Designs on Our Future


From Earth Hour to The 11th Hour, concern for the environment is the cause for the new millennium. Along with every other industry, it’s transforming design, as Drew Turney learns.

It’s not like last time. The first green boom of the early 1990s came on the back of a depressed economic mood. Suddenly we couldn’t spend like there was no tomorrow, so we started believing in crystals and self-healing gurus, token concern for the environment extending to saving whales and getting chlorofluorocarbons out of aerosol cans.

Does that sound cynical? Maybe, but the first green revolution resulted in little more than dolphin-friendly canned tuna and washing power that didn’t pollute waterways but didn’t clean your clothes, either. Howard, Bush and Blair soon returned us to times of plasma-screen plenty, terrorism hogged the headlines and we forgot the environment again.

Stern, Gore, DiCaprio and a host of other celebrity, political and scientific pundits reminded us that the clock is ticking and this time it looks like we’re taking the warnings seriously. We’re all responsible and as homemakers, airline operators, oil drillers or designers we all have to do our part. And for designers, it means a lot more than recycled paper stock.

First of all, we all have to change our behaviour. Cutting through the marketing-friendly chaff to find out how to make a real difference can be challenging and time consuming, but a great jumping off point is Part e-zine, part petition, part manifesto, it contains a wealth of things to consider and questions to ask yourself about your own practices.

A beautifully designed website, it’s the brainchild of sustainable communication design and consultancy VIOLA eco-graphic design. The real substance of the site is found in the Guide, an interactive sustainability instruction manual on design, paper, printing and packaging. Each section’s full of information about everything from ISO standards to checklists on how to make your project as earth-friendly as it can be. There are also examples of design projects that got it right and an area where you can sign up to pledge your support to the cause.

But there’s more to being green than following a prescribed set of behaviours, and designers are also leading the charge. The product of American marketing consultancy J Ottman, Design:Green is an initiative to spread sustainable design throughout the field. We all know we’re drowning in excess packaging and live in a throwaway society, and Design:Green teaches everyone from product designers to engineers how low toxicity, easy assembly, reduced packaging and enhanced product life can benefit manufacturers, consumers and the planet.

Then there’s the million little things we can all do on a daily basis, as outlined on the blog 101 Things Designers Can Do To Save Earth, where you can read about joining like-minded sustainable designers, turning your computers off at night and more.

In fact, designers can adapt more general green thinking to our own way of working. You’ve heard of buying local, where shoppers buy fresh, locally-grown produce at markets rather than corporate supermarkets who’ve flown the same products from across the world.

Why not try to do the same? Few books with colour interiors are printed in Australia these days – it’s cheaper to print them in Asia even after freight costs are taken into account. Why not convince large clients to print locally to avoid the emissions of air transport? Yes they’ll take a financial hit, but they (and you) will be able to trade on an earth-friendly reputation.

We could also create an industry-wide opt-in catalogue mailing system, much like the national Do Not Call register. Even aside from the huge number of householders who throw junk mail away, there’s the forestloads of paper going to outdated addresses or lapsed customers. US lingerie maker Victoria’s Secret sends out one million catalogues every day. If you manage a list or database that sends paper to a number of subscribers or customers, clean it up regularly.

Ink on paper

Of course, it can be argued the worlds of media and publishing (with design underpinning them) are among the worst offenders, decimating ecosystems the world over thanks to a voracious appetite for wood. That’s even without the use of inks, just one of the millions of toxic chemicals we’re surrounded by every day.

We can still make improvements to a less-than perfect supply chain. The biggest is obviously recycled paper, and with the advent of deforestation awareness, it’s taken off. You might be surprised to learn that very little paper in Australia comes from overseas sources, in fact only 11 percent of it in the form of imported pulp.

Tony Wood, Manager of the Australasian Paper Industry Association, explains the breakdown. “48 percent of paper manufactured in Australia comes from recycled sources,” he says. “26 percent comes from plantation – or farmed – timber, 8 percent from regrown natural forest and 7 percent from sawmill residues.”

The industry also become very clever about sustainability long before it became so cool. “There are still white recycled stocks, but they’re not really worth the energy involved in bleaching,” Wood reports, “especially when virgin fibre comes from sustainable sources like plantations.”

Even the humble printing ink is undergoing change, such as the increasing popularity of soy inks. It’s not what it sounds like – you can’t eat your business cards any more safely than before as the inks still contain pigments that can contain heavy metals like zinc or barium.

The soybean oil replaces the cheaper but less environmentally friendly petroleum oil, but what about the results? Growing design company Bird Studios had all its stationery done with soy inks. “Colours are more stable throughout a print run, which helps when you’re using recycled paper,” says director Adrianne Barba, “and colours are more intense and bright because soybean oil’s clearer than petroleum. They perform better on the press, with my printer reporting less spoilage. It also spreads about 15 percent further than conventional inks so the printer uses less.”

In fact, with so many raw materials ripe for improvement, the printing world is changing fast. As reported in February Desktop, the continuing move to digital is going to clean the field up in more ways than one. A plate-and-ink print operation can look (and smell) like a bomb in a chemical plant, and it results in a lot of environmentally sensitive disposal of excess ink and harsh cleaning chemicals.

By contrast, a digital print operation can look more like a hospital room with a huge CT scan machine, without a drop of ink on the floor or a lung full of chemical fumes. And though we’re a long way from digital being as cost effective as traditional printing for large jobs, it’ll only become cheaper the more we use it.

Then there are the innovations that sound like science fiction, like synthetic paper. US company Yupo supplies a polymer and hydrocarbon-based product and have been doing so for 30 years. Obviously it hasn’t caught on in a big way, but one day soon when we’re fighting wars over water, broadband and wood pulp, man-made paper might well hit its stride.

