Graphic Design and the Anthropocene
“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” —John F. Kennedy
We graphic designers will have some explaining to do. While others are in denial about the state of the world, we unwittingly find ourselves as some of the chief architects of that denial—
Don’t do it! I can see the wheels turning in reaction to what I just wrote. Don’t belittle the power of graphic design. Don’t rationalize your design contributions as a drop in the bucket or merely the result of your day job. Don’t deflect blame to other industries.
Moreover, don’t wonder aloud if I’ve ever read the First Things First manifestos, or any other more recent writing on the role of visual communication in normalizing unsustainable behaviors and ways of thinking. Don’t roll your eyes. And don’t groan.
If you’ve already resigned yourself to any of the above—or latched onto one or more of them with instinctual zeal—it serves only to reinforce my observation: You’re in denial. You’ve swallowed the myth of the benign ubiquity of limitless consumption hook, line and sinker. You’re in the bubble, as writer John Thackara has said, and your designs paper the walls of that massive translucent blister, blocking whatever it is that exists beyond it.
Simply put: We need to come to terms with the power and impact of our profession. We need to help mindfully bring a sustainable world into existence.
Geological experts believe planet Earth has entered into the Anthropocene—a new epoch defined my humankind’s planetary footprint—with the residuals of our radioactive isotopes, cement, aluminum, and plastic particles, and the excess phosphate and nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers being the unambiguous markers of the end of the previous epoch, not to mention the ongoing mass extinction of species and the expected long-term impacts of climate change. The start of the Anthropocene marks a dramatic shift in the relatively stable geological epoch of the Holocene, which lasted over 11,000 years and played host to humankind’s transition from nomad to farmer to urbanite. It’s been a relative easy ride on this planet for our species since, and we’ve taken great advantage of those conditions. But with the increased drought, famine, disease, blight, social conflict and refugee count, and the projected environmental and human costs of the coming century, that easy ride is charging toward a breakdown.
TODAY’S REALITY IS NOT TOMORROW’S
So, what do I mean when I say we’ll have some explaining to do? The late founder and CEO of Interface, Ray Anderson, was in the habit of calling himself a soon-to-be criminal in front of audiences around the globe. As the leader of the largest carpet company in the world, he declared that someday soon people like him would be imprisoned for the ecological havoc they’ve wrought on a daily basis simply by doing business as we know it. Accordingly, Anderson made a “mid-course correction” in his career, and guided Interface toward a much more sustainable operation.
Societal norms have enabled such behaviors, and reflecting and amplifying societal norms is a graphic designer’s stock in trade. I don’t mean to paint with an overly broad stroke, and I have a good sense of how many graphic designers are working to support cultural institutions, NGOs, nonprofits and social enterprises that are creating alternatives to overconsumptive behaviors. But if we can use the plural pronoun for an entire country that voted into office a president who only received 26% of eligible votes (What were we thinking? and other such laments), surely you can forgive me for applying the same plural pronoun in a case where significantly more than one in four graphic designers fit the description I’m applying.
So, let’s acknowledge we are good at what we do. Then admit what we do at a deeper level … generally speaking … bolsters myths that tear away at the fabric of our life-supporting ecosystems. Some of the professional skills we bring to bear on this world as visual communicators grease the skids of denial for those who swim in our provocatively luxurious grids and ligatures. We’re reinforcing an outmoded belief system that has transformed from a survival instinct to a suicidal tendency in a few short hundred years.
In a world where the unintended consequences of our actions as consumers are rarely easy to comprehend, graphic design has succeeded in creating fore and aft blinders: We can’t see what’s happened before our glorious widgets land in our shopping cart, nor can we see what happens after they take flight from our garbage bins. We only embrace the narrative that we need them, until we don’t need them anymore, because we need something else even more. That’s the backbeat rhythm of our daily lives.
Let’s turn a corner. Like Thackara, I believe, “If we can design our way into difficulty, we can design our way out.” And like Thackara, I believe we need a less-stuff-more-people kind of planet. So how do we get there?
