Designers Can Save the World
The world is on fire, and we’re all to blame.
News of environmental collapse is like passing an accident on the freeway: I can’t help but check out the carnage. I have this uncontrollable urge to know how bad it is, day after day. It’s exhausting, and yet I keep at it.
Because I’m responsible.
I have always held this noble image of my future career: a scientist or researcher traveling the world to discover what is happening to our planet and how to fix it. There would be no mistaking which side I’m on. I would be living it every day.
And since that’s not where I ended up, I’m very likely romanticizing what it’s really like.
Instead, I followed my love for logic and visuals into graphic design, and throughout my career I’ve carried the guilt of not working in the trenches of climate change. Or even worse, the guilt of knowing better while actively designing merchandise and marketing materials that contribute to the problem.
Hopes, Dreams, and Disillusions
While getting my graphic design degree my college introduced the first sustainable design program outside of architecture.
I learned how industrial designers and architects can imitate the forms and functions of nature. I learned how much impact products have, from when a material is sourced all the way to disposal after the product has done its job.
I learned all of the jargon and amazing concepts people have developed, but beyond requesting soy ink or using recycled paper I didn’t know how to use any of it in the work of being a print designer.
So my hope was to find an eco-friendly studio in Seattle to learn how it’s done in the real world.
The real world ended up being limited jobs during a recession. Cheap and fast were the top priorities. And honestly in many places they still are.
How do you convince a small business to spend more money on the same things, but “greener”?
It was like I was telling them to throw their money into the breeze and hope it would turn into a tree. For the good of nature.
I was disappointed that my expectations from the bubble of college hadn’t been met. The momentum and trajectory of my career put me in the exact opposite place of where I had hoped to be.
Looking at my resume, that place was “creating awesome disposable shit,” and I couldn’t see a way out of it.
The epitome of this path was an especially ironic project that included designing a set of floating polar bear drink holders for a major cruise line.
Let’s count some of the offenses here:
retailer: business model depends on moving people around the ocean while using an absurd amount of fuel
symbolism: the unofficial mascot of global warming soaking up the summer sun
material: petroleum-based plastics
production: a factory in China where working conditions likely include long hours, overuse injuries, and low pay
shipping: fuel used to get it back to the US
packaging: individually wrapped in plastic from the manufacturer, which is then disposed of to replace with:
retail packaging: a kraft paper box with no plastic! win?
bonus: there are instances of cruise lines dumping sewage and oil into international waters to avoid paying…
I couldn’t live with the idea that I would be creating something that supported such a destructive industry.
I imagined how people would happily float in the on-deck pool with their drink bobbing nearby, as they made their way to—fingers crossed!!—catch a glimpse of an actual polar bear. Completely unaware that their vacation itself is one of the most damaging things they could do to their habitat and our world.
Power is in the Choice
In working on that project, I realized the extent of harm or good I could do within my position as a designer. Even if someone else could easily take my place so the project could go on, at the very least I could share my objections and set my own ethical boundaries in the work I take on.
I didn’t grow up to be a climate scientist or dedicate my career to discovering just how bad it is. But I can act on their findings and encourage others to do the same.
Without making the decision to improve how I work, what good is it to even know anything is wrong?
You have immense power to affect change. No matter your position or workplace, client or employer, you can make a difference.
But it is your responsibility to take it on.
What To Do
Take note of what you can influence in your position.
That might be pitching more ethical concepts to clients, recommending materials and vendors, or as simple as designing a catalog without full bleeds to save excess trim paper.
The more aware you are, the more places you find to make a difference.
Make recommendations based on environmental responsibility.
Make it as much a part of your job as ensuring production quality is up to par or that the colors are accurate.
Don’t let inexperience or a lack of knowledge stop you.
We all have to start somewhere. The fact that you’re willing to put effort into the discovery already puts you ahead of those who aren’t.
You are not alone.
Let’s build a community and help each other do better — for ourselves, and for our planet.
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