Chapter 3:

What information is available to help implement sustainable design practices?

Following on from the previous chapter, in which it was ascertained that it is possible to incorporate sustainability within an established design agency, this chapter will investigate what information is available to the professional and agencies considering practicing more responsible, sustainable graphic design. Sustainability is a diverse concept, with many aspects to address, such as political, social, financial etc. as well as environmental, which many people struggle to understand, especially when the aspects compete; are there any useful books, websites, organisations or, in particular, theoretical guidelines to help explain sustainability to allow it be integrated within the graphic design industry?

“Companies at the forefront of sustainability today have a history of commitment to their message.” (Jedlicka. 2010. p.30) This statement has been incredibly apparent whilst investigating those who are practicing sustainable graphic design. Not only was it often possible to access where their information and guidance had come from but also, in many cases, those involved recognised a lack of information available on sustainability within graphic design, leading many of them to want to personally engage and enlighten those less involved or informed about sustainability.

For example, in 2008, Sophie Thomas and Nat Hunter formed the organisation Three Trees Don’t Make a Forest with Caroline Clark, as they realised there was a “market for a resource for designers.” (Hunter, cited by Design Council, 2010a) They created the consultancy with the aim of using their collective responsible design experience and knowledge, (Clark created Lovely As A Tree, a useful website containing relevant informative on responsible print production, including a directory for certified printers and sustainably sourced paper) to educate those within the design industry on how to “re-think their working cultures and start to produce sustainable design that really works.” (Three Trees Don’t Make a Forest, n.d.) By leading interactive courses with design agencies, the result is much more effective in informing delivering the message on the impact of the design industry, whilst also assisting in identifying potential changes within studios and supporting them in creating change.

Sophie Thomas also co-founded Greengaged — this time with sustainable design academic, Anne Chick, and Sarah Johnson from [re]design, a social enterprise that discovers and actively promotes sustainable creative design with a view to pioneer positive sustainable innovation. ([re] design. 2010) By “offering thought leadership, creating spaces for dialogue, and opportunities for knowledge sharing “ (Greengaged, 2011) through partnership with international, like- minded organisations, from a variety of industries, Greengaged aim to facilitate the design industry to positively engage with environmental changes. For example, in 2009, they worked
 in collaboration with the Design Council; one past event included attending ICOGRADA World Design Congress, where one of their initiatives was “to initiate a dialogue on sustainable design between international sustainable design experts and Chinese design community.” (Greengaged, 2011)

The sustainability policy adhered to by Minx Creative (2012a), states that their policy was created through, “following the principles and guidance provided by ‘Design Can Change’”; a website offering practical sustainability advice for graphic designers. The website was created in 2007 by interactive design company SmashLab, as “a response to the fact that sustainability resources for graphic designers are limited, especially in comparison to resources available for related fields such as product design and architecture” (DesignCanChange, n.d.a.) and they give five headings (learn, think, act, inform, unite) with a number of simple actions that will assist graphic designers in becoming more sustainable, such as “Work with local suppliers, minimise transport, recycle and use recycled materials”. (DesignCanChange, n.d.b.) Through simplifying the information into a number of easily achieved points, predominantly practical, designers are more likely to be encouraged to work more sustainably; once they have integrated the basic actions suggested within their studio work and are more knowledgeable on the issue, then they can attempt to assume further sustainable actions.

Published in 2002, the book Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, is well renowned for being hugely influential within the design community. Within the book they set out a protocol for material production, which presented a “theoretical basis for managing material cycles so that natural materials… and synthetic materials… are kept apart to allow for effective material reprocessing and reuse.” (Chick and Micklethwaite, 2011, p.110)

Life cycle within design, considers the environmental impacts of the entire process; from the extraction of raw materials, the manufacturing of the product, the product use and the disposal or recycling of the product at the end of it’s life, whilst also taking into consideration any environmental impact of transportation during the process.

In a similar way to Buckminster-Fuller and his geodesic dome, see Fig.6., their protocol was designed taking inspiration from nature, and aiming to mimic it; also known as a biomimicry. It aims to copy the balance that is maintained by natural eco-systems, in a manufacturing process that does not create pollution. There are three key principles defined within this protocol, these are: “1. Waste equals food. 2. Use current solar income. 3. Celebrate diversity.” (McDonough. 2003)

Fig.6. Buckminster-Fuller geodesic dome

This framework has been implemented within a number of manufacturers, such as Nike, who have assessed the chemical composition of their product materials in order to create elements that closely relate to natural life cycles, allowing them to affect the life cycle of a product so that it can either “be metabolized by nature’s biological systems at the end of a product’s useful life or be perpetually and reutilized for new products.” (McDonough and Braungart. 2002) Nike is aiming to fully, successfully integrate the Cradle-to-Cradle manufacturing and life cycle protocol within their business by the year 2020.

Whilst the Cradle-to-Cradle protocol are a good example of using biomimicry for sustainable production, it focuses predominantly on the material aspects of design and production, with particular reference to the environmental impact and doesn’t acknowledge the social aspect within sustainable development.

A concept known as the Triple Bottom Line, and often referred to as ‘People, Planet, Profit’, was developed “as a way of enabling the sustainable development concept to be introduced into the financial accounting and reporting procedures of businesses.” (Chick and Micklethwaite. 2011. p.92) It incorporated human, natural and economic capital to create a balance and achieve sustainability. Human capital refers to reasonable, beneficial business practice, with regard to employees, the local community and operating region. Natural capital relates to environmental practices, reduction of their ecological footprint, incorporation of life cycles within products and ensuring there is little manufactured and non-toxic waste. Finally, economic capital requires that “the economic benefit enjoyed by all stakeholders, not jus the company’s stockholders.” (Jedlicka. 2010. p.29); that it is a healthy business, producing ethical profits and contributing to the local community and society. A criticism of this model is the assessment of the three sectors in monetary terms, as it is difficult to determine specific costs related to society or the environment.

