Designers often lament their reactive role when it
comes to creating: Clients identify their needs, and
designers execute on these demands. As Marc Alt,
a designer, board member of AIGA-New York, and
chair of the Grow: Design for Sustainability conference,
points out, “Designers have traditionally been
looked at as service providers, hired to make something
look good but not to get involved in the heavy
lifting or heavy thinking.”
But when it comes to making materials with
the environment in mind, designers are uniquely
positioned to have an enormous positive impact, not
only on the project at hand, but on shaping their clients’
thinking around sustainability.
According to Don Carli, senior research fellow
with the Institute for Sustainable Communication,
who collaborated with Alt in developing the Grow
conference, “Key aspects of design for sustainability
are analysis of the unseen life-cycle impacts of a
product or service and the development of a ‘triple
bottom line’ business case for a design solution.
Designers are beginning to address these issues, and
when they do, the results can be visually inspiring,
world changing, and good for business.”
As designers increasingly bring ideas about green
design to the table, along with their mock-ups and
storyboards, they’re finding that thinking and acting
in a more sustainable way need not be an expensive,
academic, or complicated exercise. There are simple
and practical steps a designer can take to help reduce
environmental impact, while creating innovative,
high-performing, and beautiful materials.
With the help of some forward-looking designers,
we’ve compiled 11 strategies for getting started.
1. Educate yourself, educate your clients.
To make greener decisions, it’s important to understand
the entire life cycle of materials and processes
used in printed materials. Because paper manufacturing,
printing, and shipping are so resource
intensive, there are many choices to be made along
the continuum of producing, packaging, and getting
materials to the end user.
Get started by using the many resources available
on the internet, some listed at the end of this
article. Also, read books, attend conferences, and
look into industries that are a few steps ahead, like
green building design. Phil Hamlett, MFA director
in the school of graphic design at the Academy of
Art University in San Francisco and producer of the
AIGA-San Francisco Compostmodern conference, is
joining forces with Alt to create an AIGA “community
of interest” on sustainability. They’re developing
a website for AIGA that will offer online tools to provide
ideas, simplify issues, and make implementing
sustainable practices easier. “We plan on eventually
reaching out to include sustainable design discussions
in related fields such as packaging, product design,
and the built environment,” Alt says.
2. Beware the simple answer.
The world of sustainable practices has its share
of misconceptions and myths. As Hamlett points
out, “It’s very complicated, the way that printing
impinges on the environment, and few graphic
designers understand the process.”
For example, Cenveo Anderson Lithograph offers a threepage
discussion comparing soy to conventional inks.
Included is a list of six properties that must be considered
before an ink can be dubbed environmentally
friendly: It must reduce emissions, create less toxic
waste, use a renewable resource, be easily de-inked,
produce less hazardous sludge, and be more biodegradable
than conventional ink.
When choosing papers, look beyond recycled
content and consider recyclability, raw materials,
and how the paper is bleached and manufactured.
Packing and shipping are also important to think
about. You can eat up a lot of environmental gains by
letting materials be packed in oversized, high-virgin
content containers and trucked long distances.
3. Change the design paradigm.
Chris Hacker, an industrial designer and vice president
of design and design strategy at Johnson &
Johnson, encourages designers to step up instead of
waiting for clients to take the lead on sustainability.
“You should just do business this way,” he says.
“It’s a state of mind where you think from the very
beginning of the design process about ways to make
it more sustainable.”
Brian Dougherty of Celery Design echoes the
sentiment. “Much of your power as a designer is in
how you define your role. We don’t ask for special
permission to do great design, and we take the same
approach with materials. Recycled content is just one
of the ways we define what makes a good paper.”
Instead of simply accepting the suggested size
for a printed piece, consider what size will result in
the least waste on press. Instead of speccing an easy-to-find, standard material that happens to release
VOCs (volatile organic compounds), make progressive
material choices part of your initial presentation.
Sustainable choices can be included as just one of
many design considerations.
4. Ask some new questions.
One of Alt’s most critical take-aways from the
Grow conference was rethinking design’s traditional
approach: “Designing for sustainability requires
developing a functional aesthetic to balance and
integrate with the visual aesthetic that dominates
design thinking today.”
He recommends questioning many day-to-day
design assumptions—for example, assuming
that offset printing is always the best choice. Offset
lithography results in a lot of waste. One alternative,
digital printing, produces very specific quantities for
less waste. What’s more, digital print runs can happen
in smaller batches, closer to material distribution,
saving packing materials and fossil fuels.
Hacker, who before joining Johnson & Johnson
worked for environmental leader Aveda, suggests asking
before you design, specify, or buy anything:
- Do we need it? Can we live without it?
- Is the project designed to minimize waste?
- Can it be smaller, lighter, or made from fewer
- Is it designed to be durable or multifunctional?
- Does it use renewable resources?
- Is reuse practical and encouraged?
- Are the product and packaging refillable, recyclable,
- Is it made with post-consumer recycled or
reclaimed materials? How much?
- Are the materials available in a less toxic form?
Can it be made with less toxic materials?
- Are materials available from a socially and environmentally
- Is it made locally?
5. Don’t assume it’s more expensive.
Going green saves dollars, as well as the environment.
For example, retail behemoth Wal-Mart is
rewarding vendors that reduce packaging because
less packaging translates into lower cost. Johnson &
Johnson is eliminating PVC packaging in favor of
other more sustainable materials including R-PET,
a form of plastic that can be up to 10 percent less
expensive since it’s part of a huge recycling stream.
