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Socially Conscious Graphic Design

Socially Conscious Graphic Design

Communication, Arts & Culture, Environment

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  • “Design won’t save the world go volunteer at a soup kitchen you pretentious *&%#!”

    Environment, Communication Design


    With this slide, Saul Griffith, inventor, MacArthur Fellow, Ph.D., launches into his presentation at San Francisco’s recent AIGA event, Compostmodern. I saw a re-broadcast of Saul’s speech at AIGA Portland’s event of the same name, that also featured Brian Dougherty from Celery Design. Shortly after showing this provoking slide, Saul is quick to report that he hopes this is not true, he hopes that there is still a chance for design to change the world, and he devotes the remainder of his presentation to showing us how.

    First, Saul presents the problem we all face: climate change. He shows how he evaluated his own lifestyle and figured out how much power he required in watts annually. He included not just the typical statistics, the power used in heating/cooling his home, the miles he drove, etc, but also he included all the objects he owned and factored in the power used to bring that product to life. These results were populated in a graph. The largest portion shown on the graph represented all objects that he owned that were designed, and this is the area he challenges the audience to rethink. He calculated the average watts used per person in North America at 11400 Watts, compared to the average European at 5400. Obviously this heavy power use has damaging side effects, as most of our current power sources expel carbon into the atmosphere at a rate of 8 billion tons of carbon every year. Which in turn, scientists now agree, is contributing to global warming and climate change at an alarming rate.

    After presenting this problem, Saul explains that even if we shift all carbon emitting power producers into cleaner sources, for example, wind, or solar, we would essentially have to have a whole continent entirely devoted to alternative energy. Obviously this is not practical, and with increased demand from emerging countries, this pattern is not sustainable.

    So Saul’s challenge to all designers? He says, “Your job as designers is to make us (Westerners) use less, and allow them (emerging markets) to use more while increasing everybody’s quality of life.” He says we have to redesign everything from products, making them more lightweight, smaller, and last ten times as long, to architecture, making it sustainable, more insulated and smaller. Quite the challenge.

    What does that mean for us? Well luckily the next speaker, Brian Dougherty from Celery Design had some ideas and examples. Celery Design is a design consultancy specializing in sustainable communications based out of Berkeley, CA and Paris, France. Like Staccato, Celery believes in the expanded importance of the creative role in business strategy (upstream). In addition, Celery plays a major role in manufacturing and distribution (downstream). Celery states “The major goal of engaging upstream from the traditional designer’s role is to shift the focus of “green” design from a battle over cost to a strategic conversation about value.” In addition, Brain states that to be a green designer is not to simply have a project printed on recycled paper, rather it is to think through every product phase downstream and find new ways to innovate.

    Here are some examples of how Celery achieved targeted, effective and sustainable design for their client, Lemnis Lighting.

    The challenge was to design a lightbulb package for Lemnis’s newest energy efficient bulb. Celery’s solution was a package that more closely fits the shape of the light bulb, so no added packaging is needed. It was printed on recycled paper, was folded in such a way that used no glue, and when re-folded can be turned into a lampshade. Their pyramid shape lends itself to be packed effectively for shipping, and they were designed to achieve optimal coverage on one printer sheet. This resulted in a product that not only beautiful and unique on the shelf, but that was thought through in every step of its production, to reduce environmental impact.

    So maybe a little more attention to the three “R’s” learned in 5th grade, reduce, reuse, and recycle, designers can save the world. But it also wouldn’t hurt to spend some time in a soup kitchen just in case.

    To personally examine your personal energy consumption, visit: For designer guidelines to sustainable practices check out Celery’s Eco Tools. To watch Saul’s entire presentation visit:

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Whenever I draw a circle, I immediately want to step out of it. Buckminster Fuller

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