Sustainability in the Design Process

It’s Not Easy Being Green

The definition of “good design” is shifting, and green design is increasingly being recognized as a vital component. As designers reassess our roles, many are endeavoring to invoke consciousness around sustainability at every step in the design process.

The good news is when you can drive down the road and see 30′ high inflatable vulcanized rubber gorillas extolling the virtues of buying green, then you know that sustainability has come to the mainstream. The message has penetrated our collective consciousness: we need to lead more sustainable lives.
The bad news is when a 30′ high inflatable vulcanized rubber gorilla represents someone’s idea of how to be sustainable, then we might have a little room for improvement on the implementation side. There are, of course, practical problems with the rubber itself (and the electricity to keep him inflated), but the larger issues are cultural. You should feel ridiculous buying a car at this lot; as a business owner, you should be ashamed to be this out of touch.

I believe most designers want to do the right thing (indeed, most people want to do the right thing), but we don’t always know what the right thing is, nor do we know where to start if we want to get there. As a profession, we need to start by thinking about design in a larger way. Today, good design is green design; sustainable considerations need to be inherent to the design process, not bolted on as an afterthought. Clients should not have to ask for a green solution; it should be endemic to our approach as problem solvers.


The more you learn about the environmental impacts of choices and behaviors, the more likely you’ll be to implement meaningful sustainability practices, which will make you more valuable to your clients. But even though lots of people already realize this (and we’ve already established that most people want to do the right thing), it can be daunting. Sustainability is complex and entails a steep learning curve. Additionally, everyone is pressed. Who has time for this?
So let’s break it down into manageable pieces and see how far we get.

Consult The Living Principles for Design: The Living Principles is a new framework for design that distills the collective wisdom of some of the world’s best thinkers. In addition to helping you apply sustainability in a more integrated fashion, it will also serve as a common touchstone for the profession: the portal through which everyone passes on their way to learn about sustainability, and the communal resource to which everyone returns to share what they have found. The Living Principles is offered as a body of knowledge to which the entire profession can refer.

Start a library with a few key texts: There’s no shortage of books related to sustainability, and new titles are flooding the market. For the design profession, there are a few key texts that should be found in every studio library. Even if you don’t think you have time to read them yourself, buy a few copies and have them handy for your staff/co-workers. Buy copies for your clients, give them as gifts. Seriously.

Nathan Shedroff runs a sustainable MBA program at California College of the Arts. His seminal text Design is the Problem provides an extensive overview of sustainable principles, existing frameworks, and real-world examples. It’s a very good big-picture overview of how sustainable concepts map to the world of design.
Brian Dougherty is a partner at Celery Design Collaborative and a founding member of the board of advisors for the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design. He has been practicing green design for as long as anyone and provides tons of practical information and advice in his book Green Graphic Design, an indispensable resource.

In Packaging Sustainability by Wendy Jedlicka, you’ll find a wonderful collection of essays and articles about tools, systems, and strategies for creating packaging with minimal eco impact. If you’re involved in packaging in any way, you’ll find it of tremendous interest.

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart has a few years on it, but still holds a lot of water. Its frame of reference is broader and readers can expect to acquire a solid foundation for the application of basic sustainable principles to a wide variety of industries.

Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism and The Ecology of Commerce provide a crucial understanding of the legislative and economic contexts in which our efforts reside. To truly become sustainable, we have to incorporate these principles into the operating system of government and commerce.

And finally, Daniel Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence will open your eyes to the ecological consequences of everything that we do in our daily lives, the “hidden price of what we buy.”

For an expanded reading list, consult the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design website at


People learn in different ways. Some will curl up with the aforementioned books—others need to get out of the house. There are numerous ways to meet others who are interested in sustainability; industry events and special interest groups abound.

Attend a conference dedicated to the topic: Compostmodern is a biennial conference devoted to sustainable design held in San Francisco. Speaker presentations can be seen on the event’s website.

Meet some people: Across the country, various AIGA chapters are producing Green Salons—informal gatherings for designers to make connections and jump-start action. See the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design website for details.

Join the Designers Accord:
The Designers Accord is a global coalition working together to create positive environmental and social impact. Adopters commit to guidelines that provide collective and individual ways to integrate sustainability into design.

Reset that browser: There are numerous blogs, sites, tweets, etc. devoted to sustainable ideals. Steering your browser to destinations like Worldchanging, GOOD Magazine, TreeHugger, and Grist will ensure that your media diet has enough healthy fiber in it. Many of these sites have lively event schedules.

