“No matter the outcome of the international climate negotiations, it is clear that now more than ever before, we need the ideas and contributions of as many people as possible to address climate change,” –– Thomas Malone, MIT Climate CoLab
I write this article not because I have the a definite answer to this question, but instead hope we all will design one soon. I am worried about our future. In fact I can’t stop worrying. I took up mediation in 2015 to be more present for my family and myself, to think more about my life now, and not exclusively about a possibly grim future. Global warming has forced me to imagine what the world will be like 20-30 years from now for my daughter’s generation (and of course myself). If our addiction to fossil fuels continues, which has always seemed very plausible, my visions, impacted by climate science, are not rosy, but instead thorny and bleak. Scientists predict, if we stay the course, there will be soil erosion, crop loss, more unpredictable violent storms, ice sheets melting and rising oceans, refugees, and other gloomy scenarios that none of us want to happen. A somewhat hopeless view of our collective future indeed. The Earth will survive, but we may not.
But hope is something I still have despite the predictions of the scientific community – and design can help make sure our hopes becomes reality. The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris was a positive step (but not the answer) in that direction. After weeks of negotiation, 187 countries agreed in principal on the first official climate pact in history. We will work together to reduce climate emissions so that we keep our global temperature increases at around 2 degree Celsius (3.6 F), but shoot for a better 1.5 degree Celsius rise. This agreement on temperature increase isn’t legally binding and not as aggressive as it needs to be, however it is progress that will be reviewed and revised again in 2018, 2020, and 2023. (You can read the entire Paris agreement here.) This isn’t enough to stop climate change. It may prevent some horrendous events from happening, but I do not mix words when I say “it wasn’t enough.”
However, this climate agreement is a step forward for humanity. As a species collectively, we have never done something like this big before. Leaders agreed that we made a huge mistake and have to fix it as soon as possible. Their pact sends a signal to banks and investors that the world is serious about climate change. The agreement makes it clear that our money will be better spent on putting more renewable energy online. After years fighting (and I don’t use this word lightly) for more sustainable design that would decrease carbon emissions here at Re-nourish, I can tell you, despite its pitfalls (like a disregard for human rights), this agreement gives me some hope. It won’t, most likely, prevent oceans from rising or other gloomy predictions by scientists, from coming true, but it’s passing officially ends the fossil fuel era and shows an agreed upon path forward. Clean energy entrepreneur Assad Razzouk hopefully predicts “(m)ore money will be lost in fossil fuel stocks and bonds; more investors will divest; and more oil and gas exploration projects will be abandoned, forever.” This switch in investing is what the world needs to do to reach the $16.5 trillion needed in new renewables to mitigate most catastrophic possibilities from climate change. This will be a systems change.
What’s next? Change is.
“It is always going to be easier and cheaper to avoid making a mess than to clean up one we have already made.” – Ken Caldeira (Climate scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University.)
What does that mean for graphic designers? It means simply that things are going to change, and there is still so much left to do to right the ship. It means also that we will be affected as people and a profession by the agreement, whether we care about the issue or not. To start, plastics and inks are made from oil. As the world moves away from fossil fuels, how will that change the printing industry? How will that change plastics in the packaging we design or the technology we use to make all of our creations? It’s a fair question and one that I don’t have the answer to for now, but my guess is that there will be a lot of monies invested in research into replacing plastics (with bio-based). (However, bio-based plastics have their pitfalls that need to be solved as well.) The technology industry continues to grow annually and will want to maintain that positive trajectory in the face of climate change. They will need to adapt to global investments outside of oil and into green tech, to stay afloat.
With inks there are already viable non petroleum-based products available. As the designer you will have to work with your printer and simply specify them. Inks also go on paper. Paper predominantly comes from trees, which are needed for carbon sequestration and therefore should no longer be used for paper. I do feel change is going to happen here as well. Already Kimberly-Clarke has invested heavily in wheat straw and bamboo-based fibers to make paper products like toilet paper. I wouldn’t be surprised if this investment spurs others into commercial paper options. After you think about your inks on paper, you need to select a printer. You should use Canopy’s Blue Line report(PDF) to locate the best sustainable printers in the marketplace.
However since most all of our work is moving toward digital, how will that be affected? As physicist Michio Kaku predicts in his book “Physics of the Future,” technology will become invisible. Our UI/UX work may exist beyond a mobile phone or tablet implanted inside us or in contact lenses like this short film by Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo.
As the reliance on fossil fuels will decrease, and our capacity for technological advances increase, the need to manufacture physical objects to hold the tech will go down, pushing the less is more concept even further. Simple upgrades to an OS visual interface or memory of small wearable tech could become the playground for designing new virtual experiences.
Print and digital work both rely on energy. As renewable energy alternatives (like solar and geothermal) becomes increasingly cheaper, many large companies (like the Apple and Facebook server farms) are switching over. As a designer, always look for local vendors that use renewable energy and work with them. Beyond all of this, if you believe we can create a better future, then you will have to get a little political. In fact, maybe a lot political. We simply cannot rely on government officials alone to pass regulations, wealthy entrepreneurs to invest correctly in renewables, or companies to do the right thing over making gobs of money. Individual actions are as important as collective ones. Currently we are part of the problem, but can also be a huge part of the solution on the job, as a citizen, or in your own personal work.
As designers, we should (on the job):
Place a greater emphasis on empathy in our work. Understanding who we are designing with/for will create more durable and relevant work, while helping ourselves understand each other better. Unity is key for collective action.
Always choose vendors that use renewable energy
If designing for print, choose post-consumer waste or agri-fiber papers. (And don’t forget the vegetable-based inks)
Employ the mantra that “less is more”
As a global citizen and in your personal work (outside of biking and becoming a vegetarian) we should:
Spend more time in nature. Learn more about its value.
Create awareness campaigns to help:
inform about and eliminate the subsidies for fossil fuel industries. (This will also help lower your taxes.)
promote those same subsidies be invested in renewable energy companies ASAP
stop the planned new 2,440 coal plants globally
Demand a global carbon price.. oil and coal must pay for their impacts on environment!
Eric is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois. He has worked as a professional designer for such companies as Razorfish and Texas Instruments. His research as a professor explores how design can be sustainable and consequently how to teach it. Eric has a BFA in Industrial/Graphic design from the University of Michigan and an MFA in Design from the University of Texas.