When it comes to reaching sustainability goals, many businesses have woken up to the fact that change needs to happen, and quickly, writes John Macdonald, Design Director at Matter.

According to a recent analysis of over 2,000 global organisations, 52% of businesses plan to increase their investments in sustainability, while 61% view a lack of sustainable practices as an existential threat. This bolsters findings from WARC’s own research last year, with 89% of respondents to the Marketers Toolkit survey confirming that sustainability was important to their marketing strategies.

Whilst it seems businesses understand the need to shift their priorities, and pressure is mounting for them to meet deadlines, the landscape that they must navigate is becoming increasingly complex. So what can brands do to take fast and effective action?

Now, more than ever, designers have a crucial role to play in catalysing positive change. This is being acknowledged on an international scale, with the EU’s Horizon Europe scheme seeking to fuel breakthrough design in response to ongoing global challenges. On a brand level, there are several reasons why engaging with designers will be key to making change happen, now.

Instigating collaboration to fast-track change

A designer’s role is often perceived purely in its executional sense. But the value of a designer’s mindset doesn’t just lie in fulfilling final design data and technical specifications for an end product. Foundational design expertise lies in exploring relevant product territory, framing opportunities and directing creative innovation. 

As an important part of this strategic capability, designers understand the power of collaboration - and they know how to make it happen. Generating mutually beneficial change requires connection and alignment of stakeholders across business, supply chain and consumer base. Designers’ ability to think laterally means they are adept at connecting different people and ways of thinking, and can help ensure changes are properly supported.

In our work with start-up HALO, for instance, Matter was able to offer collaborative support to design and supply packaging for the brand’s new Covid-19 testing system – refining a solution to offer a more responsible pack design compared to other testing kits on the market. We proactively connected with every component of the HALO system, including order fulfilment, shipping, app development, consumer experience and testing labs to refine a holistic solution that served every stakeholder.

Reducing risk through prototyping

Designers’ technical skills give them the unique ability to bring bold conceptual thinking to life through testable prototypes. Prototyping concepts is key to understanding if an idea really works – whether that idea is a physical or digital product, or a system. As a stimulus to learn with, they can quickly (and affordably) demonstrate what areas require further development – whether that’s in user experience or in technical ability. Coca-Cola’s recent introduction of a pilot of label-less Sprite bottles, for instance, demonstrates this kind of trial-based design thinking.

Introducing new ideas can feel risky for any business trying to make responsible change, and this fear can be a blocker to making progress. This prototyping stage, enabled by design thinking, negates the risk of making big changes based on hypotheses. Working with designers who enable innovation to be fast tracked to testable prototypes is the most effective route to giving brands the confidence needed to redirect their path.  

Reframing the brief

Designers don’t have to be confined to specifications. In fact, they have a responsibility to inform, challenge, and inspire partners to activate positive change. This ability to reframe a brief and widen the scope is one of the most valuable assets a designer can offer, since it can unlock new opportunities of where and how impact can be made.

Continually exploring and learning across a breadth of categories and businesses, as well as across an ever-increasing array of materials and technologies, gives designers an open source of expertise, inspiration and experience to apply in unique ways. 

Importantly, our impact will always be greater without being siloed by specifications and tight briefs. Often designers can bring design solutions to brands that they may not have thought possible. Last year, for example, we proactively approached The Royal British Legion, in collaboration with specialist paper manufacturer James Cropper, to propose a new all-paper poppy aligning with their ambition to reduce single-use plastic, but boldly challenging their original specification for a poppy update. Overcoming significant complexities (such as the need for a high-speed assembly line) we produced a 100% paper poppy made using 50% recycled fibres.

As brand leaders look ahead to mounting complexities standing in between now and meeting their sustainability goals, pressure is mounting to quickly turn intention into meaningful action. By enabling strategic collaboration, reducing risk by providing the expertise to test new ideas, and by pushing businesses to think outside their comfort zone, designers are the untapped changemakers who can turn vision into tangible reality, right now.