Look beyond the design community:
What constitutes success for your company or your client in this regard? Everybody is trying to figure this out right now. How do your efforts correspond to those found in your clients’ industries? How are those things being expressed? Whether it’s through certification schemes, auditing, triple-bottom-line reporting, or other means of demonstrating transparency—many industries and organizations are grappling with sustainability and trying to communicate their own point of view on the subject.


As designers, one of our many roles is to make things. This facet of the profession is tangible and compelling. There’s a strong tradition of making in the profession, and it can be difficult to embrace the absence of something as design. But one of the first challenges we face is to help clients decide what physical artifacts are truly needed and to produce only what’s needed, and not more. To paraphrase Core77’s Allan Chochinov, we’re not in the artifact business, we’re in the consequence business.

When we do need to create physical stuff such as brochures, handouts, packaging, and other artifacts, it’s our job to produce them with forethought. Seek out, test, and recommend better physical materials and avoid the use of any substance that may cause environmental damage to air quality, water, or the earth.

Start an eco paper library: For many designers, paper choice is the low-hanging fruit of sustainability. And paper choice does indeed make a difference. Creating your own eco paper library will make it easier to more quickly specify papers that exhibit good ecological characteristics, such as 100% postconsumer waste (PCW), processed chlorine free (PCF), uncoated, FSC certified, or made with renewable energy (e.g., wind power, geothermal, solar). Tree-free papers made with bamboo, hemp, or kenaf can also be found. is the best online resource to stay connected to what’s available, and Mohawk Fine Papers Inc. offers a great tool to calculate environmental savings.

Know your packaging material: Similarly, create your own resource of good packaging materials and vendors. When possible, select materials derived from organically grown ingredients, such as organic cotton, organic flowers, and organic produce; or choose alternative renewables such as hemp, bamboo, jute, and seagrass. Specify items that are constructed with the fewest nonrenewable resources (such as petroleum byproducts). Choose products that are made using sustainably sourced renewable resources. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, ask. Eliminate waste locally whenever possible.

One important part of making is to assess durability. Should the artifacts you design be made to last longer or to decompose more easily? Can your materials be designed for multiple functions? Can they be repaired? Recovered? Reused?

For packaging resources, take a look at ecolect, which offers news and information about sustainable materials in packaging and beyond, from the eco-viability of natural cork to the breakdown on biodegradable PLAs. Also check out Sustainable Is Good, a website and blog that tracks new developments in packaging.

Nothing is exempt from consideration:
There are those who don’t believe sustainability is within design’s purview. Once in a workshop, I had a sarcastic retort of, “Are you going to tell us that Garamond has a carbon footprint?” I wish I had known then about Ecofont. Devised by the Dutch communications agency SPRANQ, this typeface is designed to cut down on ink consumption by riddling each letter with tiny (inkless) circles. I’m not convinced that this act of microscopic conservation is going to save the planet necessarily, but I find it a delightful example of someone inserting sustainable thinking into an unexpected place. It should give us pause to consider any design tool.

Think color: The color choices you make (i.e., the ink choices you make) ultimately affect the environment. When printed pieces ultimately end up at the landfill or de-inking facility, not all colors are created equal. Metallic and fluorescent inks are a challenge in reclamation—many contain high levels of metals. The book Green Graphic Design mentioned earlier provides a handy reference on this subject.

Waste not, want not:
How closely do you pay attention to your print production? If your design fits properly on your press sheet, paper waste will be negligible. Better yet, design pieces with the finished size in mind to maximize standard sized press sheets. Ask your printer for an imposition. Re-nourish offers a helpful online calculator to minimize paper waste.

If the printed piece you’re designing can’t be sized to optimize the press sheet, use the extra room to drop in bookmarks, business cards, or other small print objects. Keep a standing file of small items that can be inserted onto a press sheet at the last minute (or a standing list of nonprofits who would benefit from free printing).

Publish online: As publishing tasks transfer increasingly online, Web apps with high design standards and intuitive features like Issuu are great for publishing magazines, media kits, and presentations.

Check your karma: Upcycling is the practice of taking something disposable and transforming it into something of greater use and value. (The term was coined by McDonaugh and Braungart in their book Cradle to Cradle.) A great example of upcycling is The Revinylize Project, an AIGA initiative. These folks reclaim billboard material and transform it into smaller works of art in the form of unique vinyl messenger bags. Sweet. What do you have lying around that could be upcycled?


So we’ve established that designers are oftentimes called upon to make stuff, and we’ve accounted for the act of making and producing physical things with tangible properties. But perhaps more importantly as it relates to sustainability, we’re also the creators of the messages that go on that stuff. These messages have intangible properties—and are more difficult to quantify—but are the key to design’s power to connect people with ideas, motivate action, and change behavior. The transformative power of design shapes values and represents tremendous opportunity related to sustainability. It’s up to us to help make good messages. Those of us who enjoy strategic relationships with our clients should take full advantage of this possibility.

