards our successors and encourage the development of products that improve the world for years to come.

Designing with Intentionality

To apply the lessons of the cathedral builders to the digital (or design) world, we need to embrace intentionality in our designs. We need to create products that anticipate future needs and minimise unintended consequences. 

Intentionality in design refers to the conscious and deliberate process of creating products, services, or systems that are functional and aesthetically pleasing and positively contribute to the well-being of users, the environment, and society. This approach goes beyond merely solving immediate problems or achieving short-term goals; it involves considering the long-term impact of design decisions and striving to create a lasting, positive legacy.

Companies that prioritise intentionality in their design process often experience increased customer satisfaction, brand loyalty, and long-term success. They also tend to align themselves with the triple bottom line framework, which focuses on their business’s social, environmental, and financial aspects. B Corporations, for example, are businesses that meet rigorous social and environmental performance standards, transparency, and accountability. Some well-known B Corps that exemplify intentional design include:

  1. Eileen Fisher: This women’s clothing brand has made sustainability and social responsibility central to its design process. They use organic, recycled, and sustainable materials in their products and are committed to fair labour practices throughout their supply chain. By designing intentionally, Eileen Fisher has earned a strong reputation as an ethical fashion brand and has become a Certified B Corporation.
  2. The Body Shop: As a pioneer in the ethical cosmetics industry, The Body Shop is dedicated to creating cruelty-free and sustainably sourced products. They work directly with small-scale farmers and producers, ensuring fair trade and ethical practices. By incorporating intentionality into its design and business model, The Body Shop has become a B Corp leader in sustainable beauty.
  3. Seventh Generation: This company designs and manufactures eco-friendly household products like cleaning supplies and personal care items. Their commitment to intentionality is evident in their use of plant-based ingredients, recycled packaging, and their focus on reducing their carbon footprint. As a Certified B Corporation, Seventh Generation is a prime example of a company that prioritises intentional design for the betterment of the planet.

The Role of B Corporations in Intentional Design

B Corporations play a vital role in promoting intentional design by setting rigorous social and environmental responsibility standards for businesses. In addition, these companies must consider the impact of their decisions on all stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, the environment, and the wider community. This holistic approach encourages a more intentional design process and fosters a culture of long-term thinking, ultimately leading to more sustainable and ethical products and services.

To design with intentionality, businesses can adopt several strategies:

  1. Define core values and mission: Establishing a clear set of guiding principles helps ensure that all design decisions align with the company’s overarching goals and values.
  2. Engage in second-order thinking: By considering potential long-term consequences and ripple effects of design decisions, designers can avoid pitfalls and create more sustainable, beneficial products.
  3. Conduct project pre-mortems: Imagining the potential failure of a project before it begins enables teams to identify risks and develop strategies to mitigate them, ultimately leading to more intentional, well-thought-out designs.
  4. Emphasise transparency and accountability: Open communication and regular reporting on social and environmental impact help keep companies accountable to their stakeholders and promote a culture of continuous improvement.

What is Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking involves considering the potential consequences of our decisions beyond their immediate impact by asking, “And then what?” in a series of steps, we can explore how our designs might affect direct users and indirect users and the broader community. This approach enables us to identify potential risks and adapt our designs accordingly.

Ok, so what about Project Pre-mortems

While post-mortems analyse the failures of completed projects, pre-mortems encourage teams to imagine that their project has already failed and identify the potential causes. This exercise helps designers anticipate challenges and revise their plans to minimise risk and long-term consequences.

Purpose-Led Design

By incorporating a clear sense of purpose into our designs, we can create products that are functional, meaningful, and beneficial to society.

This approach requires designers to define their projects’ core values and mission, ensuring that all decisions align with these guiding principles. The purpose-led design fosters a sense of responsibility and encourages long-term thinking, resulting in products that improve the world for future generations.

Let’s look at real-world examples of intentional design and how they have positively impacted society.

  1. Tesla Motors: Tesla’s mission is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” By designing electric vehicles and renewable energy systems, Tesla creates innovative products and addresses the global issue of climate change. The company’s long-term thinking and commitment to its mission have made it a leader in the automotive and energy industries.
  2. Patagonia: This outdoor clothing company has long prioritised sustainability and environmental responsibility. Patagonia is committed to “building the best product, causing no unnecessary harm, and using business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis by incorporating recycled materials into its products and promoting fair labour practices.” Their intentional approach to design has earned them a loyal customer base and a reputation as an industry leader in sustainability.
  3. Khan Academy: Founded to provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere,” Khan Academy has revolutionised online learning through its comprehensive and accessible educational resources. By designing intentionally, the organisation has created a platform that democratises education, empowering millions of users worldwide to learn and grow.

The cathedral builders taught us the importance of foresight, intentionality, and long-term thinking in design. In a world where technology evolves rapidly, we need to embrace these principles to create digital products that are useful, sustainable, and beneficial to society.

By adopting strategies like second-order thinking, project post-mortems, and purpose-led design, we can minimise the unintended consequences of our creations and ensure that they stand the test of time. Like the cathedral builders of the past, we have the power to lay the groundwork for a better future – one shaped by intentional design and a commitment to the well-being of generations to come.