What Is Sustainable Design?

What is sustainable design? Is it sustainable aesthetics? Is it a carbon off-setting scheme? I appreciate that environmentalism without class warfare is just gardening – I have outlined my Design Sustainability Pledge on this site, and I am making active measures to lessen my footprint on the planet.

image from rawpixel id 2895435 jpeg scaled

What Does Sustainable Design Look Like?

This question continues to fascinate me. I have past works that I felt fell into 3 types “answers” — and then a 4th wild card…

  • Sustainable Design Looks The Same — Good design is good design. If you pick the right materials or processes sustainable design doesn’t need to look or be any different.
  • Sustainable Design Looks Eco-Friendly — Clearly wearing one’s environmental and social activism on one’s sleeve. Renewable energy, plant motifs, brown paper, natural dyes, etc.
  • Sustainable Design Looks Innovative — Sustainability brings with it new ways of thinking, new tools, new technology; and so visuals should be new and innovative too…
  • AND, Sustainable Design Does Not Exist!

“Sustainable design does not exist” was at first pessimistic. Is design all just trash? does design create waste period, so nothing is sustainable? Anything we make is unmaking so much else; so all design is unsustainable.

But! “Sustainable design does not exist” came to signify an alternative; it didn’t exist because it was ephemeral! because it reused existing objects in a new way! that it left no trace! that it was part of some continuous vernacular process! suddenly this was a prompt for new works; new questions; new directions! A useful constraint for future work.

Defining Sustainable Design

In the 2013 book Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, John Ehrenfeld writes “The key to doing something about sustainability is that you first have to say what it is that you want to sustain.” To define sustainable graphic design we must first define what it is we are sustaining.

To define sustainable design we must first define what it is we are sustaining.

Sustainable graphic design is design in service of what we want to sustain — how do you decide what’s worth sustaining? (because, if we pick the wrong thing, say we want to sustain the status quo, then that is what sustainable graphic design is — hmmm!? Revolution, anyone?).

Ehrenfeld wants to sustain “that all humans and other life should flourish.”

Designer Bruce Mau has a similar description for the goals of Massive Change: “Our project is the welfare of all life as a practical objective.”

Sustainable design is “design in support of all life flourishing,” or, “design for the welfare of all life.”

Subscribe

1 sRZOX81UmLfjtSRCqAirYQ

Is Sustainable Design Different?

Sustainable Design defined this way is different than “regular,” cultural production. All life flourishing is not the traditional goal of business, culture, and design.

Throughout western art and design history new or “different” thinking and tools correlate with new aesthetic outcomes.

Sustainability brings with it all manner of new technologies, new social structures, new tools. Should Sustainable graphic design then carry with it additional new forms and aesthetics?

An example: Selecting a font

Should a font’s appearance matter as much as the energy and material and social ills it saves? Is selecting a font that uses minimal ink the best way to select a font? Would a font that is condensed, that uses up less space (saving paper over a print run; exposure to chemicals to the printer) be better? Can we combine the these? The thinest, most condensed, lightest ink coverage font is the most sustainable? This can easily be taken absurd lengths. This might be “Critical Design,” critiquing the status quo; it tackles resultant outcomes from a resource perspective; but does it embrace “the welfare of all life?” Making choices around resource use might make “less bad” design, does it make for sustainable design?

“Sustainable Design Looks Ideological!”

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby write in their 2001 book Design Noir: The Secret Life of Objects that “all design is ideological, the design process is informed by values based on a specific world view.” If our world view is “the welfare of all life,” how does that shift what and how we graphic design?

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are proponents of “critical design,” design that “provides a critique of the prevailing situation through designs that embody alternative social, cultural, technical, or economic values.”

Sustainable design is not just design that helps people and our planet, but design that is also critical of existing social, cultural, technical, AND economic structures; since many of these things are harming all life, not helping them to flourish.

We judge graphic design on whether or not it is formally “good.” But, we use visual criteria for “formal goodness” or “beauty” are part of the systems we must be critical of.

Contemporary formal goodness evolved from late 19th through mid-20th centuries western art traditions.

A Descent Down The Black Hole That Is Beauty

In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton writes: “To call a work of architecture or design beautiful is to recognise it as a rendition of values critical to our flourishing. A transubstantiation of our individual ideals in a material medium.” This would then seem that However our ideals are materialised into graphic design yields “beautiful” graphic design.

This then implies that Sustainable designers must see the non-sustainable as the less than beautiful. Edwin Datschefksi calls this “the hidden ugliness of traditional products. ”Basically, the non-sustainable is (& can only be) ugly.

Beauty will align with your values. A design is both sustainable AND beautiful when its form declares that humans and all other life should flourish. Is there a style, aesthetic, or form says this?

“To call a work of architecture or design beautiful is to recognize it as a rendition of values critical to our flourishing. A transubstantiation of our individual ideals in material medium.” – Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Alain de Botton thinks that Beauty’s perception aligns with one’s values. However our ideals are materialised into graphic design yields “beautiful” design.

Sustainable design’s form declares “humans & all life should flourish.” / If those are the values we want to align with, then beautiful design’s form declares “humans & all life should flourish.

A design is both sustainable AND beautiful when its form declares that humans and all other life should flourish.

Sustainable Design = Beautiful Design

If your design doesn’t account for the welfare of all life, whatever the external aesthetics that wrap it, your design is ugly. Edwin Datschefksi calls this “the hidden ugliness of traditional products.” — You are missing a component of holistic “beauty.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, Molly Bawn, 1878

How can both “Sustainable Design = Beautiful Design” AND “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” be true?

How Does a sustainabilitist account for pluralities as to what constitutes “beautiful?”

A Conclusion?

Design critic Bruce Sterling outlines three criteria for objects worth making, owning, and keeping:

  • Beautiful Things
  • Sentimental Things
  • Utilitarian Things

“There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named. It is never twice the same, because it always takes its shape from the particular place in which it occurs.”

The qualities that promote the welfare of all life are, like the quality without a name, ineffable. And like the quality without a name, aesthetics that correspond with all life flourishing will shift and change with different contexts.

What does sustainable design look like? it doesn’t matter.

I used to be hung up on the visual aesthetics. I wanted sustainable things to LOOK DIFFERENT to have their own aesthetic… but what I’ve learned is that that doesn’t matter. The way things look will be influences by all the other contexts of a project. You might intentionally try to not replicate a sort of capitalist or unsustainable aesthetic; but you also might need those things to say or do what you wish…

As long as the goals of the project are “all life flourishing” — or the like — you’re going to end up with Sustainable Graphic Design!? The end?

Pin It on Pinterest