Sustainability in Graphic Design

Wednesday, November 24th, 2004

One of my students is undertaking a small research project looking at the issue of sustainability in graphic design – it’s an interesting area, but I think the more he examines it the angrier he’s getting.

He’s posted a short questionnaire online to grab people’s opinions of some of the issues, and knowledge of those issues, and I thought I’d post the link to his questionnaire so that if you have a few minutes (that’s all it will take) you could give him the benefit of your thoughts (or ignorance – that’s possibly half the point) on the matter.

7 comments on “Sustainability in Graphic Design

  1. 1000 black lines says:

    How is your student’s research developing in this area of sustainable graphic design? I can imagine his frustration, but I’m also interested an any results he may have discovered.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Still angry…
    I don’t blame him. I’ve had a few interesting conversations with students from around the country who think this is an important area that needs covering in university curricula.
    In fact, as more become acquainted with the First Things First ideas they seem to question why we deliver courses that focus on the idea that big corporate clients = good, small ethically minded clients = not prestigious enough for someone from this uni. We certainly seem to gear our ideas of ‘success’ to either a ‘design as art’ worldview or ‘design as making lots of money’ one, both of which seem to run counter to the spirit of the age.
    It’s certainly got me thinking…

  3. 1000 black lines says:

    First Things First? Is that the book by Stephen R. Covey?

  4. Jonathan says:

    No – sorry my mistake: The First Things First manifesto was first published in 1964 and reissued slightly modified in 2000. I’ve pasted the text of the original below, or see this < HREF="">Wikipedia<> entry (it’s not great but it gives the gist) – check out the 2000 manifesto too.

    “We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, photographers and students who have been brought up in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents. We have been bombarded with publications devoted to this belief, applauding the work of those who have flogged their skill and imagination to sell such things as:

    cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste, aftershave lotion, beforeshave lotion, slimming diets, fattening diets, deodorants, fizzy water, cigarettes, roll-ons, pull-ons and slip-ons.

    By far the greatest effort of those working in the advertising industry are wasted on these trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity.

    In common with an increasing numer of the general public, we have reached a saturation point at which the high pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise. We think that there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on. There are signs for streets and buildings, books and periodicals, catalogues, instructional manuals, industrial photography, educational aids, films, television features, scientific and industrial publications and all the other media through which we promote our trade, our education, our culture and our greater awareness of the world.

    We do not advocate the abolition of high pressure consumer advertising: this is not feasible. Nor do we want to take any of the fun out of life. But we are proposing a reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication. We hope that our society will tire of gimmick merchants, status salesmen and hidden persuaders, and that the prior call on our skills will be for worthwhile purposes. With this in mind we propose to share our experience and opinions, and to make them available to colleagues, students and others who may be interested.”

  5. 1000 black lines says:

    Ah, that FIRST THINGS FIRST. I had almost forgotten about that document. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Anonymous says:

    My name is James Hurst – the student writing about sustainable graphic design. I am extremely gratefull for all the help that has been provided via the bloggers forums and just wanted to clarify some points.

    As much as I wholeheartedly concur with the ethos behind the ‘First Things First’ manifesto, my essay is focused on changing how graphic design operates with regard to the environment.

    William McDonough and Michael Braungart highlight many practicle examples of how design can work in conjunction with the environment in thier book Cadle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

    A point that I want to translate to the designers who are responsible for ‘cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste, aftershave lotion, beforeshave lotion, slimming diets, fattening diets, deodorants, fizzy water, cigarettes, roll-ons, pull-ons and slip-ons.’

    The mass markets have to become environmentally viable. These are the monstor McUsual corporations that we as a collective community have to work with because a change in thier policy is far more powerful than an individual consumer. (Although I do not dismiss the power of the consumer).

    All too often the corproation is seen as the enemy, over the course of my research I have come to conclude the true enemy to environmental sustainability – might by some environmentalists. We can not promote change if we declare an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario. We have to work in tandam with corporations if we want them to work with us.

    Kalle Lasn outlines a very realistic and achievable regime change in culture jam which outlines a two prong attack, a pincer move from above and below.

    For the environment to become a primary factor in a corporate agenda we need envoronmentalists maintaining acts of awareness, we need that grass roots activism – what we also need are the people at the top making the right choice.

    My essay quesions why environmental policy or theory is not tought? I want to know what the curriculm states a graphic designer should know? I want course leaders to explain why they have not pushed for environmental awareness subject areas?

    Is Graphic Design just about the aesthetic?

    To conclude, my essay is more than First Things First. A graphic designer could be working on any project, for any client (or themselves) at any size with any budget. I question who is responsible for the environment?

    I know there has already been a link to the online questionaire, but if anyone could spare a few moments to fill it out it would be fantastic. ( and any comments or feedback that you have should be posted here and I will keep checking back and would love to engage in debate about how other people percieve a Graphic Designers role (So long as Jonathan doesn’t mind of course).


  7. James Hurst says:

    To ammend the above post I have opened a new blog which can be found at where I will post up findings and debate/think/promote/digress about sustainability.

    Please add your comments and feedback there.


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