At a time of budget tightening and financial trepidation, designers need to create work that is the most intelligent, effective, and thrifty they can possibly make. Clients and bosses are going to expect and demand design pieces and strategies that are as gracefully executed as a Bolshoi ballerina’s pirouette, and designers will have some new steps to learn. Print began this column because the economic slowdown is the perfect time to start applying sustainable principles.
When we contacted several leaders in the field—Janine James, founder and creative director of the New York-based The Moderns; Elan Cole, a global creative director at Johnson & Johnson’s Global Strategic Design Office; Luke Nicholson, founding director of the London design studio More Associates; and Brian Dougherty, founding partner at Celery Design Collaborative—we discovered that what we’ve all been calling “green” design is simply effective, meaningful design. This way of thinking never goes out of vogue, and it is the ideal salve for the current economic environment. Here’s what sustainable design allows you to do.
1. Problem-solve elegantly.
Your clients want their brand identity and philosophy to be conveyed as effectively as possible so that their ideas are understood and their audience undertakes certain behaviors, whether that’s buying a product or conserving energy. To this end, designers need to create communications that use resources wisely and embody a tightly conceived strategy that resonates with consumers. “What people are asking for is innovation and hyper-efficiency and more effectiveness, and all of those things that we’ve been focusing on for a long time,” says Celery Design’s Brian Dougherty of the “green” approach. “I really see it as the future of design, it’s not the icing on the cake that you can do without in lean times. It’s really a new recipe.”
2. Save money.
Saving money is an indispensable part of a rigorous dedication to a client’s strategy. Thrift is the key to eliminating communications that embody that strategy in anything less than the most profound manner. “You get to do better work, and it costs less and it works better,” says More Associates’ Luke Nicholson. “That’s our job as sustainable designers—that’s what we do. We make stuff that costs less and does more.” Nicholson points to his studio’s experience with The Laundry, a recycling company that hired the firm to reach out to small businesses that were potential clients. More Associates printed the promotion directly on a blue recycling bag, which also listed the items that can be recycled. The solution gave potential customers a useful and educational product that eliminated the cost and resources required for printing a separate flyer.
3. Create an abundance of the good stuff (it’s not about consuming less).
People sometimes get antsy when they contemplate green design, worried that its primary impact is to create some kind of limitation—let’s say, I can’t do this kind of printing technique, or I can’t use that material. Designing sustainably does necessitate understanding the impact of your design choices. But the es-sence of this design is using our creativity to create abundance for ourselves. “If we use things that don’t impact our environment, we can use as much of them as we want to,” observes Janine James. “Creativity is an infinite supply of possibility. …If we realize that there are infinite possibilities, then we would be less inclined to buy into the [mentality of] ‘reduce, minimize, and avoid.’ Because those things come from today’s current paradigm.”
4. Integrate environmental consideration throughout the design process.
More and more, it’s clear that the principles of green design are integral to what it means to do successful and responsible design. “Green design” and similar terms are helpful, perhaps, but we need to emerge from the mislabeled pigeonhole which insinuates that green design is somehow separate from a day-to-day design practice. Just because this aspect of de-sign wasn’t always considered necessary doesn’t mean it isn’t inherent to doing good design work today. Elan Cole puts it well: “It needs to be part of anybody’s criteria, like ergonomics. You would never design a product that hurts to use.”
5. Use waste purposefully—and reap the financial rewards.
The green products retailer Terracycle uses discarded plastic bottles as the packaging for its lawn and garden products, and it also sells items like pencil cases made from empty Capri Sun drink packs. For an event invitation, the design and architecture firm Sasaki used discarded cardboard it collected in its office, reducing the raw materials budget to nil. These inspiring examples of waste-free creativity are instructive for how to produce designs that makes a statement about how budget-conscious and resource-wise you can be in a recession. While this waste-based repurposing might not be realistic for everyone or every project, starting with this mindset can lead
to innovation. Consider: Are there ways to use “waste” to create your end product?
6. Excess is on the cutting board. Green isn’t.
In a recession, companies will cut back on excess but not on initiatives important to the company philosophy and its future success. “It seems to me that green design is part of the solution, part of the way forward, and in that sense, the current economic crisis hasn’t slowed down the shift to green design, but rather it’s actually sped it up,” says Brian Dougherty. “I wouldn’t say that’s universally true, but green design firms are pretty busy right now. To some degree, I think it’s because the status quo system of reaching people and communicating brand value—the old system—is not working that well. People, clients, companies are looking for more effective ways of communicating.”
7. Celebrate even the small improvements.
Elan Cole observes that the transformation to a more sustainable paradigm does not happen overnight. Johnson & Johnson has made strides by reducing the plastic used in packaging for various products, including Listerine: “We reduced the walls of the bottle pretty significantly so that it’s as thin as it can be without collapsing under its own weight.” Of the transformation process, says Cole, “You really need to celebrate the steps along the way, and not dismiss it by saying, ‘Oh, big deal, so you’re making the walls thinner on a piece of plastic, but it’s still plastic.’ The point is that we’re doing that, and the next step is to change perhaps the plastic, and the next step, maybe, is to get behind a material that isn’t even invented yet.”
8. Embrace your power as a designer to initiate a new culture.
Being well versed in green design is good for your long-term business. Wal-Mart is supporting and demanding sustainability more and more. Other large companies like Johnson & Johnson are also making the shift because they recognize it’s an inherent part of being a responsible corporate citizen.
Because designers create our printed and packaged culture as well as the way we experience brands, they can be the leaders in changing the paradigm—the heroes of our story who make a huge global impact through creative innovation. “You coul
d say quite reasonably that this is an incredibly urgent and incredibly important global scale problem, and if we don’t fix it now, then we won’t have an opportunity to fix it at all, and that’s going to be very unpleasant for an awful lot of people, including me and you,” says Luke Nicholson. “[But] if you and the work you do fit within the context of the world as it’s going to be, then things are going to turn out better for you—much better than if all your clients are going to be bankrupt and your work isn’t relevant to the world of the future.”
Eight reasons why the principles of sustainable design are at the heart of just plain good design.
About the Author— JEREMY LEHRER writes about design, spirituality, and sustainability. He is a Print contributing editor and the author of "Best Practices," Print's new column on ecogologically sound approaches to design. This article appears in the June 2009 issue of Print.