Gabriel Mueller — Industrial Designer

Exploring sustainable futures for mobile devices

with Joscha Herold


We are getting increasingly aware of the impact products have on social inequality and on the environment.


Loup is a product family of mobile devices whose design is based on the idea of longevity of products - even in the fast-paced consumer electronics market.

The product family "loup" aims to keep the ecological footprint of the devices as low as possible

How might we reduce the ecological impact of mobile devices?

During the course of this BA thesis project, my team partner Joscha Herold and me looked into the global manufacturing of technological products today. We asked ourselves: What can be changed in order to reduce the environmental and social impact of these products?

The design of the loup product family considers different steps of the life cycle of mobile devices. We have re-thought how to extend the products' use phase in terms of production, usage and recycing.


    Understanding the social and environmental consequences of global manufacturing

    "Within just one decade, the production and disposal of smartphones has had an enormous impact on both our environment and the widening gaps of social inequality around the world. According to a recent Greenpeace report, roughly 968 TWh has been used in the production of smartphones since their commercial release. This amount of power is roughly the same used in an entire year in India (a country with almost ⅕ of the world’s population). In addition, each device “contributes significantly to the 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste expected to be generated in 2017.” At the same time, workers in manufacturing countries are experiencing slave-like conditions as they mine for minerals or work in production plants to assure that those with the means have the required unlimited supply of these technologies."

    In: The Social and Environmental Impact of Mobile Phones

    While the manufacturing of computers is done in many countries, most of the earnings are made in the US and Europe

    A local production may have positive effects on the whole socio-ecological system around the products.


    The life cycle analysis reveals deeper insights

    To better understand the ecological footprint of mobile devices, we researched on their life cycles. Two findings were significant for the further development of our project:

    First, the smaller the components get, the more energy they need for production. This is due to the fact that miniaturisation goes along with the use of rare earths and other energy-intensive materials. The internal memory storage is particularly interesting: It already requires around 25 percent of the total energy needed for manufacturing.

    Second, the longer people use the products, the better for the environment. This posed quite a challenging question: How to make people stick to their products, even if the technology is moving and developing very fast?

    Energy use

    How does a phone look inside? Teardown iPhone 4s

    This visualisation compares the energy expenditure of the several parts


    What is a design language that stands the test of time?

    When designing the product family, we investigated features of products which are perceived to feature a "timeless" design.

    Regarding: Production

    Feature 1: An external hard drive keeps track of your files

    The storage unit automatically backs up data from the phone and tablet pc. It not only acts as an external hard drive but also reminds the user to delete data which he or she has not used for a very long time.

    Since the internal storage is extended by this unit, the phone and tablet's storage volume can be kept as low as possible. The phone stays fast and up to date. The larger size of the drive allows using less precious materials in production.

    The external drive connects to your phone and helps organising files

    An app lets you easily find your data

    Get rid easily of files that you did not touch for months

    Regarding: Recycling

    Feature 2: A two-parted motherboard

    We have found out that the inner components of the devices vary in the speed of their innovation and development cycles. Some parts are outdated quickly. The best example might be the camera module. Other components, however, have not changed as dramatically: Take, for example, the module which allows phones to vibrate.

    We have taken these insights and translated them into a two-parted motherboard. One part contains all the modules which might be outdated by the time of the launch of a subsequent model. The other part might be re-used in an updated version of the product, though.

    Regarding: Usage

    Feature 3: Smart cases for durability and ease of use

    We have found out that many people want to protect their devices and therefore use sleeves and cases.

    The product family "loup" is enclosed in a flexible rubber case which is enforced at the corners to appropriately protect the devices in case of falling down. This is a measurement to extend the possible use phase of the products.

    The tablet pc cover allows to orientate the device in three different positions

    A rubber case protects the devices