Sustainable graphic design — utopian ideal or reality?

In 1987, a report by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (UNWCED) entitled ‘Our Common Future’ defined sustainability as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (UNWCED. 1987. 3:27) When referring to a utopian idea, this essay suggests a state in which everything is perfect, an ideal world — is the idea of sustainable graphic design fantastical, or is it a reality?

In an article featured in Creative Review, sustainability within design was defined as “using environmental considerations and the reality of depleted planetary resources as exciting limitations to respond to and circumnavigate”, with the author, Anna Gerber, also recognising that graphic design was “still playing catch up in terms of situating, defining and understanding exactly how graphic design exists within an environmentally sustainable context.” (Gerber. 2008a. p.22) Taking these definitions into consideration, is it important to realise that sustainability “is not about saving the planet; the planet will go on quite happily without us — it is really about saving ourselves.” (TEDxTalks. 2010)

This essay intends to explore the notion of sustainable design, with specific attention to the graphic design industry in an attempt to ascertain if sustainability has been integrated within current design practices, or if it could still be considered a utopian ideal. It will attempt to portray the agencies that are implementing sustainability policies, whether there is enough information and guidance for those wishing to do so and also highlight the potential progression for the future incorporation of sustainability in the creative industry, with particular reference to the teaching of sustainability as a core principle within design education.

Primary research will include contacting prolific sustainable graphic designers, teachers and organisations, to gather advice, information and opinion on the methods for implementing responsible, ethical graphic design in industry and education practice. Investigation into what relevant resources are available for the graphic design industry will require evaluation of a number of secondary sources, including books, websites and journals.

This essay will focus on communication agencies known to be practicing sustainable graphic design, ascertaining their methods of working in order to be able to understand the variety of sustainability approaches within the creative industry. In analysing a variety of theoretical guidelines, researching into availability of information on the application of sustainable practices and investigating the teaching of sustainability, this essay will aim to determine the current state of sustainable graphic design, and suggest options for future development.

Next: Looking backwards to go forwards.

Poster image for my Dissertation