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  • Writer's pictureJulia Woollams

Green graphics



As graphic designers, we create stuff – a LOT of stuff. There’s leaflets, posters, brochures, books, films, social media graphics, websites, apps, test prints, proofs and more, plus all those files we store in the cloud. Whether it’s physical or digital, we're producers of a mega amount of content that takes up space in the world, but more crucially consumes our planet’s resources.


Surely this just applies to physical stuff, some of you are probably thinking, but when you dig down into our digital footprints we could argue it’s just as detrimental to the planet. For example ‘streaming a one-hour program has around the same carbon footprint… as popping four bags of popcorn in the microwave’ (Brightly). That might not sound like a great deal, but when you consider how much each of us streams per day (from video calls to music) it rapidly mounts up.


Here I chat with five graphic designers working sustainably across a variety of disciplines about their views on green graphics.


Thank you to Nicolas Paries, Zoë Bather, Mike Bond, Núria Vila, and Joe Sharpe for sharing their views.

 

Nicolas Paries



Nicolas is a Digital Degrowth Designer, Developer and Founder of Hey Low, a low-carbon web design studio that supports those working for social and environmental justice and promotes sustainability in the digital industry. By adopting these practices and sharing knowledge, Hey Low hopes to inspire positive change in the industry and create a butterfly effect, where action on a small scale can spread and have a greater impact.

Nicolas is based in the lovely town of Ericeira, near Lisbon in Portugal.


More on Nicolas: Hey Low.


Q1: Would you class yourself as more of a digital or physical creator in the world of graphic design, or somewhere in between?

Nicolas: I design mostly websites, so it might seem all about digital. However, that's not accurate if we overlook how digital things impact the real world. In reality, it's the opposite. Every year, billions of devices are made, and the Internet demands massive resources (electricity and water consumption, rare materials extracted etc..). The way we design digital things truly matters in the physical world. So, I don't see digital and physical as separate. They're connected, and what we do and design online has a real impact on the world around us.


Every year, billions of devices are made, and the Internet demands massive resources (electricity and water consumption, rare materials extracted etc..). The way we design digital things truly matters in the physical world.

Q2: In what ways do you work in your practice to create graphics sustainably?

Nicolas: Our low-carbon practice (at Hey Low) is about minimising the energy consumption of digital products, primarily by decreasing the data transferred and lowering the computational power needed to run the website. For instance, 3D elements demand more processor power, leading to increased electricity usage. Over the past 15 years, websites have become over four times heavier, with some, particularly those with large audiences, emitting several tons of CO2 annually. However, these emissions can be significantly reduced through thoughtful design choices, such as minimising the use of high-consumption media like videos or 3D elements

Q3: In what ways do you work in your practice to communicate about sustainability?

Nicolas: If we're the only ones making low-carbon websites, it's like a tiny drop in a vast ocean. So, spreading the word about this eco-friendly approach and encouraging other designers to do the same is kind of part of our job and mission. That's why we launched lowww.directory – to inspire designers (including myself) with beautiful and lightweight websites.


We also share what we learn, and anything we think might help others, like in our recent blog post - "More is Less?" - where we talk about the recent redesign of our website and what we discovered in the process.


As designers, developers, project managers, agency owners, etc. it's too simple to say, "Don't use that, it's bad for the planet," when we're the ones creating digital products in the first place. Dark patterns are making consumption go up, for example. Users get trapped and addicted because of those designs. The same goes for streaming consumption. We often put too much responsibility on consumers and not enough on the streaming platforms and producers. It reminds me a lot of the "Please recycle" message on the top of Coca-Cola's plastic bottle caps.

Q4: What’s your advice to graphic designers starting out on how to design in a more sustainable way?

Nicolas: Instead of just focusing on the tools or how you do your work, consider finding a cause or clients that match your values. I believe that's also a crucial part of the job. And it’s also the part that might bring you more joy and enjoyment about your work. As designers, a significant part of our impact comes from the projects we take on. There are countless good stories and people who really need help to share them in a more compelling and beautiful way. And if your design approach is also sustainable, then that's a win-win!


 

Zoë Bather



Zoë is the Course Leader of the Masters in Sustainable Design at Kingston School of Art, and a practising graphic designer. Her teaching practice explores the intersections between sustainability and design; and connects students with local communities to facilitate positive social impact through design innovation. When she’s not teaching, she’s mostly designing books, including titles for HarperCollins, Lund Humphries and Penguin Random House. She started her graphic design career in 2002 at internationally renowned Frost Design London, before co-founding Studio8 Design – a critically acclaimed studio which she ran until 2012, when she decided to pursue her practice independently, alongside teaching. Her design work has gained national and international awards.