HEARD TEN THOUSAND WHISPERIN’ AND NOBODY LISTENIN’
In many respects, we’ve come a long way since Tibor Kalman declared that “consumption is a treatable disease.” By any metric, graphic designers have more options to apply their skills to something other than promoting unsustainable consumption today than we ever did in the 1990s. Anyone my age can tell you that the change has been significant—thrilling even. Yet the ailment, grossly undertreated in light of its lethal potential continues to ravage the body. You might think it’s because advocates for a sustainable future are whispering too much. That we need to shout more; that we need to get in everybody’s face and ask them: “Don’t you see what’s going on ”
Yet shouting repels as often as it attracts. Whispers, on the other hand, are seductive. You could argue, in fact, that the status quo of overconsumption is less perpetuated by shouts than by whispers (barring that unfortunate breed of loud-mouthed advertising): whisper after whisper after whisper, until those whispers are all we understand of sound. And because they’re so ubiquitous we don’t comprehend anything else we hear as sound at all. One kind of whisper—the kind we’ve grown up with that assures us happiness flows from our wallets—turns all competing whispers into white noise. It’s a matter of one pattern overpowering the other. If we consider a reversal of this historic pattern ascendancy as our challenge, we are surely making headway. The chorus is building.
We also have to ask ourselves whether or not we’re whispering the right tune. Cultural historian and theologian Thomas Berry identifies storytelling as the crux of the matter. “We are in trouble just now because … we are in between stories,” Berry explains, noting that “the Old Story”—the cultural concept that the planet would provide us with an endless bounty to allow for a neverending churn of natural resources into rapidly obsolete goods—sustained us for a long time. “It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purpose, energized action. It consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, guided education. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children … but now it is no longer functioning properly, and we have not yet learned the New Story.”
Berry believes the new story is having difficulty emerging because the elements of the old story continue to carry forward as if they were cold air clinging to a cloak that’s been in the winter night too long. We’re attempting to construct a new narrative through the elements of the old story. And the elements of that old story have so much resonance as what has always been that there’s scant hope for them to define what could be. The shroud of the old story is heavy with perceptions of human experience that resonate more with yesterday than with tomorrow.
One way of thinking about this shift in perception is to consider the metaphor of ecological succession. On the way to listing the “ten commandments of the redwood clan” in Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry, she explains the natural progression of plant species in hostile conditions, and describes the behaviors of type I, type II and type III species (for the sake of simplicity—weeds, shrubs, and trees, respectively). Benyus emphasizes that while type I species heal scars in the earth caused by events such as wildfires, earthquakes and human disruption, their pioneering tendencies include rapid growth, lack of complexity, and seed production at the expense of intricate root systems and energy optimization. Meanwhile, type III species—members of the redwood clan—grow much slower and thus take time to develop. But as they mature, they exhibit behaviors that “create conditions conducive to (more) life.” In other words, while type I species extract nutrients from the soil on their way to somewhere else, type III species nurture the soil they live in. They not only exist in place; they nurture the place in which they live. Benyus argues that, like type III species, we have to learn to be “self-renewing right where we are.” And, in case you were wondering, the increased incidence of type III species in an ecosystem doesn’t preclude the presence of type I or type II species; it’s a matter of balance, diversity, cohabitation and interdependence.
One element of our new story, then, celebrates a restorative and regenerative posture toward the natural world that is qualitatively different than the posture of our past. When we were a pioneering species—when nature took more children than it spared; when we were as much food as we were the chef; when it took much of our ingenuity simply to shelter ourselves from the elements—we had every reason to stand against nature, swinging and digging with our increasingly sophisticated tools. Yet that kind of behavior—a primordial habit of remarkable persistence—no longer suits our situation. Our swinging and digging now devastates ecosystems in ways we could never have imagined even 100 years ago. A dependable behavior of survival has morphed into an uncontrollable behavior of self-destruction, devastating the planet’s ability to create conditions that have been so conducive to our own prosperity.
“The question of the century,” as Edward O. Wilson has put it, is this: “How best can we shift to a culture of permanence, both for ourselves and for the biosphere that sustains us?” Not permanence of inanimate objects, but of biological life. Here’s a start: Visualize it. Not in our heads, in our work. If it’s a hard rain that’s gonna fall, then let’s follow Bob Dylan’s lead, “and tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it.”
CLOSER THAN THE MOON
In their book Holonomics, authors Simon Robinson and Maria Moreas Robinson describe a passage from Galileo’s writing on the inconsistent shading of the moon. His newly invented telescope provided more insight into the nature of these inconsistencies. After a period of reflection, Galileo came to the realization that the moon was covered with “cavities and prominences,” not unlike Earth. “The discovery of the mountains on the Moon was, in fact … a new organizing idea, whereby Galileo was eventually able to give meaning to what he was perceiving,” the Robinsons write. “Once Galileo had described the Moon accurately, the mountains were there for everyone else to then see.” It’s this notion of a new organizing idea—or paradigm—that is so urgently needed in the world today.
