Design & sustainability

In the first of a series of three articles, designer Anna Gerber questions graphic design’s role and responsibilities….

We’re making progress, right? Marks & Spencer is charging us for plastic carrier bags, the Design Council has underlined sustainability as a ‘top’ priority,legislation has seen to it that vehicles with high emissions pay penalising taxes and, looking ahead, London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympics is meant to be the world’s first ‘sustainable’ games.

So, call me pessimistic, but why does it seem like the design community is still playing catch up in terms of situating, defining and understanding exactly how graphic design exists within an environ­mentally sustainable context? Right now, within the green realm, it seems graphic design is still very much the ‘poor relation’, lagging significantly behind the likes of architecture, fashion and product design.

Too many graphic designers think their role and responsibility extends no further than making what are too quickly called ‘ethical’ decisions at a project’s production stage. Hence the often and feebly cited, paper and ink manifesto, which pretty much goes no further than a graphic designer considering environmentally responsible and friendly paper and ink routes ahead of production. Bravo for such pioneering, progressive thinking. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Or what’s left of it).

I’m not one of those people who thinks graphic design can change the world nor am I one of those (design) activists who believes in preaching on a soapbox or, worse, in a muddy field. But I do think that graphic design plays an important role within a rapidly changing world. An influential one. And things are changing so quickly at the moment, that there is talk of a revolution in progress, one that is rooted in a very real scientific and environmental reality. This so-called revolution has an impact and will keep on having an impact on local, national and inter­national political dynamics and industries, as well as on every graphic designer’s sense of responsibility and beyond that, the buying and lifestyle choices of billions of people.

So right now, as we face certain dire realities – political,  economic, environmental – how do we, as graphic designers, position ourselves within environ­mental arguments, in a way that is both meaningful and sure to endure? The short answer is this: we need a major cultural shift in terms of thinking, attitude and practice. I didn’t say it was going to be easy.

There are two potential ways of bringing about such a shift. The first has to do with making; the second, communication. With the first, it’s time to go beyond discussions about recycled papers and vegetable inks (this is all important, but it’s not everything). Instead, there’s a need to re-engage with the making process and from there, return to the idea of the production process as a(nother) creative tool.

The communication part is easy: it’s what we do. What I mean when I say ‘communication’ is that we need to look more closely at how better to  visually communicate what is often complex, indeci­pherable information – information concerning the origin of things, how things are made. (I will be looking at these two areas in greater depth over the next two issues).

I worry that discussions about design relative to environmental issues are too often turning to extreme solutions or scenarios. Design activism, as Jody Boehnert wrote in last month’s In the Frontline, can too often come across as marginal­ised, too exclusive: an elitist solution. Instead, I’d like to advocate that graphic design(er)’s relation­ship to these issues needs to be just another part of our everyday. This is less about standing in a field with a placard, more about making dull, mundane, very ordinary decisions. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes talked about each and every one one of us being a ‘political animal’. We are political because we belong to a community. We are political because it is part of who we are as social beings. Being political doesn’t have to mean walking down the street carrying a banner. Being political is very simply a part of what makes us human.

Put another way: graphic design which is environ­mentally responsible, which makes decisions on the basis of environmental criteria, does not need to be seen as anything that is out of the ordinary. If anything, it should be seen, industry wide, as the norm. It’s time for environ­mental criteria to be integrated into existing models and stop being seen as an (or worse, the) alternative.

John Grant (co-founder of St Lukes ad agency) drives home a similar point when he writes about the eBay phenomenon in The Green Marketing Manifesto. Citing eBay as one of the most successful start up companies in the last 20 years, he describes it as having created a mass second-hand market niche, and in doing so, effectively operating as a ‘green’ company. But most interestingly, eBay has never labelled itself a ‘green’ company nor made any claim to want to do business for a ‘greater good’.

Our current economic crisis might turn out to be the perfect opportunity for us to take on board real environmental considerations. After all, in the long run, being environmentally responsible also means saving money. The Stern Report (published in 2006) was the result of investigations led by former World Bank chief economist Sir Nicholas Stern into the economic implications of climate change. Commissioned by the British government, the report concluded that the cost of global warming would amount to between 5–20% of the world’s spending power, while the cost of preventing it would amount to 1%. More worryingly, recent findings show that the situation is even worse than originally predicted. The publication of the Stern Report made clear that a reduction in carbon emissions also means saving money.

Let’s assume that we accept the following: that graphic design needs to step up to its everyday responsibility to take environmental considerations on board, that taking these considerations on board means integrating them into graphic design practice (rather than meaninglessly tacking them on at the 99th hour) and that in taking such measures we are making not only environmental in-roads, but also economic ones. There’s just one thing missing here – how and when do we actually start instilling these values (this cultural shift) into graphic design. What about design education?

Allan Chochinov, Core 77 partner, in his 1000 Words: A Manifesto for Design and Sustainability (2007) advocates the early teaching of sustain­ability. He writes that while most design schools understand the importance of an early rolling out of the teaching of sustainability, others are just teaching students how to “churn out pretty pieces of garbage”. As I see it, there are two ways we can avoid this pretty garbage output – either introduce independent programmes or consider ways of integrating sustainability into existing curricula.

While both options are starting to happen, my vote goes for the latter. Having been part of design education for nearly ten years now, I also know how difficult it is to actually put this kind of approach into practice. Pragmatic obstacles aside, this is the best alternative because it puts forward the message that sustainable design is the norm, it is part of our practice, not something in addition to or aside from. This way, for example, when print production is taught, the environmental effects and impacts of certain choices will become part of learning about print production – as opposed to existing lectures on print production being rolled out once more with an extra ‘green’ layering tacked on.

Amidst all this talk of an integrated approach, there exists another radical option. It’s a pretty scary prospect for those of us in love with objects, collections, things, the very idea of the artefact. What if we were to advocate not designing any­thing material? John Thackara, in his book In The Bubble, suggests that we start designing systems rather than ‘stuff’ (as he calls it). He says that at the heart of system design is the idea of using, not owning. For instance: communities which share lawnmowers could be a model for national schemes, the introduction of chip technology to upgrade washing machines (rather than recycling them) and electronic kiosks in rural India enabling 85% of India’s 700,000 villages to have access to some kind of connectivity. While Thackara and others are hailing service design as the ‘new’ design, we also need to ask ourselves again where do graphic designers fit in? What about the art of, or dare I say it: the magic of, visual communication? One is certainly not mutually exclusive of the other, but I am concerned that there is too little talk of visual communication within the parameters of service design.

Finally and probably most importantly: let’s not forget that sustainability, within the context of visual communication, is also about innovation. It is about using environmental consider­ations and the reality of depleted planetary resources as exciting limitations to respond to and circum­navigate. I like to think of sustainability, as designer Louise Sandhaus recently put it, as “an invitation to imagine (and design) an enticing and fun future”.

Integrating sustainable values, qualities and criteria into graphic design practice isn’t about saying that I’d like to see 50 ‘green’ design studios start up tomorrow. Quite the contrary. What I would like to see is sustainability as another strata of visual communication, another strata of graphic design practice. This way, we can think of making environmentally responsible choices as just one more valid criteria, another pillar, that fits in snuggly alongside choices relating to colour, typography, composition, form and function.

Next month, in part two of this three-part series, Anna Gerber will look at the designer as producer. Gerber, a London-based graphic designer and writer, is currently researching and developing projects relating to sustainability.


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