Design the future: An interview with the designers at Cast Iron Design

We got in touch with the guys over at Cast Iron Design to talk to them about designing a better world, their project with Patagonia, and their thoughts on the future of sustainable design.

Brandpad
Brandpad
Feb 26 · 8 min read
Jonny and Richard from Cast Iron Design

Why did you start Cast Iron Design?

The original concept for CID was for it to be a loose collective of freelancers. The idea was born while Jonny was in his masters program as a proof-of-concept for practicing sustainable design. The mission was to prove that you can have a successful, profitable, and sustainable studio while still producing great work that wasn’t the leaf-motif, crunchy-granola, everything-brown-and-green status quo of sustainable design.

The Chapel of Cast Iron Design.

Our hope was that we’d influence others to do the same. In collaborating, the two of us discovered that we worked so well together that we ended up forming a partnership and eschewing the “collective” part.

What does sustainable design mean to you?

We see three core areas: First, it starts with limiting you or your organization’s carbon footprint: low- or zero-emission commuting, energy efficient building and HVAC, recycling/composting, and so on. Second, overseeing more sustainable print production for the design work you produce: designing to maximize efficiency, designing with distance in mind (e.g. using local a printer instead of printing overseas), using recycled materials (e.g. 100% post consumer recycled paper) and virgin materials from responsibly-managed sources, and print processes with a small environmental footprint (e.g. digital printing or offset printing with vegetable-based inks.). Third, because it’s still a new concept to many, influencing and helping other designers practice sustainability themselves: promote, teach, encourage, and so on.

Office space at Cast Iron Design.

What kind of clients are asking for your help?

Since our sustainability messaging is intentionally front-and-center on our site, we primarily get inquiries that align with our values. As far as industries go, we’ve intentionally avoided specialization; as a result, we get opportunities to work with a huge variety of clients and sectors. For example, at the moment we just finished working with a major label band on an album design and we’re just beginning a new project with an established corporate CPG client that produces organic food.

Algae offset ink for Patagonia Boulder Guidebook.

In general, what our clients have in common is that they want to create a rich and personal brand system, really showing who they are rather than pretending to be something they aren’t. They tend to have goals for creating a positive impact in their community and industry (they aren’t always eco nerds like us, but they relate to the fact that we care about something other than profits). And they tend to want to have a little bit of fun with their brand.

What kind of designers want to work with you?

We’ve found that a lot of designers, especially younger ones, are drawn to working at studios that have a strong ethical stance, so we’ve had a lot of interest due to our eco efforts. We also see a lot of designers that want to work in a place that is small, collaborative, and detail-oriented (rather than feeling like they are in a design factory). And every designer wants to work on fun projects, which we’re fortunate to have.

You recently did (a project with Patagonia), can you tell us more about how you approach a project like that? From beginning to end?

Patagonia emailed us asking if we would design a printed guide to our city (Boulder, Colorado). Our studio was founded in 2010 with the goal of creating sustainable design; Patagonia is known globally as a sustainability pioneer. With these shared values, we began a conversation with them to gauge their interest in using new materials and processes — they were immediately on board with our initial ideas.

We reached out to Living Ink, a Colorado-based company developing algae ink. Algae-based ink is significant because it replaces the petroleum-based pigments used in conventional offset ink and has a much smaller carbon footprint. They told us that their oil-based ink for offset printing was (and still is) in development and that they were looking for the right project for a commercial test run. The size and timing of our project was exactly what they were looking for and we were able to leverage our relationship with a local print shop who was willing to take on the associated risks. Because the ink has never been used before, the print shop wanted to do a test run to see if the ink would actually perform as expected. It did, and effortlessly so, with almost no noticeable change when compared to conventional offset ink.

When it came to the design process, we started by rethinking the form of the guide. The typical format for a city guide is a two-sided sheet of folded paper. This results in a cumbersome experience for the user, forcing them to flip back and forth to connect locations on the map side with descriptions on the other side. Our solution utilizes several single-page maps, each with varying zoom levels, to cater to the various points of interest that range from “across the street” to “an hour drive.” The bulk of recommendations included in the booklet were created by the Patagonia Boulder staff. We put our own spin on the content by creating “supplemental information” woven throughout the book, adding some helpful details, personality, humor, and a bit of tomfoolery.

Are you a bad designer if you make something that can’t be recycled?

No — but you could say that one could be labeled a bad designer if they consistently fail to consider the environmental impact and sustainability of the things they design. Design has impact, good and bad. A great design must consider more than just itself — if it is detrimental to the earth, the community, or to the industry, it’s not a great solution.

Cats Iron Design.

However, not every project can be done in an ideal manner, and the designer is always working with a variety of constraints and factors outside of their control. Just like every aspect of design, one concession doesn’t make you a bad designer, as long as you make an effort to pursue the better approach whenever possible.

Is it possible to design our way out of waste?

Design and marketing are influential by nature, and it is our belief that those in positions of power and influence should take initiative to lead the charge. Designers have the power to help propel society towards a circular economy. This can be achieved by designing packaging that uses renewable, biodegradable materials (e.g. paper instead of plastic) and materials that are easily recyclable (e.g. aluminum cans).

While design has certainly played an important role in our current waste crisis — and designers should do their part to rectify that — the problem with the current state of affairs is systemic in nature and design alone cannot solve it. We must demand action from our political leaders to institute better systems, policies, and regulations.

Obstacles (and surprises) when presenting a new and sustainable way of designing for a client?

The extra time needed for researching, ordering materials, and testing is a consistent obstacle. It’s rarely a cost issue because companies producing sustainable products know they need to at least come close to competing with conventional products. (Additionally, as efficiency is a core principle of sustainable design, we’re often able to reduce costs in other areas). Materials that are completely new to the market, like compostable packaging, are often a struggle.

Flat Irons in Boulder, Colorado.

We’ve had a situation where the only compostable option available on the market didn’t meet child-proofing requirements for the product we were designing for. On another project, the client was unable to cost justify an option that was triple the cost, took six times as long to produce, and had high risks associated with it due to the nature of compostable substrates. The client does plan to make the investment into compostable packaging in the future, once larger brands have helped pave the way.

What is important to keep in mind when (trying) to design a better future?

Invest in your knowledge of sustainable design. Inform and educate others. Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress. Embrace the inevitable limitations that sustainable design may cause and instead view the constraints as opportunities to be creative and differentiate. Call your mom more often.

Also — If you have any books, articles, videos etc. about sustainable design to recommend to our readers?

Green Graphic Design by Brian Dougherty was our gateway drug into sustainable design. Design to Renourish by Eric Benson and Yvette Perullo is a modern primer on systems thinking, an important framework for sustainable design. is a growing directory of environmentally conscious resources. Our has some additional resources and advice.

Designing the future️ is an interview series by , initiated to explore the people and studios working towards designing a more sustainable and better future. For questions, please .

Brandpad

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Brandpad

The team behind Brandpad. We write about visual identities and design processes while running a brand guidelines system for designers.

Brandpad

Brandpad

Brandpad is where brands live and prosper. We write about things we think and lessons we learn while building a dedicated format for brands.

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