If you’re anything like me, I was never the winning student at spelling bees.
If I couldn’t say it with words, I would always find another way to say it through my art. As a designer, sometimes you can get lost in your constantly growing pile of tasks and forget “the why'' behind what you are creating.
But at the end of a (hopefully) exciting and not draining career—will you be able to say the work you did made a difference in people’s lives?
So what is sustainability exactly and how does it relate to design?
Sustainability is not just about the impact we are making on the environment but also social equality and economic development. At its core, sustainability is the future we are creating and leaving behind for the next generation.
According to the World Health Organisation, “estimates show that tens of thousands of deaths per year are attributable to transport-related air pollution, similar to the death toll from traffic accidents.”
That’s why I think it’s important—vital even—to encourage designer comrades to not get lost in the daily grind, but really look at the change you can inspire through what you breathe your creativity into. In my context, that even includes changing a user’s perception, and encouraging them to carpool with their mates vs. drive themselves.
So how can you make a start on a blank art-board that seems miles away from sustainability?
1. Walk a mile (or a kilometre) in the shoes of your user
Your job as a designer is never finished by just making something look good, it has to function in a way that is also intuitive for users.
As my all time favourite hero Steve Jobs once said “Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.”
The first step I take when I craft out a design is taking a second to stop and think, “If I was this user, what would inspire me to make the action this screen is intending me to do?”
If you really place emphasis on your user, you can begin to see new ways to think differently about what you are creating.
Ask yourself questions like “Is there a less damaging/greener journey I can inspire my users to take instead?”, “Am I being inclusive of all audiences when designing this?”, “Does what I’m creating encourage or discourage users in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?” And other questions like these.
You always have to remember you aren’t just designing something you love, you’re designing something that the user should love!
Designers shouldn’t be looking for ways to manipulate users, but rather natural ways to empower them to easily think, interact and react positively to your product.
2. Ask yourself, “Does it spark joy?”
Think of your work the same way Marie Kondo does about house objects—does this design spark joy?
If it doesn’t, well you better thank the art-board for being a part of your life and press DELETE….just kidding.
But, it’s important to stop and think. Will the work you are creating delight audiences or have a contrary impact?
Yes, it’s important to create something that is visually appealing, but what is your design really saying?
According to conservation.org “Trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20% of the world’s breathable oxygen is produced in the Amazon rainforest alone.” Yet according to Earth Eco International “Rainforests are being cut down at the rate of 100 acres per minute.”
If a different photograph or a couple of words used in my design can empower someone to act differently about conserving the environment, why not take that leap? Look at the bigger picture of the purpose your product is serving. Are you designing for the purpose of just what people want or are you finding ways to include real world needs?
3. If you don’t have something nice (or useful) to say, don’t say it at all
Less really is more when it comes to both design and communications.
Yes, our “traditional” role is to design experiences, but I always take the time to stop and think—does the copy on this screen work with or against my design? Or, does it instantly make sense to me or is there a quicker, warmer way of saying it?
I always try to picture one of my dearest friends and think if I only had a few seconds left on this earth, how would I describe what this screen is saying to them?
I think the same thing applies for questioning if the copy we are using to accompany designs is positive or negative. Are we inspiring greatness or laziness for the world’s sustainability? It’s the same concept for if you are dealing with conflict in the real world. Would you approach them and demand they do it in a blunt way, or would you acknowledge the annoyance and invite them in a more friendlier, thankful kind of way?
Even if our role isn’t to create the comms, I believe there is no harm in pushing back sometimes and saying “I’m not sure my user would read all through those comms on this screen, is there anyway we can shorten it?” or “Hey, what if we said it like this, do you think that would encourage them differently from a better emotional perspective?”.
The same way we have a responsibility to be an advocate for our users, we also have a responsibility to include sustainability in our thinking process and not treat it as an added-on thought.
The products we are designing leave physical footprints behind in the environment and the world that surrounds us through transport, food, travel, and even the way we treat one another.
And at the end of the day, even if you didn’t intentionally mean to support a brand, what you design shapes the way the world perceives and reacts to it—and you are responsible for that.