The elephant in the room is overconsumption: Look the elephant in the eye. The messages, artifacts, and experiences that we create can compel people to want to live sustainably; work to make those visions desirable to people. Can we help to create a vision of the future that’s happier and healthier than the one currently in the works?

Design stuff your mom will be proud of: Created by a communications firm, The Green Team, After These Messages is an online tool to assess the “goodness” of communication (in addition to its aesthetic qualities). By posing questions like, “Would you be proud to show this to your mother?” and “Does it contribute to society?” a grid plots where your work fits: closer to heaven or hell? Closer to hack or genius?

Scrutinize carefully:
The late Tibor Kalman urged designers to decline work from companies asking us to lie for them. While most companies aren’t engaged in lying per se, many are willing to use vague language or marketing tactics. Greenwashing is irresponsible and creates cynicism in the marketplace related to environmental claims. TerraChoice’s Seven Sins of Greenwashing examines the veracity of marketing claims in an attempt to deflate this unfortunate phenomenon.

Make sustainability an issue: Add a sustainability section to your website. Include your approach. Post a sustainability manifesto. Make it part of the conversation with your client from your first meeting and treat sustainability as an inherent part of your design process. Nobody else brought it up? Get props for being the first to do so.

Share what you know with your clients about the environmental impacts of their choices and behaviors. Whether you’re freelance, in-house, or working with a design firm or studio—what part of your job description accounts for good design? How can it be amended to reflect sustainable consciousness?


Do you really need that face-to-face meeting? How about a conference call instead? iChat? Adobe Acrobat Connect? Is it worth a 42-mile drive (or a four-hour flight) to meet with a client physically? How can you make your client and vendor interactions more sustainable? Sometimes meetings are necessary; clients should pay for carbon offsets when that’s the case (be sure to build such agreements into your contracts). Check out LiveNeutral to calculate how much CO2 you’re spewing when you travel by car or plane. The AIGA CarbonCool program helps individuals and studios account for this dynamic.

When possible, collaborate with clients and vendors online and share information electronically. Adobe Acrobat and are great for individual project edits. For multifaceted projects, try Basecamp. Rather than print presentations, share them online with SlideShare.

The company you keep: Choose suppliers that have addressed the environment through their processes. Ask your suppliers questions. How do they manage their supply chain? Are they FSC certified? To what other professional organization or industry standards do they belong or subscribe? Specifically ask suppliers about their energy use. Choose suppliers that maximize the use of clean energy sources such as wind and solar in manufacturing, transportation, and product use. The AIGA Design and Business Ethics Series (No. 7) has a nice list of questions to ask your printer.

Participate in a worthwhile initiative: Design activism is on the rise and there are plenty of great social design initiatives in which to participate. Design Ignites Change by Worldstudio issues challenges for the exploration and creation of solutions for pressing social problems. You can become a mentor through your local design school—implementation grants and scholarships help bring the best ideas to life. Along similar lines, Sappi’s Ideas that Matter program awards grants to designers with worthy social agendas. Project H, Project M, Design 21, and the SoftSpot also incubate and nurture design projects with socially motivated goals.

Take matters into your own hands: If commercial work isn’t providing you with the level of engagement you seek, find some sympathetic conspirators. Look within your organization—who is on the green team? If there isn’t one, then start one yourself. Don’t ask permission. It starts with a lunch group, then an email list—where it goes from there is up to you.


In addition to whatever your clients and industry organizations may require of you, what you do within the scope of your own operations is worth considering. By now, we’re all rinsing out our cans, replacing the light bulbs, composting, biking to work, and drinking from the tap, right? Well, how can you take it further? Can you effectively work from home one day a week? How much of your commute can you cut down? How can you better integrate your own recycling efforts with your building and municipal collection? Can you make a point of serving your clients tap water?

Purchase green electricity: Use wind power to offset your studio’s electrical use. This involves purchasing offset amounts that your local utility must add to the energy grid, equivalent to the amount of electricity you use.

Consult LEED guidelines for other business management and facilities considerations, or look at the Green Office Punchlist (PDF) for other studio-oriented or small business-related suggestions.

Rethink how your business works: Not content with the client work he was getting, Michael Osborne created an entirely separate business entity into which he could channel his nonprofit efforts via Joey’s Corner. Obtaining 501(c)(3) status and dedicating resources and funding enables him to pursue these projects in a more meaningful fashion.


