A Designer's Guide to Climate Tech

Designing a Sustainable Future

At Designer Fund, we’re increasingly focused on investing at the intersection of design, technology, and sustainability. Our portfolio companies are leading carbon removal initiatives, funding more sustainable agriculture, and helping develop high-impact renewable energy projects. We’ve seen designers advance new climate-focused innovations and make them engaging, beautiful, and adaptable. While design alone won’t turn the tides against climate change, it will play an integral part in its transformation.

We believe that designers are ideal candidates to lead the climate tech industry. As data-informed, systems-level thinkers, designers can bring alignment to the product vision, ensuring the final product meets the needs of all of its stakeholders—including the planet.

Whether you’re a product designer, user researcher, or UX writer, there’s a place for you in climate tech. In fact, every job can be a climate job. But how can designers start developing the right skills and find the right climate opportunities now to truly make an impact?

Keep reading to explore our comprehensive guide to climate tech for designers—including how to build a career in climate tech, find companies that align with your skills and interests, and what to do to nurture your foundational knowledge within the climate space.

Topics covered:

What skills do you need to become a climate designer?

Many of the skills you develop as a designer working in traditional industries can seamlessly translate to climate tech: problem solving, stakeholder alignment, user experience, design thinking, workshop facilitation, and information architecture—just to name a few. However, there are several key areas of expertise you can focus on to better position yourself to break into climate tech.

1. An understanding of climate science foundations

Climate change is inherently complex. To build practical solutions to the climate crisis, it’s important to understand the driving forces behind climate change. This can involve reading, learning, and studying the basics of climate science and its broader effects, from the origins of greenhouse gases to the impacts of planetary warming on people and society. Platforms such as Climatebase and Terra.do are a great place to start—they offer accelerated learning experiences that can guide you through the fundamentals.

But don’t just focus on the causes of climate change—start to investigate the solutions that interest you too. Identify the core approaches that different scientists, policymakers, and technologists are developing that you’re passionate about. Are you curious about how we can enhance carbon removal methodologies? Read up on the latest climate tech innovations and experiments. More interested in understanding how we can prevent biodiversity loss? Look at what local policies in your state are doing to catalyze nature-based solutions.

2. Next-level narrative design

Climate communications is a major part of climate design. It means being able to take bits and pieces of complexity and making them clear and concise for the user. While climate change is a heavy topic that needs to be conveyed with urgency, it’s very easy to share too much information at the wrong time, leaving audiences overwhelmed and paralyzed by climate anxiety.

To build effective climate products, you’ll need to have strong storytelling and narrative design skills. Explore how you can be both clear and compassionate in how you communicate to users. Consider how your storytelling is expressed not just through words—but when, how, and why climate information is presented so that you don’t trigger a sense of hopelessness.

I've had to do more communicating and storytelling than I've ever done in my career with climate. A lot of it is about how we position information to be digestible to people and scientifically accurate. Rachel He, Designer at Stripe Climate and Frontier

3. Making data-informed design decisions

In addition to being a great storyteller, being a data-driven climate designer can put you ahead of the curve. So much of working in climate tech is about analyzing charts and scientific information, and thinking about how you can communicate them to users in a thoughtful manner. When building up transferable design skills, find opportunities to parse through large sets of numbers and facts, and find simplified but accurate ways to convey them to a general audience.

Data on user behavior often informs product decisions, but think about how scientific data such as carbon removal or energy savings can influence your design decisions. With climate tech, you’ll be taking the work of evidence-based research and integrating it into your craft, so design with more intention by learning how to work with numbers, data, and science terminology.

4. Ability to ship quickly and collaborate with internal stakeholders

The climate is changing quickly: we have until 2050 to achieve net zero emissions, which means that we need to design mission-critical technologies with speed and scale. To be a climate designer, you’ll need to learn how to work with your team to prototype new ideas and features that can be tested and iterated upon. Many climate tech companies are fast-paced startups with low overhead and resources, so you should enjoy moving quickly and be open to changing directions as soon as new information is introduced.

Being part of an early-stage company often means that some of your teammates may be new to design. Consequently, you might need to educate your team so they understand how to work with you, as well as the value you bring to the table. Knowing how to build and maintain trust with your internal stakeholders, colleagues, and collaborators will be key to an effective career in climate tech.

From facilitating workshops to bring alignment, to analyzing the data side-by-side with stakeholders to make decisions and understand situations, you need to build bridges and collaborate very closely with people who perhaps have never worked with designers before. Eva Marina Illescas Sanchez, Co-Founder of Work on Climate

5. An environmental impact systems design lens

With any design project, it’s crucial to apply systems thinking and understand the impact of what you’re creating. This is especially true when dealing with natural earth systems. Ask yourself: In the next 5-10 years, how might this design affect other parts of an ecosystem or community? What are the consequences of the materials being used? Having the ability to zoom out and understand the big-picture perspective of what you’re creating is essential.

