At a recent exhibition of the Singapore Design Festival I came across a great little product design idea – a tea “stick.

Essentially a combined stirrer and tea bag, it is a tube of gauze containing tea and a central stiffening rod terminating in a finger tab. A most elegant and simple idea.

Unfortunately it was meant to be disposable. “It’s only a small plastic stick” was the genuine response when I asked the question. It was a stark reminder that designers can often be so obsessed with details they forget the bigger picture. I am sure the inventors of the plastic bag, the disposable coffee cups, and indeed most disposable products all thought “it’s only a small thing we are throwing away…”

A more responsible version would be to make the tea stick reusable. Pop open the bag, rinse out the old leaves, and refill with new leaves of any variety.

Or even more controversially, is this even an ethical and reasonable design problem to attempt to solve in the first place? In this world of rapidly dwindling resources, do we need yet another convenient, cute, but ultimately wasteful product? One that panders to our laziness?

Don’t get me wrong, as an exercise in design problem solving and ideas generation, the tea stick is a brilliant, commendable outcome. In the big bad consumerist world, however, designers need to think bigger, more meaningful, more responsible thoughts. They need to ask “is this even a real problem worthy of my talents to solve?” Much like the design of this Tactile wand for the blind I wrote about previously.

Consider the laudable Project H Design movement, using design to change the world for the better. One of their five tenets is “We design systems, not stuff.”

(Perhaps there are two camps in design. The thoughtful camp, and the stylistic camp. This is for a separate post…)

See also my previous post New role for designers.