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We chat to James Chudley about designing for sustainability

As part of our event for Bristol Tech Festival this year, we chatted to one of our speakers; James Chudley (Experience Director & Strategy Consultant) at CX Partners about designing for sustainability.

In his talk ‘Designing Nature Inspired Sustainable Futures‘ James will share how designers, engineers and innovators such as Neri Oxman, professor at the MIT Media Lab, have applied Biomimetic thinking to take inspiration from the natural world to help them solve complex problems by considering the question ‘How has Nature already solved this?’.

James has been working as a design professional for 23 years across a wide range of sectors, most recently focussing on service design projects in the NHS. His experience ranges from shaping projects and leading programmes of work to leading the delivering of research, strategy & design work for clients such as Google, Spotify, Aardman, NHS England, BBC, Expedia, and Virgin Trains.

James co-founded UXBristol, is a regular speaker at international UX conferences such as IXDA, UXPA, UXCambridge, UXScotland and FOWD and is the author of ‘Smashing UX Design’, ‘Usability of Web Photos’ & ‘UX Leadership Skills’.

To join us online live or later on Thurs 13th October, please RSVP here:

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your interest in designing for sustainability?

I’ve always had a love for the natural world fostered by spending so much time outside as a kid. I grew up in the countryside, spending loads of time fishing, camping, walking and exploring wild places on family holidays.

I studied Environment Science at Leeds University. This gave me a fascinating grounding in how the world works. It was incredible, we studied such a broad range of things including Geography, Geology, Biology & Development Studies. It taught me so many interesting things but environmental jobs were scarce and a chance meeting led to a job with a very progressive digital agency in Liverpool.

I was extremely lucky to stumble into the world of digital design just as the internet was booming. It was like a gold rush with organisations realising they had to exist online in order to survive. My role was to help design how their organisations manifested themselves online, trying to help them meet their commercial objectives in ways that also helped to meet the needs of their customers.

At this time ‘User Experience’ or UX was born and I’ve worked in this area ever since. It’s an umbrella term (that no-one seems to agree on!) but in principle it’s all about involving end users in the design process to try and ensure the things you are designing are as useful, usable, viable and feasible as possible.

Design is all about problem solving and the scale and complexity of problems I have worked on has varied hugely. To me designing for sustainability is a fascinating problem because it’s so complicated and so important to everyone. A classic wicked problem!

You’re incredibly well connected within the UX world, what have you seen recently surrounding UX and climate action?

There are plenty of events focussing on just this such as the ‘Design for Planet’ conference run by the Design Council and there will be many more to meet demand and help bring people together to help push things forwards.

Designers by their very nature are perfectly placed to help. We get to design the future. We imagine things that don’t exist and bring them to life in ways that help other people understand the value of making them real.

It’s an incredible job, a privilege. In terms of the climate crisis, we have a perfect skillset to utilise in order to reimagine how things could work in different ways to help reduce the impact we’re having on our planet.

Like anyone, we work at our best when we feel that they thing we are designing will help to make the world a better place. Designers are moving into roles with purpose where they feel they can make a difference to something worthwhile. We’ve seen in recent years a mass exodus into working in the public sector following the pioneering work by the Government Digital Service. Perhaps climate action will be the next growth area where UX professionals will convene?

What sort of challenges are designers facing at the moment within this area?

I’m sure there are challenges in terms of finding the opportunities to work on projects that are directly related to climate and sustainability.

We’ve spent a lot of time at work trying to work out what we mean by sustainability and the challenges our clients face in relation to it. It’s really challenging to work out where you’re most likely to make the biggest positive impact.

I would imagine that designers are asking themselves similar questions such as where can I put my skills to best use? How can I encourage my stakeholders to change? How might we take different approaches to minimise our impact?

Perhaps one approach could be to work for the really ‘bad’ organisations (from a sustainability point of view) given the potential positive impacts you could have if you manage to change them even marginally? 

What can we expect from your talk?

I’m going to talk about how design is theft. How it makes no sense to continually try and invent new things to solve old problems and how perhaps nature has the answer to every design problem because she’s already solved them over the last 4.5 billion years.

I reckon that nature already has the answers, you’ve just got to look in unexpected places for them.

What are your hopes for the future and there are reasons to feel positive?

Well it blows my mind every time I speak to my kids about these sorts of topics, they are all over it so I feel really positive about that but it’s unforgivable that they’ll be left to clear up the mess we’ve made.

We’ve never been in a better place to mobilise and influence people, we’ve never had better tools and such advanced mechanisms to share information, to learn and to act so there’s a lot to be positive about as long as this is done in the right way.

It feels like the commercial world is waking up to sustainability and realising the responsibility we have to be good ancestors. It’s becoming harder for corporations to ignore. Employees, shareholders and customers are asking difficult questions and demanding changes in behaviours that organisations are realising can benefit people and planet without impacting profit.

Thanks for the chat James!