Design has helped us set a vision of how we will achieve our mission. It’s also helped us create and execute on how we can use tech to make fashion better for everyone involved. Beth Esponnette, Co-Founder of unspun

Designing for climate tech also means reframing who exactly you’re designing for, which can potentially include stakeholders such as nature, society, and this planet as a whole. As opposed to common human-centered design practices, life-centered design broadens the scope of empathy to consider the environmental and social impact. When building new solutions in climate, be sure to include these stakeholders in the design process.

I think it’s important to ask questions around things like life cycle analysis, fair trade, and the cultural impacts of your work. What’s the changed behavior that you may or may not want? It’s philosophical but it’s big picture thinking. Marc O’Brien, Co-Founder of Climate Designers

💡 Here’s a list of Designer Fund's portfolio companies using design to combat climate change:

  • Ambrook makes sustainability profitable in natural resource industries by building accounting and financial tools for farms.
  • Ever.green is the trusted marketplace for energy tax credits and high-impact RECs that enable new renewable energy projects and accelerate the transition to a net-zero future.
  • Kopperfield is a growth platform for independent home electrification businesses. They help supercharge your website, give you powerful communication tools, and automate administrative tasks.
  • Lumen Energy empowers commercial real estate owners to profit from solar and batteries with unmatched confidence and ease.
  • Stripe Climate is the easiest way to help promising permanent carbon removal technologies launch and scale.
  • Sway scales seaweed-based, rapidly compostable replacements for plastic, beginning with flexible packaging.
  • Zero Acre Farms provides a cleaner all-purpose cooking oil with even more good fats than olive oil, a neutral taste, and a tiny environmental footprint.

Know a great design-forward climate company we should look out for? Feel free to refer them to us here.

Finding the right job in climate tech

Climate tech is a growing sector with an abundance of opportunities. Where should you start? It comes down to identifying what areas of climate action align with your interests, and finding the right organizations that need your unique skillset. And just like any design job search, you’ll need to keep the company culture, size, and approach in mind.

1. Passion and purpose

Getting into climate tech may feel overwhelming at first because numerous companies are tackling fascinating sustainability problems. If you’re feeling bewildered, take a step back and reflect on where your passion for climate action stems from. What is your north star in this movement? Was there a particular moment when climate action clicked for you? Maybe you’re an urbanite who wants to create green cities. Or maybe you’re an avid skier who’s concerned about warmer winters. Perhaps you know someone with a health affliction caused by pollution and want to find a way to help them. Reconnect with why climate action matters to you and use your passion as a guiding compass throughout your job search.

Since I was a kid I have been drawn to being in nature, wildly exploring my surroundings and loving how everything it’s perfectly balanced in the entire ecosystem. I remember how much I loved spending all my summers traveling and camping in beautiful places where I could run free and play with my friends in the forest. Eva Marina Illescas Sanchez, Co-Founder of Work on Climate

One good framework for identifying your place in climate action is following the Climate Action Venn Diagram by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. By thinking about your skills and resources, your sources of joy, and what the world needs, you can identify the intersection of your ideal opportunities.

Climate Venn Diagram
Source: Climate Action Venn Diagram by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
For a field that is so technical and seemingly inaccessible, design lends a voice of reliable support to assist our customers: to remove obstacles instead of finding workarounds, and to respond to what the industry needs today and define what it needs to move forward. Annu Yadav, Head of Design at Aurora Solar

2. Design maturity

Next, consider your ideal level of design maturity in a company. For some people, it’s important to work at a design-centric company that has design teams, principles, and processes in place. At these types of companies, you’ll likely work alongside other climate designers whom you can learn from. You'll also likely have thorough guidelines to work off of, and strong design leaders who can influence strategic business decisions.

For others, the challenge of being a “team of one” is exciting. Working at a company that doesn’t have a design practice can give you the opportunity to build a system from scratch, work across different departments, educate teammates, and advocate for design in climate tech.

When evaluating climate companies to work for, I was trying to gauge which companies would benefit from my skillset and whether or not they valued design. I believe that design can have a major impact on the success of climate companies, helping to make solutions accessible and communicate complex concepts. It was important to me in conversations with these companies that there was an enthusiasm and respect for design and what it could do for the business. Jenna Carando, Design Lead at Mill

You can also consider working for a design studio that focuses solely on climate tech, like Big and Domino for example, which can give you exposure to a variety of different companies and projects.

3. Tech maturity

When it comes to climate tech, some companies are in the early stages of developing breakthrough innovations while other companies are focused on expanding and refining proven solutions. Do you want to be at the frontier of an emerging technology? Or are you more comfortable with something tried-and-tested?

Keep in mind, the level of tech maturity can affect the pace and intensity of your work. It may even affect your job security. Consider your tolerance for risk and ambiguity as you embark on your job search. You can also identify specific problem spaces you’re curious about and then research what products are being built to address these specific challenges. This will help you narrow in on the types of technologies you’d like to work with.

