Chapter 2: Who is practicing sustainable graphic design?

This chapter will identify, analyse and evaluate a number of sustainable creative agencies to try to ascertain how they are sustainable and through researching these agencies, this chapter will attempt to answer a number of questions, such as: can sustainable creative agencies be successful? Can they be influential? Is it difficult to integrate sustainability within an established company? This chapter will also endeavour to provide evidence to contest the common misconceptions related to working sustainably, such as creativity being limited and sustainable graphic design being solely regarded as the production stages of a project.

In 2010, the current state of sustainability within the creative industry was described as being “like teenage sex; everyone says they’re doing it, very few people actually are and those that are doing it, are doing it quite badly.” (TEDxTalks. 2010) Ed Gillespie, co-founder of Futerra, a leading international sustainable communications agency, gave this analogy during a presentation entitled ‘Sustainability, the reinvention of progress’ in which he described founding the sustainability company in 2001 as being “a bit like wetting yourself whilst wearing a dark suit; no one noticed, but it gave you a warm feeling inside.” (TEDxTalks. 2010)

Another sustainable communications agency is thomas.matthews, co-founded in 1998 by Sophie Thomas and Kristine Matthews; “Back then, the focus was still on Reduce, Recycle, Reuse; before the agenda got larger and the challenge more acute. Her [Thomas’] mission is now to share their process: the designer as social change agent”. (Berman. 2009. p.132)

Over the past decade, the focus has developed on to creating social change and how it is imperative in ultimately achieving a paradigm shift, defined as “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions” (Stevenson, A. 2010); altering the relationship we have with the earth into something sustainable. According to the 2003 AIGA Design Conference ‘Power of Design’ website, “Designers will play critical roles in the success of our rebounding economy, both as agents of social change in a complex world and as leading architects of sustainable solutions for a troubled planet.” (AIGA, 2003)

Futerra focus on emphasizing sustainability as positive change, with a mission “to make sustainable development so desirable it becomes normal”. (Futerra, 2011a) Previously, in trying to engage people with the issue of sustainability, people have often been overloaded with negative information related to the destruction of the planet; a scary proposition that left many people feeling inadequate, and that any attempt to combat it would prove futile. In presenting the idea of sustainability in a positive manner, Futerra are attempting to excite and engage people about the prospect of creating a better world for all. To do this successfully, they have defined “four critical components of creative communications that inspire behaviour change beyond the usual suspects.” (lowcarbontravel, 2011) These are: stories, sizzle, salience and social proof. Firstly, stories must be desirable and capture the attention of its audience, yet express the necessity and urgency of change. In ‘selling the sizzle’, the aim is to get people excited about a positive vision of sustainability, and explain how, with their involvement, this can be achieved. Creating salience is allowing people to notice behavioural changes and to find them meaningful, so that when generating social proof you are able to establish new social norms, inspiring others to become involved.

Since being founded, Futerra has delivered hundreds of projects, across numerous continents and their work has “touched literally millions of people.” (lowcarbontravel, 2011) However, the work by Futerra is not based solely on communication design, they also work with their clients to develop a more sustainable business, shown in 2011 when they worked with energy company E.ON to develop ‘Champions 2.0’, an employee training scheme that is aimed at “fostering a deeper level of staff engagement with sustainability and judo-belt levels that acknowledge achievement and expertise.” (Beavis. n.d) As cited by Sherin (2008. p.14), Hank Stewart of Green Team Advertising stated, “Consumers are awakening to the power they wield in the marketplace, and companies are afraid that they are losing out because their competition stands for something that they don’t.” So it is important to acknowledge that many businesses are recognising the potential of sustainable development and that design agencies working sustainably are in a position to affect change not only within design, but also within business and the lifestyle of the consumer.

