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At AIGA, the professional association of design in the United States, looking at its environmental impact involved a top-to-bottom review. Literally. From the furnace in the basement to the asphalt on the roof. As Ric Grefé, AIGA executive director, explains, “We brought in an engineer to audit our building, our energy usage and our operations. We looked at everything from the type of fuel our messenger services used to the paint we used to repaint the walls between shows.”

The most visible example of AIGA's commitment to lessen its carbon footprint can be found five floors up, on the 100' X 25' living roof. Designed to combat the effects of “heat island” reflection of solar radiation back into the atmosphere, the grass roof serves as one small way to reduce global warming. It also reduces the temperature fluctuation between the roof and the floor below. But at a footprint of just 100' X 25', why bother?

“We installed it because we could make a greater difference than by not doing it,” Grefé says. “It’s not meant to be a solution. It’s meant to be a step in a process to reduce our impact. And it has served as a good example. People come from all over to see it as an example of eco-design.”

While people may be traveling long and far to visit AIGA’s green roof, travel is something AIGA is looking long and hard at. “We’re rethinking large-scale conferences.” Grefé states. “Do we really need our members to fly across the country?” 

To reduce the impact of all that air travel—AIGA estimates its total carbon impact is six million pounds a year—AIGA instituted CarbonCool, a program that purchases carbon offsets. But not just any carbon offsets. Instead of simply buying their way out, AIGA looked for offsets that could make a difference. They eventually purchased 30,000 fruit trees to be planted in Nepal. “We wanted something that would last 30 years and not get cut down.” Check back in a few years, for carbon offsets you can sink your teeth into.

Kansas City-based designer Ann Willoughby describes herself as a child of the sixties and says, “We’ve been interested in sustainability before there was a word for it.”

So when it came time to expand her farmhouse in Weston, Missouri, Willoughby visited a friend’s farm for inspiration and she fell in love with a century-old barn. Along with el dorado architects, Willoughby disassembled the barn, trucked it to her working farm, and began the process of restoring the pine timbers of the barn, reusing what she could. The floor is recycled from an old gymnasium, the paneling from a building destroyed in a flood. Roof and walls are clad in copper, a material Willoughby chose because of its 100-year life span. Because the barn lets in so much natural light, and is sited to catch the breeze, it requires only one fan to power the ventilation system.

Today the 2,750-square-foot barn is used as a corporate retreat and educational facility. Willoughby Design hosts conferences that bring together designers, architects, engineers and CEOs to focus on food security, the future of energy and how design can find new ideas to solve legacy problems around sustainability.

As Willoughby states, “Building the barn wasn’t back to the farm, it’s on to the future. The barn stands for what we symbolize as a company. Once designers are educated, we can go out and talk to our clients about sustainability. We need to clarify it, understand it, visualize it and then communicate it.”

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Designer and brand communicator Cheryl Heller has a vision: turn an abandoned manufacturing plant on 107 acres of land in Connecticut into a factory for new ideas. Heller calls it Crowflies, and it is designed to function off the grid, grow its own food and serve as a think-tank for social entrepreneurs. Already in the works is a biochar furnace designed by Jason Aramburu that will convert agricultural waste to diesel, in the process producing charcoal for fertilizer and carbon sequestration. 

Crowflies is the culmination of Heller’s work in sustainability over the last eight years. And if there is one thing she has learned, it is she says, “that small changes will not be enough. Corporations are making incremental sustainable changes, but growing exponentially. There are limits to our system, the planet has a set amount of resources, and we’re not living within it.”

The need for big impact has inspired Heller to engage with “the outliers, mavericks and amateurs” who are developing new models for sustainability and social good. To make them more effective, Heller’s firm, Heller Communication Design offers low-cost brand camps for nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Designed to build a brand, these workshops help nonprofits communicate their messages to better effect change, inspire action and increase fundraising.

