The McDonough Conversations: Less can be more, but endless is most

In the latest installment of The McDonough Conversations, Joel Makower and William McDonough discuss the history of sustainable design and how the concept “endless is most” will affect the future of design. Here is an excerpt from the discussion:

Joel Makower: You mentioned that the history of design relates to sustainability. Can you elaborate?

William McDonough: We can look at the history of design to inform us about where we’ve been and where we want to go.

Over time, master storytellers and documentarians have wanted to tell the Cradle to Cradle story, and have tried, but they often come back to us, saying, “It’s really hard to tell a simple story as a documentary filmmaker about Cradle to Cradle because it’s hard to find the beginning, the middle and the end.”

That makes me laugh. Of course, you’re not going to find the beginning, middle and end; that’s the point. The irony extends to the issues of design itself because we are designing for endlessness, and that’s really interesting. When the language changes, the optics change.

When we design what’s next into what’s now, our language changes from “end of life,” which is a human projection, to, say, “end of use.” It changes the nature of the design itself because it becomes design for disassembly. It becomes design for the next new nutrient-management cycle.

So if it’s a writing implement that might be thrown in the trash, like a pen or a pencil, we design it as a biological nutrient. Because if it’s just as easy to go stick it in the ground as a fertilizer spike, it’s a beautiful way to transition from that use period as a writing implement to its next use period — soil nutrition.

Makower: Well, I can see that for a simple thing like a pencil, but with something more complex — a computer or a car or even a multi‑material package — how would the designer and the manufacturer be able to think about what’s next? It’s not even part of the value proposition of what they sell. They’re there to sell cars and not the things after the cars.

McDonough: Michael Braungart and I expanded on this concept in “Cradle to Cradle” and again in “The Upcycle.” The car is seen as a service that could come apart and the materials could be continuously engaged by the manufacturer. What if you have a car that was essentially glued together, for example, or adhered in a way that it could be disassembled, and the key to taking it apart was actually owned by the company who made the car?

Read the full conversation “Less can be more, but endless is most” on