For example, both Futerra and thomas.matthews have worked with Unilever; see Fig.1, one of the largest multinational corporations in the world, but also a corporation that has been known for controversy when regarding ethical business. Unilever now actively works toward and promotes sustainability with their sustainable living plan, hoping that “by 2020, we will halve the environmental footprint of our products, help more than one billion people take action to improve their health and well-being, and source 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably.” (Unilever. 2011)

Fig.1. Futerra and Unilever

Whilst their work with Unilever supports the idea that design can influence business, it is essential to recognise that it is possible for sustainability to be integrated within an established creative agency, an example being Airside. Their impressive client list features the Universal Group, Virgin Atlantic and also Greenpeace, for whom they created the identity for the successful Airplot campaign (Fig.2.) against the construction of a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport.

Fig.2. Airside and Greenpeace

Hunter explained that as she became more aware of the impact the agency was having environmentally, she was able to make changes and that deciding to incorporate it within Airside was relatively easy, as cited in Clarke (2011a) “it just took one person (me) to decide to do it an the rest of the team to agree. Once we’d written a company policy, that was it –
 the company had to follow it”
though it took “a while to make people really understand the issues — many mistakes were made out of ignorance”. In order integrate this effectively, Airside identified the following areas to address: Resource use and waste management; energy use and efficiency; transport; purchasing and procurement, products and services; awareness and communication. (Airside. 2011)

It would be wrong to assume that incorporating sustainable practices within an established design agency or business would be without initial mistakes, and it is essential to appreciate that as established companies become more accustomed to working conscientiously, they would become more aware and accustomed to specific approaches to working responsibly. As technological advancements continue, there will be a continuous wealth of techniques and processes that are related to sustainability. For example, Onearth is a company specialising in sustainable research who work closely with Futerra, as they want to ensure that they are constantly producing work that is at the forefront of sustainability; “We [Onearth] regularly work with their team on projects, conducting independent, impartial research to provide the insights and evidence base they [Futerra] need to do what they do best.” (Onearth. n.d.)

In 2010, Airside went through “a long and complicated audit process” (as cited in Clarke. 2011) to be awarded an outstanding Level 1 award Green Mark certification on environmental performance; there are two Green Mark awards, with Level 1 being “an introductory level, suitable for organisations who are starting to address their environmental performance.” (Green Mark. n.d.) Along with Green Mark, there are many other schemes that can be awarded to businesses working sustainably; such as ISO14001, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), see Fig.3, or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC), see Fig.4. The advantage of choosing to use certified companies, or becoming a certified company is that it is a commercially recognised environmental commitment.

Fig.3. FSC logo and Fig.4. PEFC logo

Understanding these certification schemes are also important in combating greenwashing, which is where companies mislead the consumer by making an unsubstantiated or irrelevant environmental claim through their advertising, marketing or PR. (Futerra. n.d.a. p.3) This practice is prevalent throughout current advertising, which is dangerous as “consumers often rely on advertising and other corporate messaging to inform their purchasing choices, and greenwash is undermining confidence in that advertising.” (Futerra. n.d.a. p.3) Globally, a number of advertising regulation agencies, such as the UK Advertising Standards Agency, are looking to combat this through the development of stricter guidelines and rigorous monitoring; however according to Dougherty (2008, p.168) “the best antidote to greenwashing is transparency”. It is important for all businesses, including creative agencies, to be transparent and informative about how they are incorporating ethical and sustainable considerations within their work. Also, in allowing this information to be available to the public, it will begin to generate a new social norm, an idea similar to the points made by Futerra.

In promoting themselves as practicing sustainably, communications agencies have a responsibility to work with companies wanting to operate more ethically, sustainably conscientious; Futerra state that they have “only ever worked on green issues, corporate responsibility and sustainability.” (Futerra. n.d.b. p.15) whilst thomas.matthews do not produce any advertising, with Sophie Thomas stating in an interview; “I’m much more interested in communicating messages that are about better living, better lifestyles.” (Royal College of Art, n.d) In an idea proposed by Berman, indicates the extent of influence a designer can have, by proposing that designers should also be held accountable for the actions of their work, “Our impact as designers and as consumers of design is huge. We should be held responsible.” (Berman. 2009. p.99)

It is a common misconception that sustainable graphic design limits creativity, however “the work of both established and emerging designers from around the world demonstrates just how visually sophisticated sustainable communications can be.” (Sherin. Back cover. 2008)

For example, in 2010, thomas.matthews created a new visual identity for themselves, see Fig.5, which garnered a lot of publicity and also won a Gold award for their branding and stationary from Graphis Design Annual 2011. (Graphis, 2011) They used surplus paper and, after researching it’s recyclable potential, selected metallic paint, not opting for vegetable-based inks as “they discovered that there are some serious issues concerning soy crops causing rainforest de-forestation.” (IDN. 2010. p.24) As many designers consider sustainable design to be restrictive, it is only through example that this perception can be changed and the wider design community can be convinced to work in a more responsible manner.

