As a university design student “making” was my raison d’etre. It was a ritual to trek up to my studio (in any form of weather) to meet a quota of the somewhat unrealistic number of explorations I aimed to meet daily early on in my career. I felt spiritually satisfied if I met my creative demands, and bitterly frustrated when I missed the mark. This regimented process was influenced by professors who demanded precision and perfection on every project. I found their expectations impossible to meet, but reveled in the chance of getting “close”. Reams of paper, alcohol-based markers, and charcoal pencils were my initial tools for making that changed over time to become layout software and dozens of laser prints detailing my ideations. It was fulfilling to step back and marvel at the immense amount of work pinned to the wall. I found that the abundance of concepts was a significant indicator of a successful design process and its bounty a monument to design.
Years earlier, as a tennis player in high school, one thing I discovered almost immediately was that the more I practiced the game, the more matches I won. I made it a mission to scrimmage against stronger and more seasoned teammates, hit the ball against my garage door, and sort through the mechanics of a killer serve (even without a racket) in my living room. It was this same work ethic that translated so nicely into my design process. Hitting a winning backhand was essentially the same as drawing a perfect circle, while a good rally was equivalent to three hours of solid concepting. Some students found their creative juices gurgling in a keg, I found mine in the countless hours of drawing and creating miniature mountains of sketchbooks. Less wasn’t more. More was better.
As a design professional I still cherished those tenets of investigation and experimentation that were instrumental in my maturation as a creative. Working in big and small studios as well as large corporations refined my skills and increased my vocabulary. Understanding manufacturing and printing processes revealed more about the profession that theory never covered in school. The bigger the press run, the happier I was. The more printed work, the better chance the world would see my efforts. It became an insatiable thirst to design more. I took on freelance outside of my day job and found myself working into the night. The more work I made, the happier I was.
However, one day as I checked my mail outside my apartment, I found myself throwing away the very design work I created on my job. In the trash bin in front of the bank of mailboxes lay even more discarded and unappreciated pieces of direct mail. My neighbors had the same reaction to the beautiful print pieces selling cellular phone minutes that I did. Was I making trash? Consequently was I then creating too much? It was a question that I really didn’t want to address. The answer could very possibly throw my perfectly acceptable world of making out of orbit. Whether I wanted the answer or not, the facts are undeniable.
Less could be better.
The discovery of my work in the trash was the catalyst that forced me to rethink my design process and outcomes. It led me eventually to an even better understanding of my profession’s materials of choice (paper and ink), their manufacturing and consequent disposal. Every year approximately 100 million trees, the source for our paper pulp, framing for houses and oxygen we breathe, are cut down to produce direct mail1. This is the lifeblood of many international corporate marketing plans and keeps the United States Postal Service (USPS) in business. In the 3rd Quarter of 2008, the USPS earned 52 percent of its revenue on direct mail2. This designed ephemera promotes products and services to anyone with a mailing address. However, a 2008 Newsweek Magazine poll, found that 89 percent of the American public preferred not to receive direct mail while 44 percent threw these designed communications away unopened. Why are we creating something no one wants? The shipping and production of direct mail pumps as much greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere as nine million cars3. It would make logical sense then to design less direct mail to positively effect the planet. In this scenario the less direct mail we create, the better the impact on our air and water. However the amount we produce and consume has a direct impact on the success of our economy. Affluence is now intrinsically ingrained into our lifestyles. More is better. Making more direct mail can lead to higher profits. At the end of the direct mail story, the more that is printed, the more that is thrown away. However, the more trash dumped in our municipal landfills is a great indicator of more consumer spending and in turn a higher GDP. It is great for the economy (short term), but is it good for the health of our families, neighbors and the planet?
33 percent of the physical space in our American landfills is clogged with the beautiful packaging that moves our cameras, household cleaners, and underwear off the store shelves. Packaging, an outcome of the marketer, copywriter, engineer and the designer, can mean the success or failure of a new product launch. It is vital for more brand awareness, enhancing the experience of purchasing a brand and in turn for more revenue. However embedded in this discussion, is that packaging is only “valuable” when encasing the product and not of any worth after the product is purchased. It is inconsequential and quickly disposable. It is rare to keep the wrapper or container that protects a calculator or box of organic cereal. Instead most of it ends up in the trash bin, effectively deleting and celebrating great design at the same time. The landfill is the new monument to effective graphic design. Elizabeth Royte in her book Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash described the design process: “We throw things away to make things that we throw away.” It’s a systemic problem whose impact is worsened by growing consumption and an increasing global population.
The publicly maligned retail behemoth Wal-Mart recognizes the importance of this issue. They want to stay in business, and continue to grow. The more pollution and waste the sale of the products make, the less likely the public will view them as having their collective interests in mind and may choose to shop elsewhere. In response to the sustainability of their business, Wal-Mart is moving forward with the idea of designing less, and aiming to eliminate all packaging waste by 2025 in the USA and 2010 in the UK4. They hope to utilize sustainable packaging concepts that can be reused and/or upcycled or enforce a no packaging clause, essentially eliminating the need for the graphic designer. Designing less can have very positive effects on our land, air and water, but will drastically alter our lifestyles and possibly the landscape of our global economy.
