Yvette Perullo, for her MA at the New England School of Art and Design at Suffolk University, collected direct mail for four months with her family to produce a 6’2″, 106-pound installation for her graduate thesis exhibition. This was done to help the everyday citizen visualize how much direct mail the average American household receives in one year. She further printed the gory statistics of waste and deforestation on stacks of direct mail next to the sculpture to help inform designers visiting the exhibit on the issue and also how to help. Direct mail is a perfect example of why graphic design, as a profession, needs to truly reevaluate the outcomes of their design process. The communication vehicle that most of America truthfully refer to as “junk mail” encourages every year (in the USA) the felling of 100 million trees to produce printed communication asking you to apply for a new credit card or shop at a big box store.(EPA) 89 percent of American consumers prefer they didn’t receive the four million tons of correspondence they receive collectively every year.(Newsweek) The American public view direct mail as such a nuisance that 44 percent choose to not even open letters of solicitation and instead toss it in the nearest recycling/trash bin. With a response rate of only 2.61 percent,(gaebler.com) as a profession we must ask ourselves why are we wasting our time and valuable natural resources on this highly ineffective (97.39% failure rate), wasteful and unwanted outcome of our design process? Sadly the answer may be the economy. As much as postal consumers hate direct mail, business loves it. In fact in these troubling economic times the United States Postal Service lost 1.2 billion dollars in the 3rd quarter of 2008. However, 52% of their revenue came from direct mail. The designed outcome that essentially no one wants to receive is the lifeblood of the USPS. Michael Coughlin, former deputy postmaster argues that revenue from direct mail “is the financial underpinning of the Postal Service – it could not survive without it.”(Newsweek)
This wasteful approach to graphic design seems highly illogical and paradoxically logical at the same time. Yes, we do need a strong economy, but we also need smart and sustainable businesses decisions. Why create things that no one wants/use just to throw away, while natural wildlife habits vanish, air and water pollution increase, and landfills overflow from the manufacturing and disposal of the wood-fiber paper needed for direct mail? Does the survival of the USPS outweigh those negative impacts? I argue that it does not. The current model of mail in the USA is old thinking. It should be modernized to be sustainable with contemporary concerns. One idea would to put mail on a reward base system. Lower postage should be implemented for print collateral printed on sustainable materials combined with a reclamation program where mail could be collected and sold back by the USPS to manufacturers for new mail or other products (similar to that proposed by ReProduct). Or of course the USPS could truly embrace digital communication and design a whole new method of sending/receiving mail and advertising.
The Modernist design movement aimed to re-examine our existence from our commerce model, the materials we used to create with to the philosophy of how we lived. Modernism embraced change and hoped to create a better present and future by not letting “traditional” outcomes from the past impede progress. Junk Mail is one of these impediments. It is imperative as a field of study and practice that we move forward with our creations in a sustainable and responsible manner. This transition can be easier with the help of a mixture of Modernism and the principles of sustainability. Sustainability asks us care for one another, conserve our natural resources for future generations and design cyclically. Brian Doughtery of the Berkeley-based graphic design studio, The Celery Collective, suggests we “design backwards”. This essentially means that the designer decides where s/he wants his/her work to end up (recycled/reused) and work in reverse from there. This contemporary idea connects well with the Modernist approach to rejecting tradition of what and how something is designed as well as analyzing embracing better materials used in creation. Combining the newer movement of sustainability with Modernism is a logical way (as many already understand its fundamentals) to better approach the outcomes of our discipline going forward. It is, in fact, a 21st century rebellion against the Industrial Age design model of slash and burn and instead embracing Einstein’s theory that “(w)e can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
It is foolish to think that the booming consumerism we have experienced over the past sixty years will continue at the same rate without the help of reusing and recycling existing materials. Populations continue to grow (projected at another 2.6 billion by 2050) which will further drain our natural resources. What is the collective mission of the graphic design discipline? Is the junk mail model of design the best connection to the business sector? These are serious questions that must be addressed immediately. Embracing a new design movement of eco modernism could very well be the answer that puts our discipline in a strategic position of leadership in creating a triple-bottom line economy (equity, ecology and economy). As design has become more democratized, speaking with your political power and voice to incite change is the first step. So until our discipline does embrace a sustainable approach to creation, it’s probably best to simply remove yourself from those junk mail lists.