This thesis will not attempt to brand sustainability, though I will contribute to the visual vernacular of the cause. I will do this without resorting to descriptions requiring “sustainable” or “green,” and without using current visual clichés related to the domain.
This thesis will be more than a list of dos and don’ts. It will be more than a list of sustainable design materials. It will be more than a list. I will find more engaging ways of being a “sustainable” designer than telling others what they are doing is wrong (e.g. how can our existing design systems [computers, printing, etc.] be harnessed in new, more interesting ways?).
There are plenty of books out there that graph, chart and diagram the current climate and carbon problems (Atlas of climate change, Incovenient Truth, IPCC briefs, etc.). This thesis will not be one of these books.
This thesis will not be about carbon counting or global warming. This thesis will be about answering the question: “what does sustainable graphic design look like?” for myself.
This thesis will not be a regurgitation of other authors work. I will draw inspiration from many readings (Cradle 2 Cradle, How Buildings Learn, In The Bubble) but this thesis will be a unique work that outlines my own “manifesto” of sustainability.
At no point do I want myself or my audience to feel bored or depressed by information that I unearth and choose to display. This thesis will not be a downer. My goal is hope, optimism and opportunity.
The end result will be a mélange of essays, lists, texts, prints, diagrams, and more, all created in a way inspired by the rules / guidelines I will create.
Assignment text on micadesign.org
The word “sustainability” has evolved into an umbrella term referring to any activity that, once created, maintains itself indefinitely. The Iroquois Confederacy mandated that chiefs consider the effects of their actions on their descendants through the future seven generations, which has inspired many of our contemporary concepts. An operational definition in use by our government (from the 1987 WCED Brundtland Report) states that sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
An economic system viable over time describes "Economic Sustainability". It pays off the initial capital investment and is able to produce income covering operating costs. However, these costs do not always take into consideration the “costs” of sea-level rise, habitat destruction, desertification, etc. and focuses only on monetary costs.
Environmentalists phrase sustainability in terms of repairing and sustaining our environmental world, often to the detriment of our manufactured world and without consideration for established economic systems. This is a general concern with the current semiotics and language of the environmental movement. The negative outlook towards humanity, technology, business, and the need for sacrifice turns the public off.
Social Sustainability focuses on meeting the necessities of people in a community. Things like food, shelter, equality, education, creating an engaging social environment, etc. A society that does not look after its own cannot be sustained, social resources cannot be squandered any more than physical ones.
For something to be truly sustainable it must fulfill all of these requirements (these are an example of just a few of the many area that must be considered). Any one without the others does not create a complete picture. (e.g. A business that focuses on providing green services without being able to pay rent will not be around long, and thus will not be able to perpetuate its ideals, not be able to prosper from the initial capital investments of labor, materials, start-up-cash, and thus not be “sustainable.” )
(see a visual representation of this idea here »)
Assignment text on micadesign.org
My thesis currently contains two branches building on one another. The first branch encompasses my research, writing, and investigation into the realm of sustainability while the second branch consists of visual studies and analyses of the data I am unearth.
The question that guides my visual studies is “what does sustainable graphic design look like?” My visual studies take the form of several broadsides investigating how design influences message, different ways that statistics can be digested, filtered and shown, and examining what current green-myths exist. The works themselves are simple and conceptual which makes them easily installable in a gallery setting.
My research investigates sustainability as a whole, in design, in the real world, as a philosophy. The form this has taken is of reading and reflecting, examining existing frameworks, ideals, and structures, and then deciding for myself what works and what could be better. The outcome of this branch will be my own framework, a framework that will allow me to create work that intrinsically captures what I find sustainability to mean.
These branches initially lead down different paths of study, reach a maximum point in differentiation, and then begin to lead back towards one another. The framework text I have developed will provide contextual information for the display of the visuals. The final product feeds back into itself to become some sort of publishable form (medium not yet decided, thought this website will be part of it).
Assignment text on micadesign.org
What does sustainable graphic design look like?
This question is the foundation underlying my thesis. My end goal is a philosophical framework capable of creating and inspiring designs that directly answer this question. In the mean time, here are some conclusions I have come to along the way all as possible answers (existing and theoretical) to this question.
1. It looks “eco-friendly”
This is an out-of-date environmentalist answer. Craft-like recycled paper, the colors brown and green, trees, flowers, grass—maybe a koala. It should look cheap and poorly done too. The closer it visually resembles the three “R’s” of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle the more sustainable it must be. This subscribes to the “hair-shirt” environmentalist mentality that environmentally-responsible design must portray the concepts of thrift and sacrifice. I am rallying against this answer.