In relation to graphic design processes, a theoretical guideline was created by A420, an exploratory unit founded in 2002 by Lynne Elvins and Rupert Bassett, with a purpose to assist designers in navigating the complex subject of sustainability. This was achieved through highlighting certain contexts (global, business and design) and then the main agendas within the design context: financial, social, environmental and personal. They realised that to engage designers with the issue of sustainability, they had to portray it in a “systematic and visually dynamic way.” (Bassett, cited by Roberts. 2006. p.162) and so they developed a methodology that was then visualised in the form of an interactive mapping system. By addressing the variety of issues on the mapping system, designers attempt to create a balance between the four agenda, as Basset explains: “being more sustainable is about aiming for balance across the four agendas.” (as cited by Roberts. 2006. p.162)

Through explanation of the context, designers are able to appreciate the role of design and understand that whilst design may be a small issue within the context of a business, it does have the potential to be influential in promoting sustainability within that business, and businesses play a large role in a global market; essentially “design does not exist in isolation.” (Bassett, as cited by Roberts. 2006. p.162)

A theoretical mapping guide is successful in encouraging designers to engage with and develop an understanding of sustainability in specific relation to their business, instead of simply integrating a selection of generic sustainable actions within their business. Whilst both will aid a designer in working more sustainably, it would be better to use both in conjunction with one another, i.e. understand the practical steps needed to become more sustainable, but then use the theoretical guide to develop a mapping system that is business specific in addressing relevant sustainability issues.

Elvins’ makes the comment “Basically, we didn’t want to write another 50-page report that no one would read” (as cited by Roberts. 2006. p.162) is an indication of the vast array of publications on sustainability, but also indicates that the interactive nature of the mapping system is more engaging and effective at educating designers on the issue of sustainability, whilst also helping them to integrate a personalised responsible system within their agency. There have been a number of new publications, in the past few years, addressing the issue of sustainability within graphic design, an example being Sustainable Graphic Design by Wendy Jedlicka, however, as is to be expected with a complicated subject area, they tend to be content heavy, with Jedlicka’s book, though informative, spanning 506 pages.

Another framework for sustainability ‘The Living Principles for Design’ was originally conceived in 2009 by AIGA (now known as the professional association for design) and, “brings clarity to integrated sustainability and makes it accessible, relevant and ready to put into action.” (AIGA. 2012a) Similarly to A420, it considers four main issues: environmental protection, social equity, economic health and cultural vitality, which form the headings for a series of questions, which the designer must answer to understand the sustainable nature of their project. This is known as the ‘roadmap’.

Environmentally, the framework asks designers to consider the life cycle of a product; materials, energy use and durability, disassembly, supply chain locality and the product disposal. Socially, how does your product impact on individuals, is it affiliated to objectionable organisations, is it desirable or useful to the consumer and how does it enhance their life? Economically, what is the economic value of the product and how can the inherent value be measured? What are the economic benefits of the product, can you be transparent in presenting the actual value of the product, can it be built from waste, and is there a product service model? And, culturally, can this product encourage more sustainably lifestyle choices, what meaning or emotion reaction will your product have, what attitudes and values does it promote and how can it promote cultural diversity?

The principles have been a success, partnered and endorsed by a number of design organisations, including ICOGRADA (International Council of Graphic Design Associations) who promote it as a model framework for sustainability. Through using the framework and answering the above questions aid designers in becoming more sustainable, the inclusion of visual mapping guide, like that by A420, would benefit the Living Principles for Design ‘roadmap’ in allowing designers to interact with the framework, so that they can visually depict the balance across the four areas.


This chapter has demonstrated a small amount of the vast array of information available on sustainability within design, with the intention of presenting a number of sources available to graphic design professionals and agencies to aid in implementing sustainable practices within their work.

There are a large number of publications related to sustainability and design, however the majority is not entirely relevant for graphic designers and the content is often overwhelming, which can have a negative affect in disinteresting the reader when they cannot understand the relevance or the message. Whilst useful for in-depth information on the subject, it can be difficult to choose aspects to implement within practice.

Due to its ability to be updated, finding websites and blogs to learn about sustainability is useful, however it is also not as reliable as a published book. Websites, such as Lovely as a Tree and DesignCanChange, offer positive and practical information regarding both production methods related to graphic design, and also straightforward actions to begin integrating sustainability within practice. As there is limited information available related to graphic design, those keen on informing others about the topic will generally promote other useful sources.

Organisations, like Three Trees and Greengaged, are dedicated to engaging people, businesses, designers and agencies with the issue of sustainability, assisting them in learning and implementing it in practice. Engagement is essential in building a network and increasing knowledge on responsible design, whilst it also supports understanding through a supportive learning environment.

Theoretical frameworks are imperative in not only incorporating sustainable practices within design agencies and projects, but also in understanding the factors that must be addressed and the balance that needs to be created. Whilst both the Living Principles framework and the A420 mapping system are successful in aiding integration within design, to engage visual communicators it would potentially be more effective to involve some sort of visual interaction and engagement.

Next: How to create a sustainable graphic design industry?