Fig.5. thomas.matthews visual identity

Minx Creative is an example of a design agency is who have also integrated sustainability within their studio. Their sustainability policy is available for download via their website; highlighting their commitment to working more responsibly as this also makes them accountable should they not implement their policy. On their website they also provide a list of links to other useful resources, and a list of definitions related to sustainability.

Within their policy the state that they are “committed to promoting sustainability”, including within their own agency and also engaging “clients and suppliers to do the same.” (Minx Creative. 2012a) The influence Minx Creative have on their clients is supported with one of their clients explaining: “From software to paper stock, their expertise has played a crucial part in helping us make informed choices to deliver best results… and [Minx Creative] have made a huge impact in our business and transformed the way we communicate our ideas.” (James Hubbard, as cited by Minx Creative. 2012b)

Within their policy, Minx Creative promote the importance of ensuring that all print firms meet the previously mentioned accredited criteria, and that all sourced paper “is either 100% Post- Consumer Waste (PCW), Processed Chlorine Free (PCF) or from sustainable forestry (FSC)”. (Minx Creative. 2012a) Whilst many critics correctly state that “too many graphic designers think their role and responsibility extends no further than making what are too quickly called ‘ethical’ decisions at a project’s production stage” (Gerber, A. 2008a. p.21) it is also important to acknowledge that the sustainable production of a product is still essential.

Their policy also appears to follow a ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ initiative, both within their work and within the lifestyle of their agency and employees. It is again imperative to realise that this strategy for limiting waste is still relevant, but that to fully embrace sustainability requires a holistic view throughout the design process, including a range of often competing considerations.

Their policy is similar to the guidelines addressed by Airside, as it focuses predominantly on how sustainable principles are put into practice within their agency. In contrast to Futerra and thomas.matthews, who appear to focus on creating social change through visual communication and collaboration, Minx Creative list the practical aspects of incorporating sustainability within their agency, encouraging employees and clients to do the same.


This chapter has shown that there are a number of successful visual communications agencies managing to incorporate sustainable principles within their design practice. It has also been made apparent that both businesses and creative agencies are able to integrate sustainability policies within already established companies, with a number of certification schemes available to assist and ensure that they are successful.

All of the agencies are committed to continuing to work sustainably throughout the design process and to achieving a desirable and effective outcome. They recognise that through example they can affect change within the design community, and they also endeavour to influence their clients and suppliers to behave more responsibly.

Sustainability is a vast subject with many aspects to consider, and it is interesting to note the variety of ways to approach and include it within practice. Futerra and thomas.matthews approach sustainability with a view to influencing social change to create a paradigm shift in the future and, whilst Minx Creative and Airside look to focus on the physical, environmental changes that can be made within their work at present.

This chapter has highlighted the ability of graphic design to influence businesses, but also the influence it has on the consumer. It is of great importance to understand the issue and react accordingly, to be able to create sustainable work and work sustainably, but also so that the designer and client are able to portray an accurate depiction of sustainability within their business to the consumer.

Over the past decade, there has been a vast development in the area of sustainable thinking within agencies, allowing for the production of work combining both practical aspects and in- depth theoretical strategies, which has lead to the collaboration of design agencies and their clients in creating more sustainable business. Considering holding graphic designers liable for the influence of their work is an interesting perspective, which would result in due attention and consideration taken when producing possibly misleading work for clients.

Essentially, this chapter has proven it is important to realise that design does not work in isolation. It is influenced by other industries, just as much as it has the potential to influence those industries and it is through collaboration and engagement between different sectors, including the consumer, that sustainable development can be successful.

Next: What information is available to help implement sustainable design practices?