What can designers do to help tackle the climate change crisis?
As environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion took to the streets to protest this month, people across the world are waking up to the impact human intervention has had on the planet, from carbon emissions and rising global temperatures to plastics polluting the oceans.
While the group’s interferences across London, Edinburgh and more look to push governments to take the issue seriously and cut carbon emissions to zero by 2025, climate change activists recognise that is crucial for both policy-makers and individuals to take action — another of the organisation’s demands is to create a citizens’ assembly, allowing the public to oversee authorities’ progress and contribute to the cause.
Much of the debate around pollution, carbon emissions and climate change is centred around the consumerist and Capitalist nature of Western culture in particular, which fuels people’s obsession with buying, throwing away and replacing goods. Fast fashion and electronics are two of the biggest culprit industries; the UK has the highest consumption of new clothing in Europe, with an estimated 23 million items of clothing sent to landfill in 2017.
As creators of new “stuff”, from advertising posters through to smartphones, furniture and magazines, designers have a role to play in the responsible sourcing of materials and production of goods. Equally, digital and UX (user experience) designers creating new websites, apps and artificial intelligence (AI) technology are at the forefront of a movement that is enabling physical things to become intangible, helping to cut physical waste by bringing music, books, radio and more into the digital space.
However, it is easy to forget that digital products such as websites and apps also have a carbon footprint — the internet, powered mostly by servers in data centres, consumes a gargantuan amount of electricity, while the advancement of digital also means that people’s appetite for new physical products, such as phones, smart home hubs and virtual reality headsets, is also growing.
Designers of all fields have a responsibility to contribute to helping the climate change crisis in some way – whether through upcycling new mobile phones through old components, sourcing biodegradable materials for furniture and packaging, or helping to spread a message through effective graphics. In fact, Extinction Rebellion itself has placed a lot of emphasis on its graphic design, employing an art team to create inspiring, consistent and colourful protest materials, open-source for anyone to use.
Create effective, powerful visuals
Graphic designers, illustrators and UI (user interface) designers have a big part to play in helping to decipher dense statistics and information around the environment, from rising temperature and sea levels to the number and type of species and habitats becoming extinct. Freelance illustrator, Ben Tallon, says that visual communicators should “avoid the temptation to be visually angry and preachy”, and instead try to be “clever, subtle and original” in sharing facts that make for difficult reading. The best way to do this is through not working in an isolated way, but instead alongside scientists and environmental specialists who can help to digest and lay out information, he says.
Tessa Simpson, designer at studio O Street, adds that it is graphic designers’ core job to make any information “digestible” and enticing, and they therefore have a responsibility to do this for “the biggest problem [the world] currently faces”. “There’s a lot of data out there about the impact of climate change and now more than ever this needs to be packaged up, branded and communicated to the masses,” she says.
As well as empowering the public by breaking down arguments visually, Danny Miller, co-founder at Human After All, adds that designers should use their skills as emotive communicators to “truly resonate” with people, not only simplifying complex data but also sharing stories of human experiences and focusing on how people will individually and collectively be impacted by climate change.
Don’t design in isolation
Creating a single range of furniture made from a natural material such as cork, seaweed or a fungus like mycelium might be a step in the right direction and is something many designers have attempted in recent years – but this is little more than a token gesture towards a massive problem, says Nicolas Roope, founder at digital studio Poke London.
Rather than creating individual products “in a vacuum”, product and industrial designers in particular should be using their skills and imaginations to actually change industry and “move markets towards new modes and behaviours”. One example of this is CupClub, a cyclical coffee cup reusable system, originally created by Studio D-Tale, which has since helped to form part of a wider conversation around reusable cups and plastic waste. “Designers should make these steps feel like progression, not compromise,” says Roope.
Paul Priestman, co-founder at industrial studio PriestmanGoode, agrees that designers should be thinking on a “macro”, or large-scale, level, tackling societal issues such as public transport and city infrastructure. This includes helping to design bus and train networks that are more accessible, better walking routes around cities, and vehicle-sharing systems that complement the advancement of self-driving cars. As well as benefiting the environment, all these societal changes would impact populations in other ways, he says, including improving general health and wellbeing, and creating a more inclusive environment for those with disabilities and physical impairment.
When it comes to creating smaller, mass-produced products such as electronics and furniture, Priestman adds that designers have a responsibility to create “consumer products that last”, or which can be “repurposed”, rather than encouraging a throw-away culture. In doing so, this will have a wider impact on people’s buying and living habits: “We need to move away from a culture where people want to change their mobile phone every six months,” he says. “It’s about changing consumer behaviour as well as affecting the supply chain.”
Be ethical in who you work with
Design studio leaders are very much aware of the bottom line, and the subsequent need to balance worthwhile but lower-paying jobs, such as charity work, with less inspiring, corporate projects that bring in money.
But Katie Cadwell, senior designer at Supple Studio, says that given the scale of climate change, designers today do have a moral obligation to be pickier about which clients they work with, adding that “working with someone is endorsing them”.
Recent examples of studios committing to eco-friendly and worthwhile projects include NB Studio’s branding and packaging for sustainable children’s clothing brand Petit Pli, and studio Ilka’s collaboration with the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce to create Circular Hub, an exhibition showcasing products designed to be reused and recycled.
Equally, Pentagram used its authority as a global design entity to promote environmental group Do The Green Thing in 2016, through creating its Christmas campaign Ungifted, which encouraged consumers to give “time rather than tat” as presents, using the power of visual communication to help limit mass consumption.
“If we all made a decision to only work for people who are doing good by our planet, then the best-looking brands on the shelves would also be the ones with an eye on our future,” says Cadwell. “We should be using our powers for good.”
Jonathan Barnbrook, a graphic designer well-known for his political work protesting issues such as the arms and weapons trade, agrees that designers should be “using their creativity in a way that is useful to society”, rather than producing “‘cool’ work for companies that encourage endless consumption”. He also recognises that studios face challenges in doing so, including a less steady income, being rejected by potentially lucrative and commercial clients in the future and the risk of a more daring or maverick project not working out.
“It is not an easy path to be contrary, but really what is more important – that you are comfortable or that you are decent?” he says. “Designers, no matter where they work, as citizens of the world first and foremost, and need to do whatever they can to be good citizens.”
Take individual, as well as collective, responsibility
Bearing in mind Barnbrook’s point of the necessity to be a “good citizen” as well as a good professional, designers should be advocating sustainability and limited consumption in their own personal lives as well as work lives, adds Cadwell.
“We need to get rid of apathy, and do things on a smaller scale too,” she says. “We should stop thinking ‘recycling this one baked bean tin won’t matter’, as well as ‘it’s fine taking on this one client that makes me feel a bit uneasy’. It’s time we stopped excusing ourselves with ‘it won’t make a difference’.”