Sustainable graphic design

Designers must help make changes to lessen the human impact on the environment

live wrong bracelet

One of the main messages at last weekend’s Compostmodern conference on sustainable design was that designers must help make changes to lessen the human impact on the environment through incremental changes as well as systematic changes. These two tactics are comparable to treating the symptoms of a disease and finding a cure. One addresses short-term changes to reduce discomfort, and one removes the problem altogether. Treating the symptoms is valuable, finding the cure is priceless. In this article, I’m going to offer a few ideas about how designers can work to create the cures for some of our environmental problems.

Creativity is a renewable resource.

As designers, we have the power to help those around us find better ways to do things. We are, by nature, creative problem-solvers. We must apply our brain power to finding ways to change perceptions, get things done in ways that do less harm to the environment, and find new ways of doing the things we already do.

John Bielenberg, founder of Project M, likes to encourage companies and individuals to consider whole new “wrong” ways of thinking about solutions. Don’t limit yourself to the first idea that comes to your mind, but instead, keep thinking until you come up with something that is revolutionary. John wears a “LIVEWRONG” bracelet to remind himself to think beyond the first solutions that come to him.

Do it differently.

One of the great examples of a systematic change has been with respect to printing. Designers can now specify recycled or bamboo paper, soy inks, and water-based coatings, and use only printers certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. You can even use EcoFont, which uses 20% less ink and toner to reduce the impact of your printed piece. These all reduce the symptoms of printing’s effect on the environment.

But how about if you don’t print your client’s piece at all? Instead, you can post a PDF file with the same information, send an e-mail instead of a postcard, create a banner ad instead of a print ad, or put the information in a blog post. These options represent an entirely new system of “dematerializing” these pieces of information so they have virtually no impact on our environment. They’re a cure for all the ills of printing, such as the negative impact on forests, water usage, and the waste products of printing.

Sit. Stay.

We create much of the carbon in the air by traveling around. Great ways to reduce the amount of carbon your activities create include using a more efficient or hybrid car, carpooling, riding your bike, walking, or buying carbon offsets for travel.

But, how about no traveling in the first place? Technology now makes it possible to work from home, attend a webinar or webcast instead of attending an event in person, and hold video conferences instead of traveling to a meeting. To encourage your clients not to require in-person presentations, you can even add a line item to your invoices for carbon offsets they’ll have to purchase to offset everyone’s travel to the meeting. It may just make them think before scheduling another meeting.

Speed it up.

Great design can help people find the information they need more quickly. Consider the signage at a drive-through window at a fast-food place. If the sign is well-designed, someone can find what they want quickly and spend less time idling in line while they look for what they want and get out of their pollution-producing car more quickly.

But, what if they didn’t have to sit in line in the first place? What if the restaurant had a website where you could order before leaving home and just sail to a pre-order window to pick up your meal? Designers should be looking for opportunities to help their clients improve in ways they might never have considered.

How else can graphic designers help?

Scott Design is also a member of The Designers Accord, Design Can Change, and The Monterey Bay Area Green Business Program, all dedicated to helping designers and companies promote sustainability practices. Check out their websites for more ideas on going green, and find out if there’s a local green certification program in your area.

The McKinsey Quarterly released a report encouraging businesses to help customers make “green” choices when making purchases. Many people want to make green choices, but don’t know which ones make the biggest impact on the environment. For more information, read the full article, “Helping Green Products Grow.”

I’d love to hear other ideas about how designers can move us closer to a sustainable society. What ideas do you have? Leave a comment or share this article with your fellow designers to keep the sustainability conversation going.