Her soon-to-launch online community, CommonWise, is intended to make the commonly held wisdom of branding, advertising, design and marketing professionals available, open, and freely accessible to anyone who wants to become a social entrepreneur. Heller hopes the site will help entrepreneurs succeed in their goals to create a life-sustaining world. CommonWise will provide mentors, tools, inspiration and education.

To help educate the next generation of sustainably-minded designers, Heller is creating an MFA program for the School of Visual Arts called Design for Social Innovation. Pending approval by the New York State Board of Education, the program is due to launch a year from now.

Midst all this activity and her own self-education, Heller finds herself “having devoted so much time to getting things going, we’re lucky to find ourselves working with the kinds of clients we believe in.”

Packaging is the Rodney Dangerfield of design. It just doesn’t get any respect. But packaging matters, if for no other reason than it comprises one-third of the waste stream, accounts for three percent of global GDPand keeps our Wheaties fresh.

“If there were no packaging,“ designer Wendy Jedlicka states, “we would not have our current way of life.” Jedlicka, the author of Packaging Sustainability, claims, “With no packaging, there’s no trade.”

For Jedlicka, who also runs her own packaging, graphic and sustainability design firm in Minneapolis, looking at the visual aspect of packaging is just the beginning. “I can make a package more eco-friendly without ever touching it. By adjusting the supply chain, I can reduce the energy consumed simply by understanding how far the materials have to travel. I can print near where the clients are to take advantage of just-in-time inventory. I can make smaller print runs, and keep warehousing costs down, reducing the costs to heat the warehouses at the printers and the suppliers. I can reduce the transportation costs, and look at the fuel used to make sure we are not shipping on half-empty trucks. I can close the loop on local materials to keep transport costs down and maximize the material stream. I can use progressive printers who go the extra mile to work with clients, who use low VOC inks and wash-ups.”

Jedlicka believes that sustainability is nothing less than a paradigm shift. “It’s the opportunity to change everything we do, and get it right this time. Instead of our current ‘Take-Make-Waste’ methods, sustainability offers a cyclical approach. We have to look at materials through the lens of systems thinking. We don’t need an answer,” she says. “We need a path.” 

When it comes to advertising in the public space, CURB Media’s approach is down to earth. Instead of advertising using billboards and posters, CURB uses natural materials. Dust. Moss. Seawater. Grass. Even the dirt, grime and accumulated pollution of the urban street scene are putto use as an advertising medium. In CURB’s Clean Advertising, stencils and a power-washer blast clean a dirty city wall or sidewalk with advertising messages. And the beauty part: Three weeks later the images fade back into the cityscape.
The point, according to CURB founder Anthony Ganjou is to “deliver messages in a green way using a natural medium.” In a year-and-a-half, the company has exploded with campaigns that have stenciled seawater messages onto city sidewalks, impressed logos onto newly fallen snow, planted flowers into the soil to grow messages, adorned walls with marketing messages made from moss, and mown advertisements into pastures and farm fields.

“The world is our playground” says Maikel van de Mortel, former executive director of CURB’s U.S. office, now with Element Six. “Water, sand, grass, topiary...we take these natural materials and put them to commercial use,” in campaigns the company calls “Earth Tagging.”

CURB ensures no damage is done by Earth Tagging. A hard rain will wash these ads away, with no trace left behind. Except the awareness on the part of consumers and a huge trail of favorable stories in the press. 

Increasingly, consumers are demanding responsible behavior from corporations, and that extends to their advertising. As corporations scrutinize their communications campaigns, CURB is offering credible media options that use natural materials to create advertising without a carbon footprint.

Multinational companies are saying the debate about sustainability is over. Now the question is how? Companies are asking for solutions.” —John Creson

What is it about Berkeley? Home to the original environmentalists in the ’30s, Beats in the ’50s, free-speech movement in the ’60s, California Cuisine in the ’70s, the anti-apartheid movement in the ’80s, Berkeley is now home to some of the leading firms in the sustainable design community. Maybe the horizons are larger. The sky is bigger. Or the rents are cheaper. For whatever reason, Addis Creson, Celery Design Collaborative and Tomorrow Partners, three firms doing some of the most influential work around sustainability design, all call West Berkeley home.

Addis Creson is a 25-year-old design company that started in packaging, grew into branding, and is now making a name for itself helping companies tell their sustainability stories.

It’s a rapidly changing story. John Creson, whose name is on the door, reports, “Multinational companies are saying the debate about sustainability is over. Now the question is how? Companies are asking for solutions.”

That search for sustainable solutions presents an opportunity for designers to become knowledgeable, and think beyond the artifact. Creson says, “There’s power in design. We’ve decided to use our talents to build organizations. Now we need to create action against those beliefs. That’s where the opportunities are. Design, innovation, sustainability—combine them, and you allow organizations to rethink what a company will be in the future.”

For Jeni Rogers, an Addis Creson director who is currently getting a PhD in sustainable management, that means, “We start with the core of our client’s business, to make sure the values of the organization are aligned with the activities we are hired to do. It involves interaction within the organization, changing the way a company does business, how it answers to its stakeholders.” Rogers continues, “Visual design is just the tipoff the iceberg.”

For a company like Equinix, a multinational that houses information on huge server farms for global financial companies, the goal was to bring their corporate communications inline with the company’s, size, scale and offerings. Under the umbrella of sustainability, Addis Creson was able to open up discussion of the company’s strategic platform. “We came up with solutions for how to save water, and paper,” Creson explains. “By communicating more effectively, with less printed materials, we’ve helped them dematerialize the physical impact of the corporate and marketing communications they produce. As a result, we are reducing shipping logistics, distribution and storage needs.”

“Equinix came to Addis Creson looking at the tip of the iceberg,” Rogers reports. “We were able to give them everything else.”


Back in 1997 designer Brian Dougherty was reading Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, and wondering why no one in the graphic design community was embracing Hawken’s call to arms.

“I looked around,” Dougherty remembers, “and wondered, ‘Why wasn’t this happening?’” So he started Celery Design Collaborative as a sustainable design firm and “through pure luck” ended up working with Hawken and The Natural Step, a Swedish nonprofit that promotes a set of guiding sustainability principles based on the laws of thermodynamics and natural cycles.

Celery created an identity system for The Natural Step, as well as information graphics, collateral and communications. “It was a formative experience,” recalls Dougherty. “We learned about systems thinking, and began looking at design as a system rather than an artifact. We realized if you could adjust the system, so that the artifact is done right, you can make a much bigger impact on the world. That got us into a way of thinking that ten years later would be called the Green Business movement.”

Today Celery has a seat at the table with companies around the world, helping make decisions from business strategy through the design of the aesthetic artifact, manufacturing and production, all the way to the landfill. Dougherty believes designers can no longer look at designing artifacts in isolation while the current system of production remains status quo. “The status quo is not good enough,” he says. “You can’t make a little impact.”

Dougherty calls his recipe for systemic design thinking, Designing Backwards. As illustrated in his book, Green Graphic Design, Designing Backwards turns the traditional graphic design process on its head. Beginning with the project’s ultimate destination, which is usually a landfill, Dougherty explains that designers must take a mental journey to work backwards until they end up in their own design studio. This process ensures they take into account disposal, the user experience, delivery of the material, warehousing, binding and printing.

“Systems thinking,” which examines the entire production process-from sourcing of raw materials to manufacturing, packaging, shipping, marketing, retailing and recycling—Dougherty says, “is a powerful way to make a big impact.”

Ask Gaby Brink, founder of communication design firm Tomorrow Partners, about their environmental work and she’s quick to expand the subject. “It’s only one aspect of the sustainability story,” she says, “and it’s not that interesting. Dematerialization, using non-toxic materials, shipping, making things with longer life cycles and multiple uses, those are common sense considerations when you design through a sustainability lens.” 

Instead of the nuts and bolts of sustainable design, Tomorrow Partners is pursuing a larger goal. “The biggest impact you can make as a designer is to change people’s behavior,” Brink says. “We look for strategic opportunities to change lives, not just materials.”

Case in point: a recent package design assignment for eco-friendly soap manufacturer Vaska. Life-cycle analysis showed that the biggest opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of designing a new detergent bottle wasn’t in the bottle. Nor the manufacturing. And not the shipping. According to Brink, “As much as 90 percent of the environmental impact of the full life cycle of laundry detergent comes from the use period, when the customer does the laundry.” The solution: Get consumers to wash their clothes using cold water. In other words, change behaviors, not just materials. Accordingly, Tomorrow Partners made sure every package of Vaska laundry detergent came emblazoned with exhortations to wash using cold water.

Life-cycle analysis, dematerialization, HDPE food-grade plastic—terms Brink slings around with abandon were unfamiliar to her just a few years ago. Like most designers working in the sustainability arena, Brink calls her education “the ultimate do-it-yourself project.” Until recently there were few curricula. Today, Brink proudly points out the MBA in sustainable management her lead strategist, Nathalie Destandau, earned from the Presidio Graduate School.

“It takes time, and big commitment, to turn interest and aspiration into action,” Brink says. “Telling the sustainability story of a company takes deep knowledge and a complex, nuanced approach.” Askin-deep understanding of the issues won’t resonate with the chief sustainability officer at today’s large corporations. “If you can’t make the business case for a sustainable solution, you don’t have absolution,” Brink says.

Walmart, the mega-corporation environmentalists loved to hate, has changed. In a few short years, Walmart, once the whipping boy for the green movement, is now hailed in the editorial pages of the New York Times as the very paragon of corporate responsibility. From running its fleet of trucks more efficiently, to reducing the size of packaging required to merchandize laundry detergent by 50 percent, Walmart is becoming a “green” company.

Some of the credit has to go to the efforts of Adam Werbach and Saatchi & Saatchi S, the consulting company Werbach leads. To take on the responsibility of making Walmart a sustainable company, Werbach wants to convert everyone within the organization. That’s more than 1.4 million employees worldwide. In addition to peer-to-peer, bottom-up organizing, Saatchi & Saatchi S goes to work in the executive suite to craft the “North Star” goals that are fundamental to the existence of the company in the future.

What does that mean for Walmart? Werbach lists their North Star goals to “become a company that gets its power from 100 percent renewable energy, produces zero waste, and sells only 100 percent sustainable products.” Saatchi & Saatchi S then provides strategic advice on how to take sustainability from a “belief state” into actions that can deliver an economic impact. It’s an opportunity that Saatchi &Saatchi, with its worldwide offices and more than 7,000 employees, is embracing whole-heartedly. Since buying Werbach’s sustainable consulting company Act Now, Saatchi & Saatchi S has taken on clients ranging from Toyota to the Sierra Club.

What Werbach doesn’t lose sight of is that, at the end of the day, we are a world of consumers. Consequently, he’s trying to move sustainability from its green mantle of environmentalism to a more holistic movement he calls Blue. “We have to open up the sustainability discussion to include people and products,” he says. The green-only view of the world is, according to Werbach, myopic. “Environmentalism is green. Sustainability is Blue. And Blue looks at sustainability along four factors. The social: does the company pay fair wages, are the products safe; economic: is the cost affordable so people can actually buy it; environmental: is it local; and cultural: is the product special, does it resonate with consumers.” Ultimately, Werbach says, “Sustainability is about informed consumption and balance. It’s about being more choiceful.”

Perhaps no organization in the sustainability community has gathered so many supporters so quickly as The Designers Accord. In the span of just two years, 170,000 members have signed on and agreed to adopt The Designers Accord’s five guidelines, which encourage adopters to announce their participation in The Designers Accord, work with clients to find sustainable design alternatives, educate their colleagues about sustainable design, reduce their own environmental footprint and contribute their knowledge and experience to the sustainable design community.

If you think this sounds simple, you are right. And that’s the brilliance of The Designers Accord. It is simple. It doesn’t ask for much. And pretty much anyone can join. “It’s a low barrier to entry,” founder Valerie Casey states. But behind these five simple guidelines is a larger agenda. “The number-one rule is that if designers want to be part of this community, they can’t have sustainability as a sideline,” Casey explains. “It has to be integrated into the backbone of the design process. It can’t be an extra. It has to be 100 percent and it has to be shared.”

With a critical mass of designers on board, Casey next wants to focus on education and policy change. “The world of design has changed from making things to making things happen,” she says. Through its conferences, educational programs and an open toolkit for design educators, The Designers Accord aims to change the mindset and the culture through education. “We need to graduate the next generation of designers into the professional community,” Casey says.

In parallel to the education efforts currently undertaken by The Designers Accord, Casey is already exploring the next logical step: policy change. “Behavior change at the scale sustainability demands won‘t work, but systems change might,” she explains. “We need to bring design thinking into policy affairs to look at food policy, energy policy. We need to offer new solutions.”

Greengaged, the Web site run out of London, is, in the words of co-founder Sophie Thomas, all about “creating a space for action.” Along with co-founders Sarah Johnson of [re]design and Anne Chick of The Sustainable Design Research Centre, Thomas wanted a central clearinghouse on the Web where the design community could share issues, learn innovative techniques and find expert help. 

Begun as a response to the “bits and bobs” approach already underway in the design community, from its inception Greengaged was, according to Thomas, established to be a big brand. “We wanted to mainstream sustainability, to put all the relevant discussion under one roof.”

Using the London Design Festival as its springboard, Greengaged ran 30 events, including a day trip to a waste recycling facility, a seminar on the currency of happiness, and a paper and print workshop. Events, sponsored by the Design Council and Kingston University, were oversubscribed by a factor of 3, over 70people from Europe and the U.K. made presentations and Greengaged was on the map.

Today Greengaged is working around the world to raise awareness of sustainability on a local, national andinternational level. A recent workshop sponsored by Icograda, Kingston University, CAFA and the British Council of China, took Thomas to Beijing where she worked with 35 Chinese designers on how to embed sustainability into the working model of the design process.

“The next step,” according to Thomas, “is to push governments to introduce regulation of design to reduce waste, proper use of materials and to get designers to understand the big picture when they take on a new brief.”

Using both legislation and peer pressure, Thomas wants companies to take on closed-loop systems of manufacture and material usage. This may well be the work of a generation. And that’s fine with Thomas. “There is a generational shift in the design community around sustainability,” Thomas, currently in her mid-30s, says. “The older generation of designers see sustainability as an ‘add-on’ while the younger generation has been brought up with it, so they see it as fundamental.”

Building the barn wasn’t back to the farm, it’s on to the future. The barn stands for what we symbolize as a company. Once designers are educated, we can go out and talk to our clients about sustainability. We need to clarify it, understand it, visualize it and then communicate it.” —Ann Willoughby

Climate change is a huge problem, and not one amenable to specifying recycled paper. With China alone accounting for more than 85 percent of global growth in coal demand, and every ten days commissioning a coal-burning power plant with the capacity to meet the demand of a city the size of Dallas, designers seem to be nibbling around the edges of the problem. Yet, there is hope. Designers are taking it on themselves to get educated. They are beginning to organize, and find the levers of power to effect policy and legislation. 

And there is strength in numbers. As Wendy Jedlicka likes to point out, “A billion little termites nibbling at your house will tear it down.”

The Living Principles
By Phil Hamlett, Gaby Brink and Nathalie Destandau

“The challenge for designers is not just to create good design, but to understand the ever-evolving definition of what good design is.” —Lee McCormack, Designers are Wankers

As the new decade gets underway, sustainability continues to occupy more of our collective brainpans, hogging more spotlight on the world stage and settling into its role as the defining issue of our times, poised to engulf our culture and our society. As more designers incorporate its principles into their personal and professional lives, the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design (CFSD) has developed a new framework to focus the sustainable efforts of the design community at large.

