How Can Graphic Design Help Save The Planet?


(Click to enlarge)

I’m very pleased to have been asked by AGDA to speak at the first Design A Better World conference in Sydney with the tricky topic, “How Can Graphic Design Help Save The Planet?”

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what my position on that question is yet. I think it’s basically, “no”. But it depends on whether you emphasise the “help” part or “save the planet” part.

Graphic design alone can’t save the planet, but graphic (and other forms of design) can contribute to the process. Design can influence small behavioural shifts that amount to a big change when multiplied and that can be a powerful mechanism.

Most of the problems we have now are accumulations of many small behavioural changes – everything from packaging to energy usage. The standby light and mode on a TV is a design feature. It’s small and must have seemed like a great design decision at the time. Now we know it leeches small amounts of power in millions of homes and is a terrible waste of energy. So whilst it seems like designers only have the power to make minor changes, we’re in a position to influence behaviours (a highly debated topic at present) that magnify into big change.

Design can, however, make a big difference to individual people’s lives and that has a knock-on effect that is perhaps under-estimated. I plan to talk about some of those ideas and examples.

I hope that will be something different – it’s pretty scary being lined up against the excellent range of other speakers, many of whom are real graphic designers. As an interaction and service designer I think I might have different views, so it will be interesting to see how that conversation turns out.

In any case, it’s not really about saving the planet but our own species. This rock we’re spinning around on will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone.

How Can Graphic Design Help Save The Planet? is going to be held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney on the 3rd August and all the details are on the Design A Better World site.

Sparks – Playful Innovation


Philips Design has created a boardgame called Spark to help generate insights. It looks like it is a pretty simple premise – there are a set of characters (basic personas) and a set of situations. As you roll the dice and the characters land on the situations, you have to brainstorm the implications.

According to Slava Kozlov, Senior Consultant in Strategic Futures Design at Philips Design:

“You can experiment without taking risks. Suspend your values and beliefs and adopt different roles which allow you to consider issues from a different angle. Learn how to deal with new situations effectively. Think more unconventionally while remaining relevant. And, in the process, enjoy yourself more!”

In many respects it’s not all that innovative. Personas and scenarios are often used in brainstorming sessions. But one of the aims of this approach seems to be to take the activity away from the slightly forced nature of some brainstorming sessions. In theory (as much research shows) the more participants’ minds relax into a playful state, the more laterally creative they should start to think.

There is a quite a bit of talk in the PDF article about “serious games” and a mention of The Serious Games Institute. I’m not a fan of this kind of terminology, the same as the idea of serious play. I understand why people use this, but it is an immediately apologetic framing of play. Play is play and it is important – it doesn’t need the prefix of being serious to make it so. It doesn’t do much to advance the value of play.

As for the game, I can imagine in a corporate culture that this could be a useful tool allowing people to enter into a suspended-judgement, creative idea generation space because is “only a game”. Of course the flipside could also be the case – that it or its outcomes are not taken seriously because it’s a game. It is good to see these ideas becoming more accepted and mainstream though.

There’s a video of Birgitta ten Napel talking about the game on the Philips site too.