Ainhoa Martín: Sustainable graphic design
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Ainhoa Martín: Sustainable graphic design

Ainhoa Martín: Sustainable graphic design

The industrial revolution of the late 19th century that brought machines to life and gave rise to design also brought on pollution and the deterioration of our planet. Our concern for the environment, global warming, and the dwindling of some basic resources is growing at a fast pace, and this has inspired a new trend among designers: sustainable design, previously known as ecodesign or “green design”. We could define it[1] as the ability to design objects, buildings, cities… based on the principles of economic, social and environmental sustainability. Thus, it comprises various fields among which are architecture, environmental design, urban planning, engineering, graphic design, interior design, and fashion design.

Its main purpose is to produce places, products and services in a way that decreases the use of non-renewable resources, diminishing the negative impact of human activity on the ecosystem.

Reducing our ecological footprint. Sustainable graphic design is that which considers the ecological footprint of the products associated with graphic design, such as packaging, labels, printed advertising, publications, etc. To develop an ecological design we must consider the elements that are used in the process of each work: different supports, labour, transportation, product use, and product disposal.

The designer can contribute to sustainable design by setting up strategies that affect his everyday work on various levels:

  1. Work in the studio: habits and environment.
  2. Choice and production of materials: choice of printer’s, services, sourcing materials locally to minimize transportation, choosing ways of delivering information that use less material resources, setting up a rental system to decrease private consumption…
  3. Eco-feedback: design centred on the user.

1. Habits and environment in the studio. Our working habits can favour the preparation of an eco-friendly product. We can foster an environment conducive to this end, such as using energy-saving light bulbs, reusing paper for design proofs, shutting down any equipment that is not in use, etc.

The Australian magazine Desktop[2] reviewed different initiatives by designers that wanted to contribute to the environment by offering more conscious choices to the consumer. Anna Carlile opened up the design studio Viola Ecographic Design in Melbourne, which offers sustainable solutions. She also has set up an informational guide for other designers about paper and printing systems to promote eco-friendly design. The following are some of her suggestions:

  • Discuss with your printer’s a design format that minimises paper wastage.
  • Check the VOC emissions rating from the printing process—inks, coatings, cleaning solutions, dampening solutions, glues…
  • Check that your printer can do computer-to-plate printing—eliminating film.
  • Choose vegetable inks with uncoated paper where possible.
  • Avoid metallic and fluorescent inks as these contain heavy metals.
  • Choose aqueous varnish over UV coatings and plastic laminates.
  • Ask your printer’s whether they recycle and have some energy saving system in place
  • Ensure that your product is easily recyclable, that it does not contain any part or material that cannot be recycled.
  • Choose paper that comes from sustainable-managed plantation timber. Look for Forest Stewardship Council certification (FSC).

2. Presses, inks and paper. We can do sustainable design if we choose inks that consume little energy and that result in consumer products that have the least possible impact on the environment. Today there are printing systems that not only are environmentally friendly, but also guarantee the highest quality in design. Conventional inks are derived from petroleum and are mixed with alcohol solvents that emit toxic gases to the atmosphere, which are hazardous to human health and the environment. As an alternative, there are machines that produce eco-friendly solutions, such as alcohol-free printing and waterless offset.[3] Another option is using vegetable oil-based inks, which do not use mineral oils. Some of the advantages of these inks is that they remain hydrated in the wells, are easily absorbed, and leave less residues. Furthermore, we as designers are cutting down on the use of varnished finishes, so we should also demand that our printer use water-based varnishes or at least varnishes that are free of ammonia and amines.

The standard process for making paper consumes large amounts of energy and virgin vegetable fibres, and generates pollution. By choosing the right paper or support we can contribute to environmental protection. An eco-friendly paper is any paper produced with minimum impact to the environment, which takes into account the use and consumption of natural resources and energy, waste management, noise and odour pollution during the processing of raw materials, etc. In other words, paper can be eco-friendly without being made of recycled materials, as long as its production respects the environment.

At any rate, we should know that it is possible to do quality work with recycled paper, since impressive advances in technology provide choices in high quality recycled paper for the most challenging applications. The best way to go about this is to choose a paper certified by a competent organisation, with a label marking it as eco-friendly and classifying it in terms of its impact on the environment.

3. Eco-feedback. In the Usolab blog, Dani Armengol[4] mentions a new trend in sustainable design: the “eco-feedback”, which he describes as design that “tries to change the behaviour of the users of a system by informing them of the environmental impact of their actions”.

Renee Wever, Jasper van Kuijk and Casper Boks[5] constitute the Design for Sustainability Group at Delft University of Technology in Holland. Their research focuses on promoting the sustainable design of products, although their results can be applied to every other area of design. This team goes beyond analysing the ecological footprint of the products as determined by the use of raw materials or the manufacturing process, and focuses on how the way the user interacts with the product affects the environment. In this way, design commits to adapting to the habits of the user so his behaviour can be more sustainable. They suggest three possible strategies toward this end: writing or scripting, eco-feedback and the adjustment of the functionality of the products to reduce its ecological footprint. Developing these strategies requires a project-by-project investigation of the behaviour of the consumer, what they call “user-centred design”.

In scripting we work on the direct information that is written on the product. For instance, the designer can inform the consumer by means of pictograms that once the product is finished, the container should be put in the appropriate bin for its recycling. But it can go one step further and convey specific information on the impact of the user’s actions, what is known as eco-feedback. A good example of this strategy are those labels that inform the consumer how long the product would take to be degraded in nature if the user does not recycle his domestic waste appropriately. Another eco-feedback measure would be to display a message in the television screen notifying the user of the amount of energy that would be saved if the device was switched off completely instead of keeping it on standby. Thus, eco-feedback offers the user information about the financial and ecological efficiency of his behaviour. A more radical approach is to create products whose design prevents their unsustainable use, which is what we call “forced functionality design”. One example of this approach is the invention of the stay-tab for beverage cans. In the 1980s the tabs were pulled of the cans and tossed into the garbage, but the stay-tab remain attached to the container, forcing a more sustainable behaviour on the user.

In addition to the projects that apply user-centred design, our analysis of the sustainable initiatives in the field of design should include the practises embraced by specific studios, such as SmashLab in Vancouver (Canada), whose motto is Design Can Change, and offers advise on the sustainable practise of design and the option of registering and becoming part of a list of committed designers.[6] We also have to mention the reflections contributed by the architect Ken Yeang in his book EcoDesign, A Manual for Ecological Design, which offers specific solutions for integrating ourselves in the natural environment without endangering the survival of the planet.


[2] The article can be found in PDF format at <> (accessed on August 25 2008.)

[6] Íbidem. <> accessed on August 25 2008.