Faced with all the gory statistics, I used to simply and somewhat naively believe that designers can solve our resource and affluence issues by simply just designing less . Smaller packaging that is effective can equate to less money spent in shipping (due to a lighter weight) and also on materials. Designing to minimize materials means less waste, less pollution and can in many ways be more efficient in its simplicity. However despite smaller posters, slimmer magazines and reusable bulk packaging, the end of life disposal for all these pieces of ephemera is the municipal landfill. Less isn’t enough. Despite the positive intentions, its only a step in the right direction. Moreover as “makers” how we can we rectify our innate desire to create? Designing less in it’s purest form – slowing or at worst stopping our creative process – impacts our pocketbooks and starves ourselves from the outlet that ignited our interest in the profession to begin with.
Designers tend to solve problems with material objects. The designed artifacts solve smaller problems within a system of other problems, however they are really only bandages masking a deeper and possibly more sinister issue. Moreover, these objects in turn create new problems if not fully thought out. Slick and trendy magazines deliver relevant and important content to its readers, but rob our landscape of a forested skyline, and pollute our air in its manufacture. Planting new trees to replace those removed allow for more magazines, but displace the wildlife and biodiversity of the area until they mature – disrupting parts of the fragile food chain in the meantime. The automobile allowed for faster transportation from point A to point B, and helped ignite our economy, but also has killed millions of wildlife and people. More seriously the automobile has helped alter our planet’s atmosphere effectively changing our climate. The problems of disseminating information and transport are system problems. How do we visually distribute vital information quickly and to a large group of people effectively? Once we get that information, how can those affected quickly and safely move to where they need to go based on what they’ve read/seen? The two need to work together.
It is at this juncture in which I believe a new opportunity for exploration exists for the graphic designer. Redesigning broken systems and creating new means of connecting are ripe for exploration considering the 46.6 percent drop in print buying5 by 2009 advertisers. Graphic designers are already astute at working with systems, so the translation to larger and non-tangible solutions can be a relatively painless jump. Daily we work with a system of type (the alphabet) and grids to produce the digital and print material we have created effectively for decades. Designers also utilize systems of icons, colors and messaging to communicate brands and those working online understand systems of programming languages that allow for images, animations and layouts to be seen on screens ranging from a theater to a mobile device.
The challenge with designing larger systems lies in the acceptance that the graphic design profession is slowly changing. Change isn’t easy, and at times avoided when comfort and habit is confronted. This was initially my reaction (disdain) to the fact that designing more artifacts has inherent flaws after finding my direct mail piled up in an outdoor garbage can. However, I felt confidence in knowing that the theories that formulate the foundation for the design process enforce the idea of research and thorough investigation, which were integral in helping print design move to the screen and now to a more systems-oriented approach. The holistic nature of the design process is definitely needed to help design better systemic solutions for bigger issues like water rights, affordable and sustainable transportation systems, renewable energy production and dissemination etc. These issues are ones that not only impact the longevity of the graphic design profession but trouble our society in general. As we are faced with dwindling resource issues that will hamper our ability to create printed pieces and packaging, we must be flexible enough and ready to jump on and lead within the next innovation, similar to how we succeeded with our transition to the internet and web design. Understanding how our pieces are printed and how paper is manufactured show knowledge of systems. However, those systems appear to have broken over time due to shortsightedness and currently need our help to remedy.
Designing immaterial solutions is the next and most logical step for the graphic designer. As our current printed posters and social justice websites encourage people to recycle, what seems to be more important is to not tackle the symptom of the systemic problem (waste) but instead design a better manufacturing and dissemination system that eliminates the need in the first place. Creating better communication and awareness may not be solved by iChat or the iPhone but instead by the reinvention of our public education system and how we relate to our neighbors based on the planning of our communities. The magazine may relay important information but lives in a flawed system of existence. Solving that problem may create new opportunities for creation that allows my mantra of “more making is better” to be true. The key is to begin this movement in schools, daily practice and conference discourse. It might take an enigmatic leader to forge ahead through example or simply more and more practice. Without that I wouldn’t have achieved such an effective backhand.
- “Junk Mail Reduction”. Ohio EPA. December 17, 2009 <“http://epa.ohio.gov/ocapp/consumer/junkmail.aspx>.
- McDevitt, Caitlin. “To Postal Workers, No Mail Is ‘Junk’”. Newsweek. December 17, 2009 < http://www.newsweek.com/id/161231>.
- “Junk Mail Impact”. 41 Pounds. December 17, 2009 < http://www.41pounds.org/impact/>.
- “Wal-Mart Wants to Eliminate All Packaging Waste by 2025”. Environmental Leader. December 17, 2009 <“http://www.environmentalleader.com/2009/04/20/wal-mart-wants-to-eliminate-all-packaging-waste-by-2025/>.
- “Media Dollars Shift to Digital in Downturn”. eMarketer. December 17, 2009 < http://www.emarketer.com/Article.aspx?R=1007275>.