Design for the planet

This year, we had lush weather pretty early in the year. Busting out the shorts and chowing down on an ice cream before Easter was pretty amazing, but it’s actually not that good of a sign for the planet. The crew at ORCA have been thinking about this. We all love the outdoors; cycling, skiing, walking the office dogs… but with these changing weather patterns those things we love could be at risk. As graphic designers it’s easy to take the side line and think we’re just around to make things look pretty, but there’s actually quite a bit of responsibility in the field, and consequently a lot of moral and ethical decisions a design agency should really be weighing up.

We’re all guilty of passing off environmental considerations as someone else’s problem, namely the people actually manufacturing the products we design and the governments setting the standards. With companies like Coca Cola chucking out an insane 3 million tonnes of plastic bottles in a year, it can be easy to think anything we do is pretty insignificant. But the often overlooked fact is the digital footprint is pretty darn big, and as designers we are the ones who can directly affect it.

“The internet is currently producing more than 830 million tons of CO2 every year, exceeding the amount emitted by air travel.”

That’s huge facilities dedicated to data storage, masses of infrastructure built around eCommerce and home delivery, and entire industries built around digital content. Turns out that nice fluffy Cloud is actually an ever growing complex of data storage facilities, which isn’t anywhere near as clean and friendly as Apple’s iCloud brand would have you believe.

“With great responsibility, comes great power.” – Uncle Ben, Spiderman

As designers, we are at the frontline of this digital wave and the choices we make can trickle down into the larger picture, actually making a pretty big difference.

Resources are not limitless as we once thought and acted like they were, and so our habits and ways of creating our work should change too. Entire industries have made huge shifts with the growing awareness of environmental impact, and the design industry should be no exception. With that in mind, here’s a few points we should all try and take on board…

  1. For those of us lucky enough to be able to pick which clients and projects we take onboard, that’s the most powerful card we have. By only choosing to help propel brands which have strong environmental morals and only work on projects that are bringing good into the world, we can cut out a lot of negative impact from the word go. We’ve all got bills to pay and it’s hard to turn down an offer from Coca Cola say, but if we strive towards companies working in the organic, fair trade, and not-for-profit sectors then that can be a pretty great thing.
  2. The clothing giant Patagonia are famously known for their unique business goal of ‘making the world a better place’, as opposed to ‘get stinking rich’. Their ethos is based around creating products with the lowest environmental impact as possible, which last as long as possible. Taking this into a design context, we can consider design longevity and versatility. Will this logo stand the test of time? Or are we following a fad that is going to be unfashionable and likely to be replaced in a couple of years, along with all those business cards, vehicle wraps, branded garments, and company lanyards? Image source: Patagonia
  3. On a more fundamental level, the way we act in the studio has its place too. From recycling our ink cartridges, making use of that scrap paper tray, to our commute to work, it all makes a difference. A lot of design work is digital nowadays, but when it comes to busting out the paint pens and getting some physical creations down, there’s the obvious environmental cost that comes from scribbling on sheet after sheet. It’s simple stuff really, but when everyone puts it into practice and clients take note when coming into the studio, some real magic can happen.
  4. Passion projects are always a great idea, but in terms of spreading the environmental love they can be very powerful. If we use our down time creating things for fun, if we can tailor them towards building a better future then we can begin to offset the impact that goes hand-in-hand with running a design studio. Whether it be sharing a green message or an actual product designed to reduce waste, passion projects can be very effective. Take the font ‘Ryman Eco’, designed to use 33% less ink when printed. It capitalises on the bleed run-off common with inkjet printers, with an almost indistinguishable end result. A third less ink used isn’t going to save the world but it can sure help.
  1. Everything a scientist or environmental activist brings to the table can in some way be built upon and made more visible by graphic design. From a marketing campaign exposing the true impact of our carbon emissions to an app developed to predict sea-level rise, effectiveness in this age of attention-grabbing cat videos and meme culture relies hugely on aesthetics and functionality. In 1968 the image of the Earth taken from Apollo 8, was said to have started the environmental movement – what will be the next big thing that really shakes it up? Image source: Nasa Climate Kids

We can also act locally, meet clients face to face and work with suppliers in the same area.

At ORCA we are lucky enough to be based in Bristol, a city bustling with cool start-ups and trendy restaurants just begging to be branded and built upon. We will also put an emphasis on local business and supporting local suppliers. We selected a printing partner, With Print, that takes environmental responsibilities seriously; with a lot of it’s paper stocks being 100% recycled, using ethical packaging, and making creative uses out of it’s off-cuts.


Patagonia – clothing company but it’s core values can be applied to design studios

If 80% of a products environmental impact is determined at design, then graphic design must account for a fair chunk of that. Obviously when comparing what we do to what the guys engineering and producing products do, there’s a substantial difference in responsibility, but take this for an example.

At the surface level graphic design is not structural and doesn’t have a huge impact on product cost and environmental cost.

Designers, stop designing for yesterday’s planet by It’s Nice That


Written by

Danny Boxer