How to make digital design more sustainable

At this year’s Design for Planet Festival, speakers from Hey Low and OPX Studio shared practical advice on creating low-impact websites; the added benefits of designing this way; and how to sell it to clients

“A low carbon website won’t save the world for sure, because the overall impact is minor, except big websites,” Nicolas Paries admitted during his talk at Design Council’s recent Design for Planet Festival. “But it’s the same as a single [use] plastic bag. It’s not about one, it’s about the collective impact of millions that matters.”

Paries, the founder of Hey Low – a digital studio specialising in low-carbon websites and practices – was one of a number of speakers sharing advice on green digital design at the festival. “One of the problems we have with websites is they’re getting really heavy with a lot of data. If you compare it to back in 2008, the medium size of a page was 500kb, and now it’s more than 2mb, so it’s 4x more,” he said.

Statistics likes these give pause for thought. When the pandemic broke out in 2020, it ushered in a new era for digital experiences. We were told that they were worth holding onto even after lockdown restrictions eased, because they reduce over-production and over-consumption. That might be true in terms of air miles or plastic waste, but not everyone stopped to think about the knock-on effect this digital promised land would have on energy usage.

Thankfully, the design industry is increasingly taking note of the carbon impact of digital design and adjusting their processes accordingly. When OPX worked with the London College of Communications on designing a website for the university’s hybrid degree showcase – a concept they named Without Form – the team managed to get the website data below the 2008 average highlighted by Paries to just 480kb: the equivalent of a medium-sized jpeg image. For the team, the challenge lay in balancing high quality and low-carbon. “How do you create a new experience on a platform that doesn’t cost the earth? How do you create a low-impact, accessible site without compromising the experience?” said OPX creative director David Bennett.

Top: Shutterstock/J.V.G. Ransika; Above: Visual for Hey Low’s Design for Planet Festival talk