Design decisions like reducing the number of
colors you use to print a job is better on the environment
as well as your client’s budget. As Hacker
points out, “If you put the environmental paradigm
at the start of the project, then you can build it into
the budget. So if you pay a little more for paper, you
can pay a little less for something somewhere else.”
6. Point out that everyone is doing it.
Companies large and small are increasingly considering
their social, environmental, and financial
bottom lines and being rewarded by investors and
consumers for their actions. Hamlett notes, “Large
consumer brands are experiencing a tectonic shift
in the way that they look at the world, and this is
going to make it easier for graphic designers to bring
these topics to the forefront with their clients.”
From the emergence of “carbon markets” that
allow parties to offset their environmental impact by
paying for CO2 neutralization, to companies of all
sizes and across all industries making triple bottom
line considerations part of their corporate practices
and messaging, designers can remind their clients
that good environmental policies are good business.
7. Shout it out.
Clients also need to know that good environmental
policies make good public relations. Hacker tells
the story of a vendor he worked with to develop a
new capability—which they then advertised to new
clients—for increasing the recycled content of a certain
Even small gestures have an impact. Make note
of the green steps taken to produce a brochure or catalog
in the credits and small print. Or better yet, put
it in big print. Use the recycled content logo when
and where appropriate. Specify paper from Mohawk’s
Windpower Portfolio, and you can include a unique
logo they’ve developed for use on printed materials.
The more that clients and audiences talk about
green, the more acceptable and commonplace being
green will become.
8. Choose partners, not products.
Lots of paper companies use post-consumer waste.
But did you know that Mohawk is the only paper
mill and one of very few manufacturing facilities in
the country to use non-polluting wind energy? Lots
of printing companies offer low VOC inks, but did
you know that Cenveo Anderson Lithograph has a
comprehensive environmental management system?
Help clients find eco-minded vendors. As
Dougherty says, “Once you engage the client in a
collaborative relationship, they see that everyone is
trying to accomplish the same things. You’re no longer
an evangelizer, but a trusted team member.”
And if you can’t find a vendor that operates
sustainably, try to change the vendor you have.
Use Anderson Lithograph’s environmental record
questionnaire for print suppliers as a start. “Even an
in-house designer can figure out a way to develop a
company-wide approach to, for example, print buying,”
notes Alt. “Many printing companies claim that
their clients aren’t interested in sustainable printing,
but if they see a market for sustainable practices,
they’ll fall in line quickly.”
9. Make wise material choices.
It used to be that environmentally friendly materials
were few and expensive, but no more. As Alt points
out, “There are so many options now that you
should be looking at life cycle analysis. It used to be
a limiting factor on design, but now there are more
than enough choices.”
Many papers are now made from grasses, cloth,
hemp, and other materials. AGI/Klearfold just introduced
a PLA plastic folding carton made from corn.
Hacker has stopped using binders made from vinyl,
turning instead to recycled cardboard and aluminum.
Be sure to ask not just where your materials
come from, but how they are produced and where
they are going. Content should be recycled and recyclable.
Avoid paper bleached with toxic chemicals,
as well as foil stamping, metallic inks, and synthetic
adhesives (where these are unavoidable, working with
responsible vendors will help). And don’t ever rely
solely on what the manufacturer tells you—do your
own research to get the full story.
10. Look for opportunity, not restriction.
Seeking out the most efficient way of producing
something should lead to creative solutions.
Dougherty has built his design practice around
finding more sustainable answers. For example, a
client wanted tab dividers, which if produced conventionally
leave behind a lot of waste. Instead, he
says, “We developed a die that has an internal cut,
and then the user folds over the slip of paper that
sticks out and creates the tab,” he explains. “There’s
no diecutting waste, it’s more interactive, still functional,
and the client loved it. We’re always looking
for things like that.”
11. Start by being green at home.
“Ask questions about everything you do and look for
ways to reduce the footprint of the office itself,” says
Hacker. A few of his recommendations: “Your own
stationery and publications should be printed properly,
shouldn’t be overly complicated, and should
never be sent in a big box made with high virgin
content materials. Instead of buying new furniture,
buy used furniture, renovate with environmental
consciousness, buy recycled carpet.”
Many companies that produce things used in
offices are stepping up to green. Allsteel office furniture
offers seating and panel systems made from
renewable resources and recycled as well as recyclable
materials. There are plenty of building materials
made with high levels of recycled content. Apple
Computer recently announced it will take back old
computers (any brand) and iPods for recycling. HP
also has a recycling program for PCs. Verizon will
take back your old cell phones and either recycle or
give them to battered women trying to rebuild their
lives. There are plenty of other opportunities.
Hamlett says, “It gets down to simply using
less stuff and less harmful stuff.” And Alt reminds
us, “There are all these small gestures that are worth
doing. When you create a sustainable environment
for yourself, you can’t help but let that ethos bleed
into the rest of your life and your work.”
AIGA - Sustainability
A wealth of ideas, programs,
links are presented
in this portion of the
Print Design and Environmental Responsibility
PDF on sustainable print design from the AIGA.
Select the Research Tools menu for ideas on reducing environmental impact.
Information on offsetting carbon emissions for consumers.
Cenveo Anderson Litho’s site offers plenty of environmental information.
This West Coast
conference is jointly
sponsored by the San
of the AIGA and the
Society of America.
Grow: Design for
Sustainability is an
East Coast conference
Presented by the New
York Chapter of AIGA.
Celery Design Ecological Design Tools