Design to Renourish
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Design to Renourish

Sustainable Graphic Design in Practice

Eric Benson, Yvette Perullo

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eBook - ePub

Design to Renourish

Sustainable Graphic Design in Practice

Eric Benson, Yvette Perullo

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About This Book

Inspiration is everywhere when you stop to not just smell but watch the roses. Mother Nature's interwoven relationships between all life can serve as a powerful model for graphic designers to create sustainable print and digital work. Design to Renourish is a book for the graphic design professional that helps to integrate sustainability into their workflow through a design process called systems thinking. This process asks the graphic designer to approach a design problem by being more informed and aware of and influenced by the impacts that material and vendor choices have on one another, the planet, and consequently on us.

The book not only walks the reader through how to design with Mother Nature as a model, but also offers solutions to the real life challenges of working with the client to create sustainable work. Through ten case studies that feature interviews with international design teams who embrace a sustainable systems methodology, the reader will gain valuable insights on how to design to renourish and improve life on Earth.

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CRC Press
Web Design

Chapter 1


“I can’t imagine doing anything else.” We all have most likely made this statement about the profession. Graphic design is creative and logical, expressive and practical, and demanding and fun. You wear many hats and change them frequently. You might be brainstorming logo ideas one minute and sending out invoices or estimating project plans the next. In the same day you could be delegating tasks to colleagues, providing feedback to contractors, and presenting ideas to clients. Despite the diversity of the job and the many hats you don throughout the day, most graphic designers specialize or have a distinct passion for one area of design or type of working environment. Your area of expertise may be in print, exhibition, packaging design, interactive design, or traditional advertising. You may be working in-house for a company, running your own freelance business, or working at a large agency or a small design studio. Whatever your niche, the work has a significant positive or negative impact on our world. As designers, we relish the praise of satisfied clients, recognition by peers, and the return on investment of a successful campaign, but beyond the immediate influence of the work, there is much more that may not be measured or seen. What are the unintended consequences of design work over time? How does the work impact the planet we live on? The last question is one more designers are thinking about as the realities of global warming and changes in our natural landscape like pollution, droughts, and deforestation reveal. There must be a shift in mindset away from only making beautiful and economically driven work to include a better understanding and a strategy to stop the negative impacts of design work on the planet.
In recent years, we have all witnessed too many environmental disasters like the horrific 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2014 tragic flooding in Pakistan, and the ongoing severe droughts and wildfires in the Western United States and Australia. It is highly likely that the latter of the series of tragedies have been fueled by global warming, one of the many reasons why design must change. Reversing global warming is the most important battle humanity faces in its history as it will have an impact on everything. It is true that the planet has experienced a warming before (roughly 6,000 years ago)1; however, this warming was caused by a natural cycle from cold to hot that occurs roughly every 100,000 years.2 Starting with the industrial revolution, humanity found a way to unintentionally “hack” the climate cycle (tens of thousands of years too early). Increased greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and mass production fueled by rising consumption (where design plays a major role) is how people have changed our atmosphere. The good news is that if civilization now knows how to break a climate cycle, it also means we now know how to fix it.
But it’s not just the environment and human health that will be hurt by global warming; the economy will take a major hit as well. In 2015, the magazine The Economist commissioned a study that showed inaction on global warming would cause a loss of up to 4.2 trillion dollars3 in the US economy alone. Designers’ livelihood will clearly be negatively affected by an economic loss of this magnitude. The worldwide economy and all living things on the planet are connected, and global warming is helping us all realize this more quickly and vividly. (We will explore this interconnectedness in Chapter 2.)
Figure 1.1 The triple bottom line.
Three components that global warming will affect are the environment (animals and natural resources), the economy, and the people who live in and participate in both. This is commonly referred to as the triple bottom line (Figure 1.1). You may have heard this term before as it refers to the pursuit of growth balanced with social, ecological, and economic needs (or people, planet, and profit). All three parts of this concept are related, linked, and integral to a truly sustainable model of living in a healthy world. When applied to graphic design, the triple bottom line helps designers understand how print and digital work impact the overall health of the world. This book is about those impacts (both positive and negative), where the profession stands today, and most importantly what we can all do to make more sustainable work.