Ultimately, each of us will be making changes in how we run our lives. Sustainable concerns will become more prominent in the future and we’ll need to personally embrace sustainable principles and practices. There will be increasing premiums or penalties placed on our energy consumption, water usage, garbage handling, and carbon footprints. Each of us contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change and will be called upon to account for how heavily we sit upon the earth. Knowing where to start measuring from is a good place to begin.

Measure your footprint: There are several carbon footprint calculators available, such as the one by The Nature Conservancy. Saul Griffith believes that our energy usage (as expressed in watts) is the most important metric. His site allows you to track your energy consumption and take steps toward reining it in. Information graphics from Kirk von Rohr demonstrate how design can be used to explain complex phenomena.

Reduce your personal paper consumption: Rather than print documents to keep hard copy files, develop a systematic digital filing system or maintain records online. Do you really need to print it? When you do print, print on both sides, and save leftovers for notepaper.

Get off of mailing lists: Reclaim your mailbox. Organizations like Catalog Choice,, and the Bay Area’s Stop Junk Mail can help.


Design is a fascinating profession, poised at the intersection of art and commerce. We make our livings by working with intangibles to create desire. To do so, we often make things. But there are consequences to our actions: It’s through this recognition that we can also embrace our collective influence. Designers can use our power as communicators, specifiers, tastemakers, and trendsetters to envision and create a bright new future. Sustainability represents nothing less that the opportunity to redesign how the world works.
Let’s get it right this time.

The SoftSpot
Sustainable design is less about green design in the traditional sense, and more about an overall humanitarian design. That’s the concept behind the initiative, SoftSpot. To be a “Softy” means participating in design collaboration in which a cross platform of skill sets is celebrated. The hope is to create a healthier, creatively driven, and more prosperous community.

Ashley Ciecka
Co-creator The SoftSpot,
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Commercial brands create false tribes. A brand based on shared beliefs creates authentic human connections. Enter (<), the world’s first open-source brand. Pronounced less, the (<) mark allows people to join and define the consumption reduction movement without the need to buy anything. (<) aspires to be an internationally recognizable symbol, like a peace sign, but for a new generation grappling with sustainability.

Ben Davis
I Shot Him Because I Loved Him, Damn Him

Hybrids are great at saving fuel on their own, but real fuel savings come with changes in the driver’s behavior. The Ford Fusion Hybrid SmartGauge LCD dashboard is designed to help people make driving efficiently feel like normal driving. We really finessed both the design and the data to make efficient driving intuitive, without being pushy or distracting, or taking away from the fun of driving. Part of the challenge of sustainability is resetting the baseline: sustainable choices have to feel obvious and everyday.

Michael Jones
Smart Design

Wipe Wisely
Sustainable design goes beyond using recycled paper and soy inks. For me, it’s about changing behavior and introducing new ways of thinking. In this project—PULP, tree-free toilet paper made with 100% sugarcane—we worked to transform a mundane product into a fun talking point to reveal truths about the paper industry.

Jenny Pan

Jason Schulte Design

Changing Patterns

R3 is a creative think tank, joined by educators and graphic designers. Our purpose is to promote sustainable design by examining product lifecycles and creating more holistic solutions. The resulting collection of books showcases each designer’s innovative solutions—and how they directly benefit people’s lives. This forward-looking project demonstrates design’s integral part in changing patterns of behavior.

Tom Sieu, Founder, R3
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The Race to Green
G1 Grand Prix is a concept race that sanctions environmentally friendly vehicles powered by electric motors, hybrid-electric motors, and alternative fuels against each other in a competitive racing circuit through the city streets of San Francisco. It aims to preserve the excitement of motorsports entertainment while advancing alternative energy technology.

Vincent “ViLO56” Lo
Astro Studios (personal) (work)


The following resources are alphabetized according to the section of the article they appeared in.

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart:
Design is the Problem by Nathan Shedroff:
Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman:
Green Graphic Design by Brian Dougherty:
The Living Principles:
Natural Capitalism and The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken:
Packaging Sustainability by Wendy Jedlicka:

AIGA Green Salons:
The Designers Accord:
GOOD Magazine:

Ecolect, Inc:
Mohawk Environmental Calculator:
Re-nourish Project Calculator:
The Revinylize Project:
Sustainable Is Good:

After These Messages:
TerraChoice’s Seven Sins of Greenwashing:

Adobe Acrobat Connect:
AIGA CarbonCool program:
Design 21: Social Design Network:
Design Ignites Change:
LiveNeutral CO2 Calculator:
Project H Design:
Project M:
Sappi: Ideas that Matter:
SlideShare Inc.:

Green Office Punchlist:
Joey’s Corner:

Catalog Choice:
The Nature Conservancy Carbon Footprint Calculator:
Stop Junk Mail: