Q&A: Bay Area-Based Industrial Designer Jeremy Wolf on Sustainable Design, Consumerism & Making Perfect Tortillas
By: Ian Brecher
Over the past few years a new piece of kitchen equipment called, Flatev (an on-demand tortilla maker), has generated some buzz around the web, especially in hubs where food and technology intersect. Industrial Designer Jeremy Wolf, who works at Bould, a product development and design studio in Mountain View, California, has been the lead designer working on Flatev, with the goal of designing a product that will have lasting usability and value to the consumer.
To what extent does sustainability play a role in your design strategy?
There are two Jeremy’s at play here.
Aspirational Jeremy wants to employ “Cradle-to-Cradle” design to create products that will be 100% recyclable, made only from sustainable plastics and aluminum. It’s widely known that PCBs are made from silicon, which is bad for the Earth, however, using ecofriendly materials comes at a higher cost that will be transferred, at least partially, to the consumer and are not as durable. There is unfortunately just little demand in the consumer market to pay more for products that meet these criteria.
Pragmatic Jeremy simply wants to make products that last and that people will appreciate.
What is the most optimal product lifecycle you aim for?
Since most consumer products have a five-year life cycle or less, my aim is to meet or beat that goal. The reason that five is the magic number is due to the technology horizon, which suggests that in five years the product will likely be obsolete because more advanced technology has come along. The cool thing about Flatev is that kitchen appliances tend to have a much longer life cycle, so I’m hoping that consumers fall in love with the product and find it valuable for a long time.
In what ways is Flatev a sustainable product?
Flatev provides an alternative to purchasing pre-made tortillas, which can create a large amount of food waste when they’re discarded. Tortillas are just one of those products that you must purchase a large bag of, likely more than one person might want or need before the expiration date.
You mentioned earlier the Pragmatic Jeremy who wants to make products that last. How do you go about achieving this?
The key is modularity. The razor blade industry, although not entirely sustainable, thrives off selling the components (blades) that fit into the standard part (handle) that you already own. One interesting project that Google is looking to potentially do is a cell phone that holds all the functional elements of the product, but will also have components that can be easily replaced as new technology comes along, or as things wear down. While this certainly requires more consumer participation than the average cell phone might, the concept, once perfected could completely reinvent our approach to consumer electronics. While this has been attempted and failed many times over, the key (to me) is to begin thinking about upgrading key components and keeping what still works, instead of creating something new to account for every new technology. Once this becomes the standard we can hopefully start to reduce our footprint. That being said, this is a difficult and technical challenge.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see at the intersection of product development and sustainability? How do you currently account for them?
Plastic is ultimately a cheap miracle material that can be used for nearly everything. Metals are generally much more eco-friendly and easy to recycle, but much more expensive to use. While bio plastics currently are not as chemically stable as petroleum-based plastics, I believe they will be just as good in the future.
For the time being, the big problem is that plastic has many environmental issues. So, in order to account for this reality, designers need to think systematically about how each step of the production process might affect the recyclability of a product. For example, I try to avoid painting or coating plastic if it affects the product’s recyclability. I also aim to use physical fasteners (like screws) in place of glue, where we can, to hold a product together. Glue makes it nearly impossible to take components apart (for individual recycling) at the end of a product’s lifecycle.
That being said, not using glue creates some other design dilemmas, since it allows for products to be thin, sleek and more space efficient (think the MacBook Air). There is definitely a connotation that visible screws on a consumer product are not pretty, which suggests that we also need to work on changing the design paradigm.
Designing products incorporates many elements of balance. You want the product to look good, while having it improve the lives of the consumer. I think a lot about how the baby-boomer generation created a trend of designing products for convenience, and how generations after were raised to expect it. In order to create a market in the future for more sustainable products, citizens need to be educated in ways that promote thinking critically about the things they purchase, and product designers need to make sure they are creating things that aim to solve a problem and/or fill a need.