What is Green Design and Why is it Always Brown?

Holly Utech
Shea, Inc.
Contrary to initial impressions, what qualifies as "green" design actually has little to do with how a brochure or package looks. Even if the brochure for a given chemical company is on natural looking, speckled paper with a big leaf on the front doesn’t mean that it has a low impact on the environment. Following are some simple guidelines that can help foster an understanding of what is true eco-design.

Is the Design Effective?

First and foremost, a design needs to work. It doesn’t matter if it is printed on 100% post-consumer paper if it doesn’t ultimately achieve its purpose. For example, a mailing for a new grocery store done poorly that doesn’t actually attract new customers might just as well not have been done at all, even if it had been efficiently done. A design needs to be on-target, on-message, innovative and creative in order to make the most out of the materials used for production. Using creativity to reduce the ecological impact of designs before they are even produced is more potent than hoping they will be recycled or composted later. Designers and clients need to work together to find the most effective solution. Sometimes a client comes to a designer with a specific problem (for example, "I need a 20-page brochure") when he or she really has a different problem ("I need to communicate with my customers more effectively"). Together, the designer and client can define the real problem and find the most effective way to solve that problem. Do the environment (and the rest of us) a favor by not creating ugly, annoying, useless ephemera!

Is the Design Created with its Lifecycle in Mind?

Try to think of a design in terms of a completely closed-loop lifecycle. Where are the materials coming from and where will they go when the design’s useful life is over? Remember that nothing is waste in nature; everything gets reused. A tree that falls in the forests decomposes and provides the nutrients for new growth; a decaying animal provides food for bacteria. What kind of resources can be used to close the loop? Look for resources and products that are renewable, non-toxic, compostable and made of reclaimed and/or reclaimable materials.

Does the Design use Resources Wisely?

Does the design use the highest quantity of post-consumer waste possible? Is it made out of readily renewable resources (renewable cellulose vs. non-renewable petroleum)? Is the paper processed without additional (toxic) chlorine? Is the ink made with a high percentage of vegetable or soy oils? Does it emit low quantities of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? Does the design use the press sheet effectively, or does it cause undo waste? Does it maximize functionality (as in a post card that incorporates a perf-out Rolodex card)? Does it use tree-free fiber? Is it littered with unnecessary additional processes (thermography or unnecessary inks)? Can it be produced using vegetable press washes or digital plates? Examine every step in the process and try to eliminate or minimize waste along the way.

Is the Design Firm Eco-Conscious?

Does the firm buy recycled or tree-free copier paper? Does everyone drive gas-guzzling SUVs or do they utilize alternative forms of transportation? Is the firm using sustainably produced power to run their equipment (uncommon at present, but we do need to have our aspirations, right?)? Does the designer make eco-design their normal modus operandi, or grudgingly upon request? Are they committed to working towards a sustainable future?

What You Can Do

* If you are a graphic designer, realize that eco-design will be the preferred approach to design in the near future. Making changes as soon as possible will only help you in the long run.

* Understand that designing with a sustainable future in mind isn’t really restrictive, as the real value should be in the creative idea, not in the materials used to execute it. So dive in; the future of eco-design is bright!

* If you are a buyer of design services, seek out eco-designers to work with. Request that your designs be more eco-friendly. Work with designers who understand both the new (and not-so-new) eco-technologies and good design. Demand high quality and be open to using good creative ideas to make designs more effective. Use certified Printing Industry of Minnesota Great Printers.

Read Up
Act Locally

Web Resources

o2-USA Upper Midwest: o2umw.org/intro

Print Resources

Ecological Design, Van der Ryn, Sim and Stuart Cowan, 1996

The Green Imperative: Natural Design for the Real World, Papanek, Victor, 1995


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