2. It looks the same
Why does sustainable design have to look different? The materials, processes philosophy and decisions behind making an item might change, but the look need not. Good design is good design, and that’s that. This can be seen in new campaigns by Al Gore’s climate action group: the We Campaign, the This Is Reality website, etc. This is fine, the work does not necessarily show what it means to be "sustainable," but it this important? do we need to do better? Is just making the processes sustainable good enough?.
3. It looks “innovative”
If the design ideas, processes, and materials innovate and push contemporary boundaries of thought and practice, then the design look should too. Something else must be added to the design, besides it just being “good,” something that makes it more sustainable than the “looks the same” model. Perhaps it subscribes to a more progressive sort of ideal in the making: it is beautiful, emotional, serves its function, uses new technology and materials for the greater good, etc.
4. It does not exist
Perhaps the best way that design becomes sustainable is by not happening at all. Just think about it, most design simply creates waste, and that is plain un-sustainable. If that just simply went away, where would we be?
Environmentalism’s goal was environmental sustainability. Post-environmentalism’s goal must be true sustainability. I propose a new term for the followers of post-environmentalism: Sustainabilitists. We sustainabilitists shall take over where the environmentalists leave off, moving sustainability from the realm of the environment into all realms.
The following principles will help move our ideas and actions into the region of the truly sustainable. We sustainabilitists must allow our designs, strategies and methodologies to evolve and adapt to new ideas. In keeping within its own principles, this manifesto and its concepts will be in a constant state of flux.
Change must happen fast—but raw speed alone is not enough. The rapid growth of industrialism got us into this mess; quick, precise and nimble actions now will get us out of it.
This is the realm of restrictions, stipulations and specifications. Defined at the outset, limitations can guide a solution. Not to be confused with sacrifice (which is reactive and loss-based), constraint results from analyzing available options.
Outputs must become inputs; there will be no such thing as waste. Waste from one process will be raw material in another. Nature is cyclical, so our sustainabilitist processes shall be, too.
Embrace diversity: it makes life more interesting. Nature has no overarching solution. We should stop looking for one-size-fits all solutions. The only universal shall be sustainability. People, cultures and localities are all different, requiring different solutions.
A cathedral was built to withstand the rigors of the temporal; a water bottle is not—it should be designed to disappear. Each design decision in material and use should make the choice between "durable or ephemeral."
Wealthy “elegance” abounds, but true elegance appears when simplicity and craft are used to solve everyday problems. Sustainabilitists desire ease and grace in all situations.
For our sustainabilitist ideals’ acceptance, they must first be presented and understood by the populous. Presenting the possibility of change brings us one step closer to inciting said change. Easy, understandable ways are best—especially those avoiding condescension.
The universe moves towards chaos. This is something we should embrace. Design seeks order, and the order of the universe is a controlled degradation.
There will be no perfect approach—the future will unfold in unpredictable ways. We must allow adaptive reuse and a willingness to change direction or tactics to fit circumstances.
Information wants to be free, and it is time we let it. Disseminating knowledge and information has never been easier. We need to increase, not limit, people’s access. Sustainabilitists must become masters of knowledge.
All great works that elicit responses have one thing in common: they mean something. We must focus on intent, purpose, and substance—the context—along with form and function.
We are currently starting from rest. Once underway, our processes and ideals will carry themselves into culture, manufacturing, and government by their own momentum. First we must change the inertia of our current operations—doing whatever possible to slow its progression.
Better, happier, more fulfilling: this is what quality shall mean in sustainable design. The aim is to provide quality to everyone in elegant, elemental ways. Our goal is a higher standard. Flimsy, inferior goods and services have no place in our sustainable future.
We want the functions objects provide, not the objects themselves. To do this, our appliances and tools must be approached in terms of “services, not stuff” and “use, not own.” The idea of services is against intentional obsolescence and for reusability and repairability.
The core beliefs of sustainability already exist in a variety of other forms and philosophies. Thus, everything we need to begin implementing our sustainable solutions, we have today! We now simply require a synergistic combination of all this thought past and present into something new.
Our current systems, such as mass consumption yielding mass waste, are out of date and faulty. It is pointless to waste energy attempting to resolve designs within these systems. The creation and exploitation of new, better systems will be the main directive for sustainable design.
Allowing time to pass opens the door to adaptability and evolution. We must adopt the gradual change of nature into our design processes. Time in design allows for keeping and improving the good, while discarding the bad. Objects will be allowed to sustain their inherent value and thus receive prolonged use.
Sustainabilitist “wealth” encompasses all areas of resources (knowledge, information, water, food, etc), not just monetary. The sustainabilitist world revolves around the fair distribution and dissemination of these values.