A conversation one lunchtime in the RCA cafeteria was the starting point of a ten-year working relationship during which Sophie Thomas and Kristine Matthews have established themselves at the forefront of sustainable graphic design practice. Thomas, daughter of left-wing, CND-supporting parents from Oxford, and Seattle-born Matthews were kindred spirits who had grown up surrounded by the issues which now inform their London-based studio’s work. Appalled at the number of polystyrene cups cast away by thirsty students each day, the pair decided to take action. “We spent a couple of weeks in the catering office and we worked out that the college was spending huge amounts on polystyrene cups. They were getting through 1600 cans and 5,700 polystyrene cups every week,” remembers Thomas. To ram home the point, “we collected them, washed them and hung them in the gallery. We also had mugs printed – if you used one, you got 3p off tea. The money raised by selling the mugs paid for recycling bins for the college.”
That was in 1997. A year later, Friends of the Earth had seen the project and commissioned them to create their first piece of paid-for work together. Thomas.matthews was up and running.
For most start-ups, the first task is to design an identity. Determined to underline their twin commitments to good design and sustainability, thomas.matthews decided to issue a manifesto instead. Their aims were to be: Design for communication. Smart concepts. Groovy colours. All challenges relished. All media covered. Saving the planet. Open 24 hours.
“We have always believed in sustainability and we think it makes a really interesting addition to our work,” says Sophie Thomas, “but it was a case of good design with the ethical stance behind it.” The manifesto also reveals another key ingredient in their work – a sense of fun. “We try to build in humour to the work,” says Thomas, recognising that those who make an issue of their eco credentials can come across as overly worthy.
The key element for them as a practice is sustainability – one of those words that is bandied about with increasing frequency and decreasing clarity. For thomas.matthews, sustainability can be defined as “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable design reduces environmental impact while maintaining or even improving quality of life.”
Sustainable design, they argue is about more than choosing recycled paper: it is a social agent, it’s about a way of living and ultimately about happiness. “What’s different about the way we work as opposed to others who
are trying to be sustainable,” says Thomas, “is that we see it as more than just not running jobs full-bleed, it’s about re-thinking the way we design.”
That first job was an example of this in practice. Friends of the Earth wanted to do a poster but thomas.matthews persuaded them that opening No Shop – a shop dedicated to reducing consumption – would be a more effective use of resources. If designers are part of the problem in ratcheting up consumerism, they can be part of the solution too. “It’s about being responsible about what you do,” says Thomas. “Graphic design is a commercial art and you have to accept that but also to realise the power you hold to get people to do things or try things.”
Although their first clients were predictably like-minded, the studio is now putting that power at the disposal of a company that may once have been seen as the enemy – Unilever, where they help the CSR team promote happiness in the workplace. “We are trying to work more with clients who don’t have these values at heart. To be inside and push out is a much more powerful place to be,” argues Thomas. “There’s no point if people doing things on such a scale don’t get involved as well.”
Thomas believes that in the last eight months, following the Stern Report and Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, we have reached a tipping point. Even large businesses, she says, now realise that they “have to get in front of these issues rather than being reactive all the time. All companies will have to end up being carbon neutral in five years,” she confidently predicts. But how genuine are these conversions to being green? “Everybody is talking about it right now because it’s the thing to be,” she concedes, “but we should take advantage and play on that.” For the thomas.matthews studio, near Borough in south London, it is very much a question of practising what they preach. “We got this place as a shell so we were able to build everything as sustainably as possible,” says Thomas. “We’ve always had a green tariff and we recycle everything apart from composting because we don’t have anywhere to do it.” The studio is carbon neutral, of course, with sights set on the next rung on the ladder – being carbon positive. This is the next step along the “carbon journey”: encouraging others, such as suppliers, to change their habits. Staff at thomas.matthews must also buy into the lifestyle. “We talk to staff about how they live,” says Thomas. “We have bike racks, no-one owns a car.” And no-one, as yet, has rebelled: most come to them because of the studio’s ethos.
What sacrifices have they made for their principles? “In the main, they have been about who we work with,” Thomas claims. “We can’t go down the advertising route. I’ve always found ad agencies to be very much about the money and the clients and not taking any responsibility for what they advertise. We also suffer in terms of the budgets we get because the bigger companies would have a lot of our clients on a pro bono basis whereas, for us, they are our main clients. Sustainability doesn’t cost a lot more but if you have less money to work with you have less flexibility to do what you want to do. On the creative side, though, we haven’t had to sacrifice much.”
Rather than jealously guard their accumulated knowledge of more sustainable materials and production practices, thomas.matthews declare themselves happy to share: in fact this is their target for the coming year. “The way that sustainability will really have an impact on the design community will be in building knowledge banks,” says Thomas. “Building some kind of collective of creative heads will be our focus for the next year. For example, people are doing really interesting research into the way things break down in landfill sites – stuff like that needs to connect to design brains in terms of how to apply it. It goes back to bigger thinking, not just thinking about the next year of a product’s life but the next thousand years.”
Thomas says her goal is “to re-think the design studio out of its confines of four walls and the computer towards a cross-disciplinary collective of like-minded people who are ready for new challenges and want to really create change. Whatever your discipline,” she says, “today’s situation calls for new solutions and radical thinking, critical response and ‘crazy, but there might just be something in it’ conversations. We want to find these people to begin these discussions. Who knows where they will lead? Hopefully towards a more exciting and better future.”
If you are interested in Sophie Thomas’s idea for a knowledge-sharing network, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org