Find the sweet spot where the technology works and now it's more of an awareness and adoption problem. Enrique Allen, Co-Founder and General Partner of Designer Fund

4. Market maturity

In addition to tech and design maturity, you’ll also want to think about market maturity. There are climate tech companies that replace existing systems or products, like gasoline-powered cars, with something more sustainable, like electric cars. There are also companies defining entirely new categories. Reflect on how approachable the technology is and whether the user base has crossed the chasm from early adopters to early majority. You should also consider which level of market maturity aligns with your passion and appetite for risk.

Look for markets that have tailwinds from customer demand and support from government policies. Ben Blumenrose, Co-Founder and General Partner of Designer Fund

One way to identify market opportunities is by looking at climate tech market maps, which can give you a holistic overview of the market landscape and a breakdown of what technologies are being developed.

5. Team expertise

Why is this team the right team to solve this climate problem? Creating cutting-edge innovations for a deeply technical product requires lots of domain knowledge, from the climate science to the backend specifications. When deciding where to join, make sure that the team you’ll be working with not only has the right qualifications, but also the right intentions that align with your goals and values.

First, I wanted to find a company that truly had the potential to have a positive impact, no matter what stage they were at. And second, the company needed to be authentic and honest. I was determined to avoid the many companies who are greenwashing consumers, taking advantage of climate anxiety and a desire to do good. Jenna Carando, Design Lead at Mill

It’s also important to clearly identify the impact of what the team is building and if it addresses a systemic issue in climate change or if it’s simply a bandaid. Climate change is complex and intersectional, and many problems need to be addressed—from sustainable food supplies to clean air. However, these problems also intersect with other issues such as racial justice and inclusive economics. Vetting both the people and the product can ensure that you’re making the right next move in your climate career.

It’s one thing to focus on the tech, but we might want to focus on the impact of the technology. For me, tech is just a means to an end. Having a sense of the impact of your technology, addressing the right challenges, and providing the right opportunities can help you avoid unintended consequences. Marc O’Brien, Co-Founder of Climate Designers

Getting your foot in the door

After deciding what types of climate tech companies and roles you want to pursue, be sure to build a robust network in the climate tech space that can lead to organic job contacts. If you’ve worked on a sustainability initiative before, that will serve you well in your job search. If not, don’t fret! There are ways to build relevant portfolio experience and connections for the job you want. Here’s how to get your foot in the door.

While networking with other designers can be immensely supportive, don't forget to connect with the kinds of people who hire designers. Seek out events geared towards founders and managers of climate tech organizations. Being one of the only designers in the room is a great way to get the attention of anyone looking to hire a designer! Sarah Harrison, Co-Founder of The Determined and Climate Designers

1. Be helpful within the industry

Climate tech’s growing nature means that new companies are being launched, and they’re always looking for help. This is your opportunity to be proactive. If there’s a startup that interests you, reach out to the founding team and see if they need an extra hand on a project or feature they’re shipping. This can come in the form of freelance or contract work.

2. Join climate organizations that interest you

Climate communities bring together mission-driven minds to meet and discuss the latest in the climate space. By joining these communities, you can tap into abundant networks of people working on new ideas, sharing helpful content, and posting job opportunities. Here are some communities to check out:

3. Attend climate tech events in your city

Climate events and gatherings can deepen your knowledge and connect you with individuals in the field. These can vary from online panels with guest speakers to in-person meetups in cities during NYC or SF Climate Week. Whether in person or online, attending climate tech events is a great way to expand your horizons on what opportunities might be available in your vicinity and meet like-minded people who are also interested in designing a more sustainable future.

To keep up to date with climate tech events across the world, be sure to check out Climate Tech Cities.

4. Start your own climate design projects

When Stripe Climate and Frontier Designer Rachel He was in university, she built up her design skills through internships. One of her projects included a solar power media initiative where she explored the efficiency and efficacy of solar power on the internet. This allowed her to develop a robust skillset she later applied to her work in climate tech.

Building up credibility in the industry is critical. Consider launching a self-directed project centered around an environmental cause that aligns with your passion such as the circular economy or speculative futures. These can be great case studies and portfolio builders for you can discuss in your next role.

5. Become a climate designer founder

We believe that designers can be great climate founders. If you have an innovative idea about how to accelerate and repair our natural ecosystems, consider pursuing it.

Apply the same framework and methodology you would apply in any other industry. Nurture your business acumen and learn where technology can show up in climate action. There will be a huge learning curve as you pursue the feasibility of your idea, but with your design skills you can identify novel spaces to design better for our environment.

The planet can’t wait. 🌎

Readings and resources

Although finding your place in climate might be intimidating at first, there are plenty of informative research, resources, and newsletters that can guide you in your sustainability journey. Here are some favorites shared by the climate designers in this guide: