Design & sustainability: pt3

Knowing the story of what we buy, from raw material to rubbish dump, might make us more responsible consumers, says Anna Gerber in the last of her sustainability series

You are reading this article in Creative Review [Well, strictly speaking you are reading it on our website, but the original was in print, Ed]. Do you know how this magazine was produced? Do you know where it comes from? Can you trace this very page back to its origin, its first point of departure? Where did the paper come from? The ink? Or it could be that you’re reading this on screen. Do you know where your computer comes from? What the components are that make up your screen?

What about your keyboard? Could you trace where each of these things are made, how they’re made, what they’re made from, what kind of transport­ation was used to reach you, what kind of energy was used, the amount of waste that was generated?

And all of this happens before your copy of Creative Review, or your computer, even reaches you. So what happens when you decide you’re done with the magazine? Or when your computer stops working? Or when you decide you need a better, faster one? What happens when, whatever the reason, these things are no longer ‘yours’? Do they continue without you?

By questioning where things come from and how they are made, we can start to re-connect with what surrounds us. And in doing so, we can be one step closer to being more environmentally respon­sible and accountable. It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that the more people understand something, the more they’ll be able to make informed, educated, considered decisions and form more sophisti­cated and substantive opinions.

So how can we, as graphic designers and visual communicators, start to play a role in this re-connecting process? As storytellers, it only seems logical that we help make the invisible visible. We can illuminate the consequences of our purchasing decisions by making consumers aware of the histories of the products we choose to buy. And in helping to visualise the otherwise invisible, by making sense of, digesting, interpreting what is inherently deeply complex information, we can also (recalling Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World) begin to educate the public, our audience.

In theoretical terms, writer and futurologist Bruce Sterling identifies the process of reconnecting as ‘transparent production’; philosopher and social theorist Bruno Latour discusses it in terms of making things public; and graphic designer Bruce Mau looks at ways to make the invisible visible. In more overtly environmental terms, the same process is known as ‘eco-literacy’ (the term was coined in 1995, by Fritjof Capra, co-founder of the California-based Center for Ecoliteracy).

The aim of ecoliteracy is to better understand networks of relationships and connections that exist between varied systems. These networks can be small, like those involved with the act of buying a carton of milk, or big and sprawling, like the way industries, cities and politics work. What we are talking about is scale: we can think about this on a microscopic scale (eg your T-shirt) or a macroscopic one (eg manufac­tur­ing structures in the developing world).

Pietra Rivoli looks at ecoliteracy on a micro­scopic scale in The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy (2005). Starting with the cotton farm, passing through a sweatshop and ending up in Tanzanian rag factories, the book traces the life of a typical T-shirt as well as noting the roots of cotton production and taking us on a whirlwind trip through the social transformation and techno­logical development of the garment.

Taking a bottle of red wine as his starting point, Bruce Sterling shows and makes connections between both microscopic and macroscopic in his weirdly wonderful book Shaping Things (2005), designed by Lorraine Wild. The wine bottle analogy could be replaced by just about anything, but Sterling manages to deconstruct this seemingly inconsequential object in a bid to show, trace, reveal the contents, processes and people that are involved in the making of things. He looks at the wine label, what information it really conveys, its cost relative to value, he considers the people that made the wine for him (and how they match up with his idealistic image of ‘suntanned Italian peasants’), what kind of transportation was used for the wine to reach him (he asks how much carbon dioxide was ‘spewed’ into the planet) and finally he asks what happens to the bottle once it’s empty. Sterling makes connections between different modes of production for the bottle of wine, but he also makes connections between himself and the wine (this translates into the consumer or end-user and his/her relationship with isolated objects as well as larger systems).

