Chapter 4: How might we create a sustainable graphic design industry?

This chapter will investigate the future for sustainable graphic design, primarily, how can it be implemented as a core principle, to be considered as important as typography, form, function etc., How do we create an industry that actively considers its impact on the world? Primary focus will be on the current state of sustainability within the design education field, is it currently being included? Should it be presented as a separate project, or be integrated within the entire syllabus as a consideration expected within every assignment?

This essay has previously discussed the implementation of sustainable practices within already established design agencies, and identified there are a number of organisations available to assist in integrating sustainability for professionals or creative agencies, with Nat Hunter, who implemented sustainability within Airside, cited in Clarke (2011), advising agencies wanting to incorporate sustainability to “Just take the plunge, write down your intentions and do your best to follow them.”

Through the ‘DesignCanChange’ website, there is the opportunity to take a pledge and agree that within your professional practice you will learn, think, act, inform and unite with others on sustainable issues. Though those who take the pledge are not monitored, they generally sign up with a desire
 to work more sustainably and according to Berman (2009 p.43) designers from seventy-seven different countries signed in to the site within its first year. In agreeing to the pledge, your details as a graphic designer are stored in a database that is available for all to see, allowing clients wanting sustainable graphic designers or agencies in their local area to visit your website or email you.

Many of those that take the pledge will feel it important to uphold their promise, especially with the knowledge that they are being promoted on a database as a practicing graphic designer. Similarly to the ‘DesignCanChange’ pledge, there is an AIGA designer directory listing all members, however the “professional and associate members who have agreed to abide by the professional standards of the organization are denoted with an AIGA logo.” (AIGA. 2012b)

AIGA, formerly the American Institute of Graphic Arts, is a non-profit organisation that “sets the national agenda for the role of design in economic, social, political, cultural and creative contexts.” (AIGA. 2012c) In becoming a member, designers agree to adhere to the AIGA Standards of Professional Practice. The standards set out principles related to the designers responsibility to clients, other designers, to the public and to society and the environment. Whilst the standards were adopted by AIGA in 1994, two amendments were made in Nov 2010 with regard to the section on society and the environment, including item 7.3, which states, “A professional designer shall consider environmental, economic, social and cultural implications of his or her work and minimise the adverse impacts.” (AIGA. 2012b) This is requiring that designers consider more than the practical, material aspects of their work, and ensure they consider the impact they have on the variety of sectors that help to create sustainable design.

Under the principle of responsibility to the client, item 1.4 clarifies the importance of the ethics of the designer, stating “ A professional designer who accepts instructions from a client or employer that involve violation of the designer’s ethical standards should be corrected by the designer, or the designer should refuse the assignment.” (AIGA, 2012b) Designers pledging to work more ethically or sustainably is not a new development, there have been many manifestos created with the intention of encouraging people to be more responsible within their professional practice, e.g the previously mentioned First Things First manifesto by Ken Garland in 1964. According to Lupton and Lupton (2008) “A manifesto is, in the end, a tool. It helps the writer articulate a point of view, shaping and compressing theories and beliefs into an essential and directed form, and it helps readers discover their own position.”

The November 2011 issue of Grafik magazine featured a series of articles on the importance of design criticism within the design industry. One article focused on the introduction, in 2007, of three post-graduate design criticism study programmes, “dedicated to improving the way in which design was thought about, written about and ultimately understood.” (Slatter. 2011. p.63) Andrew Slatter, who graduated from London College of Communication in 2010 with an MA in Design Writing Criticism, infers that, “If design criticism’s aim is to explore design and its impact on an ever-changing world, as critics and writers have repeatedly suggested, then new changes for focused study of its execution would surely make the discipline’s future look more hopeful.” (Slatter. 2011. p.63)

As stated by authors Anne Chick and Paul Micklethwaite, in their book Design for Sustainable Change, “design thinking is increasingly being used to address our biggest societal challenges; as such design can be a powerful driver of action for sustainable change.” (2011, p.7) indicating the importance of in-depth thought for innovation and progression within the creative industries.

Whilst there are an emerging number of post-graduate programmes related to sustainable development (Anne Chick, author and co-founder of Greengaged, is head of the MA Design for Development at Kingtson University), there is little consideration given to the implementation of sustainable practices at undergraduate level. In his 1000 word manifesto, Allan Chochinov (n.d.) proposes that sustainability must be taught early on, criticizing those who don’t as teaching “students how to churn out pretty pieces of garbage”.

In addition, when asked if there is enough being done to teach sustainability within graphic design education, Nat Hunter gave the response: ”No. It’s not taught much, or it is, not in an integrated way. Students need to be taught how to think about the issues holistically — looking at lifecycles of products, manufacturing techniques, recycling and re-use issues and also circles of influence.” (as cited in Clarke. 2011a)

John Hudson is an undergraduate lecturer in Graphic Design, Advertising and Brand Management at Staffordshire University. He recently studied for an MA in Sustainable Graphic Communication and, as part of his post-graduate degree worked towards creating ‘Responsible Designer’, see Fig.7., an educational tool to introduce students to the basic issues of sustainability and to aid them in implementing ethical considerations within the core principles of their work.

Fig.7. Responsible Designer guide

Hudson recognised the enormous, complexity of the subject and catered this guide to suit students who are new to sustainability, by giving them four key components to consider: environment, ethics, future and communication, with the students then addressing relevant issues. As cited in Clarke (2012b), Hudson states: “Understanding theory is one thing but I believe what’s needed are more practical ‘tools’ and processes which allow designers/students to implement a more sustainable/responsible approach to decision making.”