Q1: Would you class yourself as more of a digital or physical creator in the world of graphic design, or somewhere inbetween?

Zoë: Completely in-between. I now specialise in book design, so the final outputs of my design practice are physical objects. However, the outputs would of course not be possible without the extensive use of digital tools – not just the obvious editorial design software such as InDesign and Photoshop, but also the myriad of digital products that enable designers (just like any other practitioner or business) to communicate and collaborate with their clients, and to test, cost, supply and promote their project outputs. So, I think when you’re considering the ‘footprint’ of anyone’s design practice you’re inevitably going to have to account for the digital footprint (in addition to any potential physical one).


It’s always worth considering both the footprint of projects (the ecological impact attached to it), and what you might call the ‘brainprint’ of a piece of design (the socioeconomic impact attached to the knowledge, information or ideas disseminated through the project).

Q2: In what ways do you work in your practice to create graphics sustainably?

Zoë: Designer Linda Byrne and I recently worked on the design of a book for the photographer Adrian Fisk. Adrian had spent the 90s documenting environmental activists who were protesting against the destruction of ancient woodlands for large-scale road building projects across the UK. It was of course imperative to consider the ecological footprint of the book’s production – so the cover and spine were made using biodegradable and compostable materials; the interior pages were printed on paper made from 100% recycled post-consumer waste that was carbon neutral and FSC accredited; and it was printed by Impress Print, a local printer that’s certified by the World Land Trust and Planet Mark. But the whole point of the book, the reason for it to exist, was its potential social impact – an opportunity to shine a light on the birth of the environmental movement in the UK, and hopefully inspire and mobilise a newer generation of activists. For every book sold we made a donation to the Woodland Trust.

So I guess I think it’s always worth considering both the footprint of projects (the ecological impact attached to it), and what you might call the ‘brainprint’ of a piece of design (the socioeconomic impact attached to the knowledge, information or ideas disseminated through the project). Essentially, design can often play an integral role in determining the ways in which people behave, so you kinda want to wield that ‘power’ carefully and responsibly.



Until the Last Oak Falls, British environmental direct-action protests 1995-99, Adrian Fisk
Q3: In what ways do you work in your practice to communicate about sustainability?

Zoë: I mentioned ‘brainprint’ in the last question – I want to be working on editorial projects that are ultimately creating positive social impact. That’s not always been possible in my commercial career, but I do think books are an amazing vehicle through which to engage, inspire, enlighten, persuade, and mobilise people (and therefore influence the way we think about our planet).

A considerable amount of my design practice is now spent in the education realm. I run the Masters in Sustainable Design at Kingston School of Art. So, I spend most of my week engaging students (and colleagues) in sustainability! My students, who come from a multitude of design backgrounds (as the course is multi-disciplinary) are of course all excited to explore how their creativity and design thinking can be used to imagine and support more sustainable futures. But it’s really interesting to work with academics in other disciplines across the university who are grappling with how to bring sustainability into their teaching. Sustainability is of course relevant to every discipline – sustainable practice, whatever your practice, is ultimately futureproofing your practice. But I think designers are really able to connect with the concept of sustainability. Perhaps it’s because we often have to respond to challenges; or perhaps it’s because we are moved by beauty – we are often motivated by aesthetics, craft and emotions. It’s probably a bit of both.


Q4: What’s your advice to graphic designers starting out on how to design in a more sustainable way?

Zoë: Think about how your interests as a citizen intersect with sustainability –­ what you care about as a person, can and should feed into your practice as a designer. Sustainability and creativity can feed off each other, and we should all be Citizen Designers (design writers Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne; and then in-turn Rejane Dal Bello; Elizabeth Resnick should be given credit here).

It’s always useful to consider these elements within your design thinking – how we use things; how we own things; our relationship with distance; our relationship with time. All of those things are going to have to change if we are to create truly sustainable futures. And so to do that, yes design’s going to have to use innovation and technology; but it’s also going to have to look beyond the ‘western canon’ of design culture, and look back at pre-industrial societies, to re-learn our relationship with nature.

We need to start designing with the mindset that waste of any kind is not acceptable. We need to design it out from the start. But really, we need to go beyond minimising environmental impact (i.e. just being ‘less bad’). We should be striving to create more good than before, when we design – ecological, social, economic. Perhaps we could call it NET GOOD DESIGN.