“The most important thing in design, it seems to me, is the consequence of your action, and whether you’re interested, fundamentally, in persuading people to do things that are in their interests”
—Milton Glaser.4
Graphic designers have had a hand in advancing the world economically and in shaping society and popular culture. Outcomes of design continue to help educate the public about important social issues, create tools to allow for an open exchange of information, improve the financial growth of organizations and the people that work for them, and inspire people to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Graphic design work, although many times misunderstood or undervalued (if you have been asked to “make it pretty” you can relate), is an important fixture in our economy and society. If designers stopped doing their jobs, it would be very difficult for companies to communicate to their customers effectively and achieve their business or organizational missions. Beyond the questionable aesthetics that would exist without your thoughtful skills, more importantly society would face a challenge as access to valuable information would be hard to find, convoluted, and possibly even illegible. Let’s face it, good design is important. It lends credibility and visibility to an organization, an idea, or a message. Not only does it make economic and cultural sense but it can also be important for the health of our environment, which we will discuss later.
Let’s take a look at how effective design can have a positive economic influence. In a joint study conducted through Stanford University, it was found that a website’s aesthetic qualities are the most important when people make credibility judgments about an organization online. In addition, a company is perceived as more trustworthy if their website is easy to navigate.5 The visual design indeed directly reflects the professionalism and quality of an organization. The same perceptions learned from the web design study can then be applied to other designed material. Gaining trust from customers is paramount for a company. If a business looks legitimate and trustworthy, a potential client is more likely to do business with the organization. This begins to build a client relationship which could potentially bring return business. And since it costs five times more money to attract a new customer than it does to keep an existing one, loyal clients can help maintain a consistent revenue stream.6 These relationships are beneficial for positive online reviews and referrals to friends and family, potentially leading to increased profits. It makes sense and cents. Good design can increase a business’ bottom line through strengthened confidence in an organization’s products and services. This is just one example of how graphic design continues to have a profound impact on our economy, where it can be argued, improves the standard of living for all concerned.
The results of effective graphic design also contribute significantly to making people’s lives easier. As trained visual communicators, designers can turn complex information into easily digestible messages. In high-stress situations, clear signage is particularly crucial in places like airports. Many airline travelers today are tired, rushed, or anxious (or maybe all of the above!). The stress of waiting in long lines and having tight connections are compounded in a poorly laid out airport. Well-designed signage that is understandable, even for those with visual impairments, helps ease stress and anxiety so that passengers can quickly navigate to where they need to go on time. Color decisions and legible typography on screens and signage can make the difference between missing and making a flight.
Even on a small scale, thoughtful design solutions can make everyday tasks easier and a lot less frustrating. While some of us swear never to do it again, most of us have put together our fair share of ready-to-assemble furniture. And if you’re like so many others, you just scan the pictures without actually reading the instructions. This is when well-done information design for a DIY bookcase instructions can make the difference between one that steadily holds your vast library of literature (preferably this book included) or one that collapses into a mangled pile of particle board and endless stream of expletives.
Making people’s lives easier as graphic designers covers a wide range of areas from creating easy-to-follow assembly instructions to, more critically, signage. Visual design skills are also often put to use for worthy campaigns or causes. Human rights abuses, social inequality, environmental destruction, and even political campaigns are areas in which graphic designers have been instrumental in raising awareness and inspiring action. We discussed a bit earlier about how quality design can help build trust, and this is particularly true when motivating people to fund a worthy cause. Even the most generous of people will be wary about donating money if the organization appears less than honest. But when done well, designers’ skills are helpful when shedding light on issues or motivating people to take action to help others.
Graphic designers have developed strategic branding campaigns and created innovative ideas to help worthy causes from local nonprofits to international organizations succeed. Some have motivated America’s young adults to get out and vote, spread awareness and helped raise money for cancer and AIDS research, educated people about the dangers of smoking and gained support to stop offshore drilling. Graphic design has the potential to make a huge difference and greatly benefit the economy and people’s day-to-day lives.



As we write this book, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hover around 400 parts per million (ppm) according to the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This is dangerously high. To put that number in perspective, scientists say the carbon dioxide levels must be reduced to about 350 ppm to maintain a livable and thriving planet.7 While we can’t solve this alone, designers can make more responsible decisions in the choice of project outcomes, materials, and vendors to work with. We have begun this process as a profession to “do less bad” by investing in post-consumer waste papers, vegetable-based inks, environmentally certified products, and choosing vendors powered by renewable energy. Less bad is a start but it’s not enough to reverse the current trajectory. If designers only strive for their work to have a net zero impact on the planet, that would keep the levels at or around the current 400 ppm. Designers can do better. There is an opportunity to renourish our world, to create work that helps to not only educate clients and audiences but also to have a positive impact on lives and the planet while reducing the levels of carbon dioxide. This is the 21st century design problem. Before we go into how to achieve this, let’s first review some of the reasons we have come to this fork in the road.
Stylish design solutions that are created for clients usually only help create larger, unintended problems for the environment. Pulitzer prize winning author Russell Baker said, “(t)he American dream is to turn goods into trash as fast as possible.”8 And not many designed items hit the garbage bin faster than packaging—a direct-to-trash or “cradle to grave” contribution to the landfill problems. The lifespan of most packaging is incredibly short. All too often, the packaging of a product is either unnecessary or excessive and includes toxic materials like adhesives, coatings, inks, or plastics. The problems that arise in the landfills from packaging and other printed “solutions” pose an environmental and health hazard. Leachate is an example of this. Leachate is the rainwater and other liquids that filter down through the landfill encountering plastics, papers, and other materials on its way to the bottom. It contains fairly high concentrations of harmful substances from the materials it came into contact with and poses very significant environmental and human health problems as a result. A large percentage of landfills leak this hazardous leachate contaminating ground and surface water nearby.
In addition, the decomposition of garbage in landfills releases methane, a potent odorless greenhouse gas that, with carbon dioxide, are some of the largest contributors to global warming. Packaging, for instance, has significantly contributed to overflowing landfills. Ultimately, all that packaging designers put their hearts and souls into ends up as beautifully designed trash. In landfills in both United States and France, for instance, packaging that could have been recycled or avoided entirely account for anywhere between 30% and 37% of the trash.9 This is a perfect example of why a one-way system of treasure to trash is damaging to our world and unsustainable at its core (Figure 1.2).
Figure 1.2 A linear paperboard supply chain.
But there is more to consider here than just the project’s likely last stop—the landfill. At the beginning of a new project, for instance, the simple act of choosing paper and a printer has led to (over time) irreversible environmental damage like global warming, deforestation, and the shrinking polar ice caps. Physical projects require transportation by truck, rail, or air and are also hosted on large servers. The oil that fuels almost all the transportation and manufacturing is not only environmentally catastrophic in its drilling (recall the 2010 Gulf oil spill) but also in its own transport (for instance, the 2015 West Virginia train derailment), and in its consumption (carbon dioxide and particulate emissions that cause global warming and respiratory problems). Added to this equation are other natural resources needed for manufacturing like plastics (made from oil), metals, wood, and water.
Let’s go deeper into how graphic design work needs and affects our water supply. Everyt...

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