To accompany the studio based mapping system, Hudson has also created an app (see Fig.8.) for the students to download, “to support, inform and inspire their creative choices and processes.” (Delacruz, 2011) This educational tool incorporates both traditional teaching methods and the importance of technology to create a system aimed at creating a more sustainable generation of designers. Interesting, this has a similar approach to the ideals of Marshall McLuhan who, according to Eskilson (2007. p.389), was an “innovative theorist who has predicted, long before the digital age had begun, that evolving technology was going to have a tremendous impact of modern society.”

Fig.8. Responible Designer app

As cited in Clarke (2012b), Hudson points out the negative perception that many relate to the word ‘sustainability’, an issue attempting to be addressed by Futerra; “forget taking the high moral ground and trying to emotionally blackmail people… think like a communicator to solve this one.” He believes that the main challenge is altering this perception and the best way to combat this is by presenting sustainability as something that is visually exciting (similar to belief of A420) and engages designers in the use of new, relevant techonology.

This educational tool has been implemented within the undergraduate degree curriculum at Lancaster University, UK, where the reaction to Responsible Designer has been incredibly positive. Out of 120 students, within their first two years of the degree course, “95% thought the issues covered would be beneficial to future projects”, “95% thought the content was relevant to their degree” and “88% stated that they would use the app’s for learning” (as cited in Clarke. 2012b) These results support the idea if the topic of sustainability is presented in an aesthetically stimulating and engaging way, as with the A420 mapping guide, and incorporates the use of relevant technological advancements, we can make sure the next generation of graphic designers have the knowledge to work more sustainably and encourage them to do so.

This system mapping differs from the A420 guide as it is specifically catered for the development of students and its purpose is to introduce them to including sustainable and ethical issues within their design process, and not just in the production. The Responsible Designer is encouraging them to integrate a more holistic viewpoint of design. It is easier to understand than the A420 guide and more relevant to students, as it addresses key points to consider, such as their future and CVs and portfolios, whilst the A420 guide would appear to be more beneficial to professionals and agencies or businesses wanting to incorporate a more sustainable approach to their work as it includes both the global, business and design contexts. Incorporating a sustainable design thinking theory within education would allow students to become accustomed to the issues required for consideration, making the implementation on the concerns raised in the A420 mapping guide easier when working professionally. In engaging the industry with the idea of work more responsibly, it is essential that they are given incentive to do so, such as the positive impact of winning an award.

Another indication of the positive potential the Responsible Designer educational tool occurred in November 2011, when it was a runner up in the Green Gown Awards. The Awards are recognition of exceptional initiatives to become more sustainable that are being taken by further and higher educational institutions across the UK.

Another course implementing a sustainable aspect within their undergraduate course is Cardiff School of Art and Design, where professor Neil Angove has developed a project entitled ‘Sustainable:ME?’, which he explains, expresses the same aspiration as the A420 theoretical mapping guide. The unit requires the students to develop an awareness of “the mutual relationships between individual persons, and their societal, their natural and their economic environments.” (as cited in Clarke. 2012c)

The students work in groups to respond to the question: “Tell us a story, how sustainable is the world of graphic design?” They are given a subject area, e.g. paper, ink, peripherals (mouse, toner- cartridge) and must explore the sustainable and unsustainable attitudes, behaviour and practice to deliver their response for a given target group,on behalf of a client. (as cited in Clarke. 2012c)

The inclusion of research into the unsustainable is an interesting approach, which must only emphasise the negative impacts of the design industry, in turn emphasising the importance of sustainable practice within design. According to Angove, over the course of the project the students became incredibly aware of the effect their actions were having on other people; their enthusiasm was recognised and began to influence and educate those they had contacted within the design industry in Cardiff; with Angove, as cited by Clarke (2012c) describing his students as becoming “young ambassadors for sustainable graphic-design.” Through introducing the students to sustainability in a project format, it requires them to be more interactive with the design community, which can aid them in networking for their career, whilst can also influence other designers.


This chapter focused on the future for sustainable graphic design, which will play an essential role in the integration of sustainability as a core graphic design principle.

Those who are currently working professionally should use the resources that are available, research websites, implement theoretical frameworks and work with organisations, to attempt to integrate responsible principles within their practice. There should also be more incentive through award schemes.

Those who are educating should make it a priority to incorporate sustainability as a policy within their institution, their department, and within their syllabus — most definitely undergraduate and postgraduate, but the possibility of teaching secondary school children, further education and foundation students the basic, practical aspects of ethical, sustainable principles should also be considered.

It will be interesting to follow the development of Responsible Designer and note whether other institutions begin to implement the sustainability guide within their curriculum. It would be a very positive step toward sustainability should this be made a requirement within design education nationwide. However, integration of a framework should work in conjunction with a focused project, to maximise the research and understanding for the student.

As Chochinov inferred, design schools have been focusing on aesthetics, with not enough concentration on the importance of design criticism, ethics or sustainable issues, which are incredibly important when we consider the impact and influence design has on the client and the consumer. The communications industry has a lot of power to influence and the education designers receive should reflect that responsibility.

As Ed Gillespie comments “paradigm shifts take decades, generations to fully embed, we are but a mere fifty years into this ecological one with another twenty/thirty years to go before it becomes genuinely transformative.” (lowcarbontravel. 2011) If this is considered true, then it would be sensible to assume that the focus should be on incorporating sustainability as a design principle within the educated of graphic design in order to create a sustainable future.

Next: Conclusion