Basically, design with care. When you do that, you are ultimately engaging with the principles of sustainability.

 

Mike Bond



Mike is co-founder and strategy director of Bond & Coyne; a multi-disciplinary agency that evolves brands, creates campaigns and develops technologies to help organisations to take positive action in their sectors. He is founder of creative careers initiative WonderWhat which aims to turn the tide of young people dropping creative subjects at school. He also lectures in design, creative thinking and entrepreneurship at the Royal College of Art and elsewhere, and runs education-inspired events that connect creativity with activism.



Q1: Would you class yourself as more of a digital or physical creator in the world of graphic design, or somewhere inbetween?

Mike: My agency’s journey began firmly in the realm of print, but as the world turned to digital, so did our practice. We have been running our agency now for 19 years, so it is fair to say that we have been through quite a deal of change. And our work has changed too. Partly determined by client demand, sector norms and technological progress. Partly determined by our own interests and ambitions.


Nowadays, we produce a range of physical and digital outputs – from events and installations to apps, websites and digital campaigns, and some print still too. Our studio structure reflects this – a strategy/management team, client team, design & digital team, media & content team, and development team. Really our discipline is problem solving. The output that’s required may be a service idea, an education programme, a fundraising platform. The physical versus digital question really gets answered by the objectives we’re given and the performance indicators we are working to.


Multiple broadcast campaign assets created for Royal Holloway University in a single-location film shoot that used a lot of existing footage as its backdrop.

Q2: In what ways do you work in your practice to create graphics sustainably?

Mike: There are immediate practical choices you can make which have an impact. In our web-based work for example, we encourage our clients to switch to less processing-heavy designs – considering choice of colour, and amount of movement or animation. We choose more carbon-efficient server providers too – a more-or-less invisible, but critical part of what most agencies use each day.


We don't recreate material if we don't need to. We don't produce ‘stuff’ if we don't need to. Sometimes we can’t avoid it, but there can be clever ways to increase efficiency without reducing creative impact. Carry out two film shoots in one. Reuse footage. Create one print item that gets used multiple times. Or design a website that just needs simple tweaking to be able to perform two functions.


There can be clever ways to increase efficiency without reducing creative impact. Carry out two film shoots in one. Reuse footage. Create one print item that gets used multiple times.

Q3: In what ways do you work in your practice to communicate about sustainability?

Mike: A key part of my job is to win the work we do and shape the projects we get to solve. So I know one of the biggest ways in which you can have an impact is to embed it within your work regardless of what clients ask of you. They may or may not have ‘impact on nature’ high up their agenda, but you can put it there. You can also encourage the inclusion of sustainability within the briefs you are given - and to help it get there, you can include it in your offer or pitch. It will mean you’re more likely to win work with those that share your values and/or see you as a partner through which they can extend their own sustainability credentials.


Q4: What’s your advice to graphic designers starting out on how to design in a more sustainable way?

Mike: Don’t put your head in the sand about this. Keep up to date on attitudes, expectations, best practice and regulations. There is a lot about this out there. Communities and advice exist in many professional spaces, such as LinkedIn for example.


 

Núria Vila



Núria is a creative director and graphic designer with a positive impact. She studied graphic design at Bau and later pursued a postgraduate degree in art direction at Elisava. She designs with a commitment to the environment, emphasising hands-on work and interdisciplinary collaboration.


She works on experimenting and researching new materials and ways to redefine projects in order to reduce their ecological footprint. She also curates and is responsible for the creative direction and/or graphic design of exhibitions and installations, as well as teaching classes and workshops at various design schools.


Her projects have been awarded in different competitions and featured in multiple industry magazines/blogs. She has also participated as a speaker in festivals, served as a jury member in various competitions, and has been nominated for the Gráffica 2021 Awards and the Best 100 KYOTO Global Design Awards 2023.


More on Núria: website; Instagram.


Q1: Would you class yourself as more of a digital or physical creator in the world of graphic design, or somewhere inbetween?

Núria: I think I am currently more of a physical creator than a digital one. I am currently more interested in physical experimentation, transforming food or organic waste to give them new lives. I am at a point in my career where I am looking to be able to create outside of the computer.

Q2: In what ways do you work in your practice to create graphics sustainably?

Núria: Whenever I design, I consider the life cycle of things in order to reduce the project's ecological footprint. Thinking about each phase is essential to minimise the impact: Material extraction and selection of low-impact materials, production and assembly by choosing more sustainable processes and considering local production, optimising for transportation and distribution, usage and consumption, extending the lifespan, and lastly, facilitating the recycling separation process and recycling itself.