While Sterling has his ‘transparent production’, designer Arlene Birt, who wrote her thesis on the subject, uses the term ‘back­ground stories’ to describe the same thing. Staying with the idea of relation­ships or connections that exist between objects as well as systems at large, Birt writes in her thesis, that “visual communication can connect consumers with the unseen backgrounds of a product or service” and that this in turn lends itself to “society’s progression towards sustainability”. Without making these connections visible, we become disengaged, disconnected and ultimately, disinterested. In much the same way that Wild’s design of Shaping Things visually shows, traces and makes connec­tions to Sterling’s text, I am suggesting that as designers it is up to us to begin to make visual sense of this kind of information.

Interestingly, Sterling later says that he doesn’t think transparent production is necessarily a good thing. But he does say that it would provide a good alternative to the way we currently relate to infor­mation (or a lack thereof). If we therefore accept that we have established a certain need for ecological literacy, we also need to have a basic undertsanding of how this information is actually acquired, and only then can we consider ways to visually communicate it effectively.

How exactly are these connections between objects or larger scale systems sourced, organised and considered? The need to “harvest accurate data” (as writer and theorist John Thackara puts it) becomes key here. But hang on, we are not scientists, we are not life cycle analysts, we are not carbon emission special­ists. So, in order to harvest this accurate data and assume our role and even responsibility as visual storytellers, it becomes essential that we work alongside these other specialisms, drawing from areas outside of graphic design in a bid to gain a deeper and more accurate understanding of the information.

The most rigorous and accurate methodology of sourcing where individual objects come from and how they are made is called ‘life cycle analysis’ or ‘life cycle assessment’. As the phrase suggests, the technique is used to assess processes associated with a product over its life cycle and what environ­mental impact those processes have. According to PRé (Netherlands-based product ecology consult­ants) life cycle analysis is typically used to provide an analysis that looks at the environmental impact of different life cycle stages. These stages are referred to as starting with non-existent (eg raw materials) all the way through to post-existent (eg waste). The aim of this level of analysis is to improve on either the products themselves or the processes used to make the products. If a life cycle assess­ment were to be carried out on a carton of milk, you’d have to consider trucks too. So, trucks (and hence the production of trucks) become part of the life cycle as well. The analysis of a carton of milk begins to include steel which is needed to produce a truck, coal which is needed to produce steel, and in each case more trucks are needed to transport the steel, coal and milk cartons. And so it goes on.

Invariably, not all inputs and outputs can be traced, measured and included as part of the final analysis. Most life cycle analysts suggest defining boundaries around different systems and that questions be asked according to ‘order’ or varied levels of information. For example, the first order includes only the production of materials and transport, while the second includes all processes in the life cycle, but not capital goods, for instance. Finally, the last order could include capital goods. Each order would therefore provide more detailed information about the product concerned.

‘Orders of information’ relates to the visualising of this information as well. For the sake of accuracy and detail, there is an invariable need to establish boundaries and limitations. The idea of boundaries or parameters of course relates to ways we begin to visualise this information as well. Birt identifies this too when she writes that when visually “communi­cating (the) specific percentages or in-depth details of every stage of a product’s life”, on account of the sheer scale involved, it “is only possible to either communicate select details, or indicate to a general big-picture”.

Processes are complex and intensive research needs to be carrried out before design decisions are made. How can this level of information be trans­lated and transferred in a way that is understand­able and digestible, while retaining the essential degree of accuracy and detail? It is also up to us to determine what level of detail we need to retain in order to stay faithful to the information. Without having to dilute it, would we still be able to tell and show stories that people will be drawn to and captivated by? In every way the points I’ve raised here are not only obvious, but they are at the core of what we do. So if this is the case, then why aren’t we already applying these skills, this visual language, to making the production processes and systems transparent?

Ultimately, to make the invisible visible means that designers need to engage with content. I don’t mean engaging with text (in the designer as author sense) but for designers to engage with the content of what surrounds us. The content of the page, the content of the screen, the content of the chair, the pen, the desk. To make the invisible visible also means that designers need to work more closely with other specialisms to gain a better and deeper understanding of the stories they need to be telling/showing. So that we can do what we do best – tell stories – but in a way that can actually make a social and environmental impact.


Anna Gerber is a London-based graphic designer and writer



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