We communication designers are creators of stuff. Packaging, leaflets, books, brochures, posters, exhibitions, PDFs and websites. All this stuff uses energy and resources, and it’s time to be more intelligent about what we create. Not only do we create stuff, we are also skilled message makers, and more importantly, skilled innovators. So once we understand the impact of all the stuff we’re making, we are the perfect people to revoutionise our own industry.
My main job is as Managing Director of Airside, a 12 person design studio based in London. In the last couple of years since I’ve been putting my mind to the issue of how we can be more sustainable as a studio, one tool I have found really useful is the sphere of influence diagram (see below).
Start with putting your company (or yourself if you are a freelancer) in the middle of the diagram. Now connect outwards to all the ways you interact with the outside world, including your customers, your product, your employees, your suppliers etc.
Then take each of these immediate influences, and draw out what their circle of influence will be. You start to see how you are interdependent on so many other people and businesses. You can also see how influential you are – if you can start to build your understanding of what is possible you will be able to influence your clients, suppliers and peers.
Now it’s time to drill down and start thinking about the detail of each of these. This is where you have more influence and impact than you realise. For instance, your suppliers. What do you buy as a studio? Paper for the printer/photocopier, tea/coffee, pens and stationery, pictures, plants and ornaments, office furniture, heat and light, refuse and recycling services, couriers and taxis, insurance services, etc etc.
Take just one of those things that you buy… let’s start with the humble biro. Fourteen million biros are sold every day. They’re made from petrochemicals, probably in China, shipped over to Europe, driven to a depot and then to a shop by lorry, finally bought by us. We use it for a few weeks or months, throw it in the bin, and there it sits… and sits. A plastic pen in landfill will still be there in 50,000 years.
Because it’s cheap we don’t value it. But it’s time to re-calibrate our value system so we’re thinking beyond mere cash. Once you’ve done this exercise it’s hard to go back to buying biros. What you do instead is up to you. At Airside we’re enjoying cardboard-bodied biros and vintage refillable fountain pens bought from eBay.
You can put your brief in the middle of the circle of influence diagram too. In fact, this is the missing link, the bit we’re not taught. We’re taught to respond to “Design a poster for a Theatre company” not “A theatre company wants to communicate with it’s audience about…” So we see ourselves as purely aesthetic designers, and think that it’s not our position to question the brief.
But it is, and there are many advantages to positioning what we do in terms of the wider picture that is going on in the world. Design is as much about strategic input as creative output. So question everything you produce. Think about the item you will produce right at the beginning. Put it in the middle of a circle of influence diagram. What will it be made from? How will it be made? What materials will be used in its manufacture? How will it be transported? How long will it “live” for before it dies. And when it dies, will it end up in landfill or a recycling stream?
If you start applying this to everything you do, then you start to become much more innovative and inventive. Don’t just design another brochure that will be in landfill before the end of the month/week Find a way to make it interesting enough that it will be kept, or passed on to someone else. Perhaps there should be a rule that we shouldn’t make any object that has a life of less than a year.
And what about digital? We’ve got in the habit of saying “don’t print it, put it online’. However, what does online mean? It means some files sitting on a server somewhere, and a medium sized server has roughly the same annual carbon footprint as an SUV vehicle doing 15 miles per gallon. Then each of your customers is going to be sitting on their computer, printing out your PDF on their office printers. If you start working out the repercussions, you can see that just because it’s virtual doesn’t make it virtuous. Two really easy things you can do right now are to switch your studio electricity supplier to Good Energy or Ecotricity, and to switch your web hosting to a company which uses renewable energy and manages its data in an energy efficient way. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
I’m going to be writing a column here for the next few months, with input from my colleagues Caroline Clark and Sophie Thomas, with whom I run a not-for-profit organisation called Three Trees, which we started in order to provide tools for designers to make the job of becoming more sustainable easier. I wanted to start with a piece that got everyone thinking, but I’d like to here from you about what you really want to know. Please email us at email@example.com, and we’ll do our best to address your questions in our articles.
Further reading and watching
Just out this year, this is a well designed and inspiring book.
“Green Graphic Design” by Brian Dougherty and Celery Design Collaborative.
The story of stuff is a really easy to watch and fascinating movie that talks about what happens to products in our world.
A manifesto calling for ecologically intelligent design. And it’s a ‘treeless’ book, printed on a synthetic ‘paper’.
Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough & Michael Braungart
Links for shopping
If you’re in London, buy stuff in less packaging
Office supplies from
Green your office www.greenyouroffice.co.uk
From the archives! First published in Grafik magazine, 2010