And then we can turn the message outward. Shaking up the old to make room for the new has taken a lot of forms lately, and graphic designers are contributing to this shift by amplifying narratives of well-being over wealth; of collaboration over competition; of mindfulness over materialism. If people can be convinced of realities on a place as distant as the moon, it should be a snap for graphic designers to convince people that there’s a way of existing day-to-day on this planet that makes human life in the future more possible, rather than less. And why not? Are we truly willing to be so pessimistic to succumb to a worldview that accepts the human footprint as an inherently destructive one? William McDonough challenged us to ask why the human footprint can’t be a positive one. That’s simple enough—and aspirational enough—to make sense to anyone with a mind uncluttered by yesterday’s assumptions.
In order for nascent paradigms to take hold in a culture, individuals need to begin to see differently. As some of our most common idioms attest, seeing matters: seeing is believing; a picture is worth a thousand words; perception is reality, etc. And graphic designers help people see. That’s not grandiose. A simple pair of glasses can do the same thing. Like the magnified section on a pair of bifocals, then, we can provide a refinement to our society’s vision to help us see a broader spectrum of reality.
Transition Design, articulated by Terry Irwin, Cameron Tonkinwise and Gideon Kossof at Carnegie Mellon University, proposes that “more compelling future-oriented visions are needed to inform and inspire projects in the present, and … tools and methods of design can aid in the development of these visions.” This follows Victor Margolin’s idea that design’s most important contribution to the world is in the art of demonstrating new ideas in action. If designers are willing to convincingly bring visions of more sustainable realities into existence, more people will embrace their inherent possibilities. As John Ehrenfeld observes in his book Flourishing, “Possibility may be the most powerful word in our language because it enables humans to visualize and strive for a future that is neither available in the present nor may have existed in the past.”
When John F. Kennedy said that myth is the greatest enemy of truth, he takes care to call out the myths of our forebears: a prefabricated set of interpretations. In fact, humans need myth to make sense of the world—to find hope in the future; to imagine redemption; and to shape aspiration. In Restoring the Soul of the World, David Fideler writes, “Myth structures behavior and influences everyone on the collective level, but myth, and the reframing of myth, is something that emerges from the creative encounter with reality.” He challenges us “to cultivate those myths that embody deeper levels of beauty, value and awareness,” and notes that by doing so, human life is enriched. It’s time for the creative minds of today to shape the messages that reframe a world of our highest potentials—to visualize possibility.
THE FUTURE NOW
The Earth Charter challenges all of us to work toward a world “founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace.” Are any of these objectionable? Are any of these not worth working toward, or explicitly supporting through the normative power of graphic design? The document ends by stating, “Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.” If, in explaining graphic design’s contributions to tomorrow’s successes, we can use our youthful mistakes as a springboard for our own awakening, then that is a story worth telling in itself.
So, we’ll have some explaining to do. But we’ll also have one hell of a comeback story to tell. I’d like to think our story will sound something like Alex McKay’s in The World We Made by Jonathon Porritt. McKay was born in 2000, and he tells his story—and the story of humankind’s transition to a regenerative way of living—from the vantage point of Dec. 31, 2050. Porritt, co-founder of Forum for the Future, imagines a future that, while not without its horrors through a challenging transition, is something we can all embrace. That future is both familiar to and manifestly radical from today’s reality, and Porritt convincingly explains how present technologies in energy efficiency and production, water management, material consumption, housing, transportation, policy and, yes, even cyber-security, help create a path through the ecological and social upheavals that we’re facing today.
For those graphic designers who are Alex’s age, I’ll suggest this: Don’t listen to your elders so much. Sure, they know their grids and ligatures, but never believe that your desire to make a living and do right by the world is naive. Instead, ask them what they’ve been doing while the world’s been coming apart at the seams. Feel free to tell them to go suck an egg if the situation warrants. Or simply smile and go along your merry, regenerative way. Just make sure that the next generation doesn’t have the same opportunity to reproach you for similar reasons.
We’ve created a new epoch on this planet. A dubious accomplishment as it stands today. Yet that’s exactly where we stand today. The only option we have now is to make it great—ecologically regenerative, socially equitable and prosperous for all. As graphic designers we can revel in the irony that much of our future work, while as ephemeral as always, will encourage notions of permanence—of longevity built on adaptability, resilience, collaboration and respect for diversity in all matters—that the vessels of our present design work will scarcely comprehend. Since we’ve started the Anthropocene, let’s make damn sure it’s an epic epoch
Scott Boylston is the graduate coordinator and co-author of the Design for Sustainability program at SCAD. He is principal of BD+C, and speaks internationally on sustainable design topics.