The waste from the printing process can also be put to use. Funky desk stationery made from off cuts makes a cool gift to clients, or you can keep press checks stock bound for the bin for brainstorming and never need buy a sketchpad.

In fact, before you even get to press stage you can look back further to reduce paper waste. Get your printer involved early and find out what will be used according to your clients choice about paper stock. If you know the size of the form or folio, avoiding bleed where possible or adjusting the components of your project so they fit comfortably will reduce wasteful off cuts and who knows, cutting down your printer’s disposal bill might give you grounds to negotiate a better rate.

Rise of the Machines

Of course, the tools of a designers trade are mostly circuits with plastic casing, and since the Internet age and the affordability of home computing before it, the number of home PCs has skyrocketed. With so many multinational corporate names involved in the race to release ever-more powerful computers to stimulate endless growth, the disposal of computer hardware is the biggest concern in 21st century waste management, and no hardware vendor is complete without a sustainability vision.

In Desktop’s estimation, the efforts being made by electronics vendors remain poor at best. Yes, a lot of pretty web pages talk about eliminating chemicals from the manufacturing process and improving packaging and product design, but little is being done to manage the growing pile of old, unused equipment in our society.

Apple holds recycling events where you can take old laptops and computers to be ‘processed by an Apple approved and authorised recycler’ – whatever that means. At the time of writing, the last event was held in several Brisbane locations over six months ago.

Dell rates better, holding similar recycling days across the country but also offering to take your old computer away for recycling for free when you purchase a Dell system.

It’s actually surprising how few products are marketed as being genuinely green in this eco-aware age. One is the D-Link Green Ethernet switch, the DGS-1008D. It actually disconnects unused ports from the power, reducing heat and power consumption and – according to D-Link – extending the life of the product.

Of course, computer and AV machinery doesn’t consume nearly as much power as motor-driven devices like your clothes dryer or blow heater, but if more manufacturers follow D-Link’s example and look for small corners to cut, it might make a difference in heavily-wired houses of the power-hungry future.

Then there are the gains to be made by not using as much stuff to begin with. As we connect more stuff not just in our offices but the living room and beyond, wireless networks could save the day. If they mature enough to be as user-friendly and robust as Ethernet, think of all the cable manufacturing, packaging and transport it’ll save.

Lastly, spend a little time looking into providers who offer sustainable services. The more of them we patronise, the louder the message to industry will be that we want more of it. Web hosting would seem pretty environmentally inert, but it takes a lot of electricity to power all those racks and clean rooms. That is unless you use ecoSky, a US hosting provider who powers all its equipment by wind, solar and sustainable means and whose prices are comparable or better than traditionally powered services.

The Soft Launch

The beauty of software is that it doesn’t really exist. Like the human soul, it’s the ghost in the machine, nothing but computational calculations in the processor and the firing of LCD cells on your monitor.

If only that were true. The large software packages you rely on to make your living every day still come with the installer burnt on an optical disc, in cardboard or plastic packaging and often with large paper manuals or guides you’ll likely not even use. Some publishers are offering software download instead of box products, and as Internet access gets better in Australia, delivering large software packages via the web will become more viable.

We can also avoid a lot of paper during the creation and manipulation of digital files. Proofing for clients is best done at pre-press stage, where your printer can assure you of accurate colour through software-based spec profiles. Start your project with the correct PMS colours or CMYK breakdowns, then proof them once from the best possible source rather than 10 times from a dodgy laser printer that won’t give you an accurate result anyway.

And don’t forget to take advantage of the PDF and its expanded toolset. With each new version, Acrobat gives you new powers to annotate, comment, share and distribute documents, so you and your client never have to send scrawled notes back and forth on printed or fax copies again.

While we’re talking about stuff in electronic rather than paper form, it’s worth mentioning a little thing called the World Wide Web. Has it meant a reduction in paper consumption? Hardly. It’s true a lot of dense, dry information like academic and legal records is better serviced online than in obscure print form, but the bulk of web content is like TV in the cinema era, a new and different media rather than a replacement to what already existed.

Plus, we as a society inherently trust hard copy documentation – just look at the inauspicious uptake of digital signature technologies. Take the lead. Whether you work alone or oversee a global advertising corporation, look for areas to eliminate paper use by having anything from payroll records and staff contracts to client file access in a secure intranet. It can be updated constantly, fully scalable as you grow and deployed worldwide for free.

The Rest of the World

Hardware, software, the web and printing aside, there’s a lot we do in common with the rest of the business world like travelling, seeing clients and drinking coffee.

Improved broadband and audiovisual communications technologies might help wean us off our addiction to the car. Telecommuting not just by email but virtually visiting clients or the head office will become more realistic as technologies like video chat and VOIP become mature.

Nobody’s suggesting we all devolve to unshowered hermits cut off from each other except via wires. But a city full of people travelling to common workplaces results in huge transport emissions, and if we can keep human contact for when it’s necessary rather than just traditional, it’ll clear the roads as well as the air.

If you can’t avoid crisscrossing the city from client to office to client to lunch and back again, consider a service like Flexicar. Based in Melbourne and Sydney, it provides a network of cars around the city that you use on an as-needed basis, potentially taking a lot of little-used cars off the road. As general manager Monique Conheady describes it, “It provides inner city residents and businesses access to a car when they need one, avoiding the costs of car ownership.”

When you book a flight nowadays, both domestic airlines have a button or link somewhere offering to take a small further sum off your hands to offset the carbon emissions from your flight.

But the first step is to stop, take a minute to look at every aspect of your workday. Avail yourself of the technologies, services and practices that are helping save the Earth, but the old cliché is true. The first step starts with you.