Whenever I design, I consider the life cycle of things in order to reduce the project's ecological footprint.

Q3: In what ways do you work in your practice to communicate about sustainability?

Núria: In my designs, I try to explain what materials they are made of so that people know how to recycle them, but I also think about designs that can be transformed into something else, that have multiple uses... in this case, I also explain it so that the user understands its purpose.

Additionally, I try to explain how designers can be agents of change and create more environmentally and socially conscious designs. I do this through classes at different design universities and talks at festivals...

Q4: What’s your advice to graphic designers starting out on how to design in a more sustainable way?

Núria: My advice is to always be aware that every decision we make when designing has an impact. So let's try to rethink our designs and consider if there is a better way to solve the design we are working on. Research and experiment to discover new materials or techniques, and always, always enjoy what we are doing.

 

Joe Sharpe



Joe is a designer, business leader, educator and author. He has been a partner and creative director in the design studio Applied Works since 2005. Joe also runs the Interaction Design strand at Kingston School of Art, an elective pathway for students in the final year of the BA Graphic Design course. This year, he started his MSc in Geographic Data Science at Birkbeck University. Joe’s professional practice is concerned with how design and technology can affect positive social and ecological change. He believes that inclusive design and diversity of thought leads to more accessible, intuitive work.



Q1: Would you class yourself as more of a digital or physical creator in the world of graphic design, or somewhere inbetween?

Joe: I’m a partner in a design studio called Applied Works, and besides the odd thing, most of our work is digital. In terms of my personal practice though, I’m probably somewhere in between.


Q2: In what ways do you work in your practice to create graphics sustainably?

Joe: It’s about choosing our projects wisely. We see who we do business with and the impacts of the work as making the biggest difference. Since we work almost entirely digitally, impacts are often hidden or separated from the project workflow (who hosts our servers, who we bank with etc), and they can be hard to track beyond handover to the client. Looking further into our digital carbon footprint and being transparent about it is something we're currently exploring, and we're looking into how much we're able to measure and seeking advice from our community.


Where we work also makes a difference. Since COVID, we’ve so far not been on any overseas business trips as everything, even workshops, can now be run remotely. Workshops are much harder to run over screen share than face to face, particularly with a new client who you might not have met before. But it is achievable, and is probably the single biggest thing we can do to reduce our physical carbon footprint.


We also moved studio during COVID, from a large self-contained space in Hoxton Square that we’d had for 16 years, to a smaller, shared space within Makerversity at Somerset House (who publish their sustainability policy on their website). Our team now works much more flexibly, meaning we’ve gone from 16 desks to just 8 with meeting rooms and kitchens that we share with other businesses. Whilst on some days we do run out of desks, there are hot desks we can use so the trade off is definitely worth it. Plus being in a shared space with so many amazing people is a massive benefit. It’s a really inspiring place to work.


Since we work almost entirely digitally, impacts are often hidden or separated from the project workflow (who hosts our servers, who we bank with etc), and they can be hard to track beyond handover to the client.

Q3: In what ways do you work in your practice to communicate about sustainability?

Joe: At Applied Works, it’s mainly through the projects. We’ve been lucky enough to work with clients like Chatham House, Climate Arc, Generation Investment Management, the Centre on Global Energy Policy and the Green Economy Coalition. Almost all the work we do centres on issues around sustainability — the climate crisis, inequality, circular economy, deforestation, land use, low carbon energy and the green economy transition. We also have a monthly newsletter called Rows and Columns, where we showcase projects in data visualisation. Whilst it’s not explicitly about sustainability, many of the posts are on that subject.


Q4: What’s your advice to graphic designers starting out on how to design in a more sustainable way?

Joe: I would say think about who you work for, and the impact of the work you do to wider society and the environment. Look for clients or design studios who align with your own perspectives on the big issues we’re facing. That said, it’s really easy for me to say that, but much harder in practice for a young designer who needs to make ends meet. So, equally, don’t beat yourself up if you need to take on work that doesn’t tick all the boxes — think about the longer term, and where you want to be further down the line. Beyond that, approach your design practice as you would as a responsible citizen, as the principles are often the same — how much you consume, how far/frequently you travel and by what means, how much you waste, who you buy things from, and so on.

 

Thanks again to Nicolas, Zoë, Mike, Núria, and Joe for sharing their views.



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