Over the past few years, design support industries (i.e., paper and printing) and adjacent disciplines (i.e., architecture and industrial design) have been busy as well. What has emerged in many instances is a central pivot point, a common frame of reference around which these industries and professions can revolve. In the paper industry, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification has become the principle means by which timber products are evaluated. Likewise—and perhaps most significantly—the world of architecture has its ubiquitous LEED standards. The Okala guidelines provide focus for the industrial design community, which, like architecture, is very much in the business of making stuff: fixed artifacts defined primarily by their physical form and function. Other initiatives such as The Designers Accord reach across disciplines, as do AIGA’s Living Principles for Design. 

Sustainability plays a different role relevant to communication design. There is indeed some physicality to the things that designers create—paper (and printing), packaging, exhibitions, installations and the electronic devices that carry our messages all harbor a variety of ecological consequences. And while it is true that as specifies, designers exert some degree of control over (and thus responsibility for) how these things exist in the world, the molecules of our profession are simply not as interesting as those found in other disciplines, nor are they as central to the way design inhabits our minds. Designers create messages and experiences that leave indelible impressions as they flow through people’s hearts and hands. In the grand scheme of things, these impressions are much more significant than whatever percentage of post-consumer waste might exist in the ephemeral substrate upon which they are delivered.

The design community—those of us who would call ourselves graphic, interactive or communication designers—has not had the benefit of a common lens through which we can relate to sustainability, particularly sustainability defined in its broadest measure, beyond issues of recycling and environmental concerns. Nor are there any commonly-accepted means to account for the real power of design: the ability to create meaningful messages that change minds, shift behavior, connect people to ideas, rewrite cultural norms or envision new ways of living our lives. This transformative power of design shapes our world and represents tremendous opportunity related to sustainability and an understanding of its broader applications. Using this power in a meaningful way requires integrating existing tools and demonstrating how they can be applied in business and social contexts. As designers continue to move into more strategic relationships with their clients and/or forge their way into previously uncharted territory, having an inclusive and malleable framework for sustainability is crucial.

Ongoing AIGA outreach indicates that most designers consider sustainability to be very important to their business. But as designers attempt to fold sustainable principles into their every day design practice, they are finding that it can be daunting. Sustainability is complex and entails a steep learning curve. Who has time to unravel the knowledge hairball represented by the myriad books, articles, Web sites, frameworks, reporting schemes, calculators, standards and manifestos? 

The first step in converting all of this information into a body of knowledge useful to the design community was the creation of a “Genealogy” document. Rather than start from scratch, it was decided to build upon other commonly-accepted and recognized frameworks, acknowledging and expanding them. AIGA executive director Ric Grefé notes, “The framework that has emerged—The Living Principles for Design—is not intended to be different or more perceptive than others, but rather to make the work of others more accessible to those who have neither the exposure to what has come before nor the time to integrate those efforts into a single credo.” 

Sometimes referred to as “people, profit, planet” or the “triple bottom line,” many existing frameworks account for three distinct components: environmental protection, social equity and economic health. What makes the Living Principles unique is the inclusion of a fourth stream that recognizes the critical need for cultural assimilation of this knowledge. As designers, we make our living selling intangibles, it follows that we should have a framework that accounts for this fact. Our work has properties that are difficult to quantify, but are the key to design’s power. If we are to create meaningful change—to instill everyone with the ecological intelligence necessary to build a better world—then we need to help make good messages.

Each of these four streams presents opportunities and challenges for designers, but they must work together in concert. The Living Principles also asks designers to consider the relative impact of their efforts, examine the various ways we are connected to sustainability and endeavor to participate in areas of wider scope. In addition to helping apply sustainability in more integrated fashion, the Living Principles will also serve as a common touchstone: 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. By remaining creatively agnostic, the Living Principles will become a body of knowledge to which numerous creative disciplines and their business partners can develop and refer. 

There is no end to this journey, it has no fixed outcome and there are still more questions than answers. But not having those answers shouldn’t prevent us from having the conversation. Please consult the Web site and join the Facebook group to be part of it all. ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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