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Product system, Katrine Hesseldahl

Katrine Hesseldahl is no stranger to the complexities of incorporating sustainable practices into design – be it fashion, homeware, or other products. While working as an industrial designer, she noticed the need for designers to effectively navigate the complex decisions required during a sustainable design process. She had seen a lack of understanding amongst designers and product developers as to how to implement sustainability strategies efficiently in practice, due, in large part, to the complexity of the task.

Simplifying the Solution to a Complex Problem

“It can be difficult for designers to know which strategy to select from the vast toolbox of sustainability strategies that exist in theory,” she says. “It’s really hard to know which strategy to use and when, in order to be most efficient. Designers are often overwhelmed by the complexity, and then make the wrong decisions. I realised that we – as the design industry – needed a solution, and that is what sparked my return to academia.”

In 2019, she was awarded a scholarship by the Burberry Foundation to undertake a PhD. Having spent a few years working as a Research Associate in the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and Intelligent Mobility Design Centre, and as an Exhibition Designer in the Materials Science Research Centre itself, Katrine was familiar with the RCA’s academics and their research. The PhD offered her the opportunity to conduct research into how designers approach sustainability. 

Over the next four years, she worked to develop a digital interactive tool that would help to support designers and businesses in the fashion industry to effectively navigate complex decision-making in their design process. This tool helps companies diagnose the sustainability of their practice, and implement appropriate sustainable design strategies, business models, materials, and production methods.

Katrine worked with brands from different areas of the fashion industry, hosting workshops and interviews with both designers and consumers. At each company she brought together an interdisciplinary team of designers, supply chain managers and technicians, to diagnose the sustainability of their current practice, and pin-point relevant opportunities and routes for improving this by mapping it in a simple visual framework. From her research, she developed a framework that allows designers to ascertain the sustainability of their products by mapping the speed at which a product will age or be discarded against the depth of emotional engagement from the user. 

Infographic showing the circular enconomy of a t-shirt, spanning use, return, retail and manufacture.

The matrix is a way for designers to map their products, communicate more clearly about their sustainability goals, and the steps they are taking to achieve them. Based on this “diagnosis”, designers are able to utilise the interactive tool, which is rooted in the same matrix framework, to select and apply appropriate design for sustainability strategies.

“This tool helps designers identify the important factors to consider when designing for sustainability, which can range from material and production method to design strategy, business model, or touchpoint with the consumer. Depending on where each product sits within the matrix, different factors will apply.”

Commercial collaboration

While Katrine developed this tool, she worked closely with companies to ensure that the technology was usable and easy to understand. During her research, she supported a global swimwear brand to develop ultra-simple, mono-material swimming goggles, produced locally in-store by consumers themselves by stamping them out from a sheet-material – thus significantly cutting down the number and volume of materials used and transported, and reducing the steps in production. 

“The companies commented that having a shared language that everyone from different areas of the business could understand when it came to talking about sustainability was hugely beneficial,” she says.

“The companies commented that having a shared language that everyone from different areas of the business could understand when it came to talking about sustainability was hugely beneficial”

“There is so much potential for this framework to be applied to a huge variety of companies. In the case of my PhD, it was textiles, but the same process could easily be applied to any product, whether it’s a pair of headphones or a bridge!”

A group of adults sit around a table, surrounded by rails of clothing samples.

Since finishing her thesis, Katrine has had interest from a range of different companies who are interested in applying her framework to their own design practices. 

“The main thing I talk about is the speed at which a product will age, and that is relevant to all businesses, regardless of their industry.”

And, does she have any final tips for designers or students looking to improve the sustainability of their practice? “Don’t get too overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem,” she says. “Try to see the overarching powers at play.”

Katrine is hoping to publish her PhD thesis ‘The Garment Life Matrix: A Tool for Negotiating Complexity in Design for Sustainability’ later this year. She is open to industry projects and brand partnerships to put the tool and her acquired knowledge to use.

Interested in studying for a PhD at the Materials Science Research Centre?

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