How Can Graphic Design Help Save The Planet?

by Andy Polaine on July 21, 2009

in General

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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.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David Little July 21, 2009 at 3:35 pm

There’s a great bit in Gary Hustwit’s Objectified film in which a product designer (I forget who) suggests that due to our throwaway culture, we should start designing and building consumables such as laptops and iPods from cardboard. I think that’s a great idea — and if the technology permits it, then it’s up to designers to come up with something that would be aesthetically appealing (and robust) enough for people to start buying it. A very positive way in which designers could contribute to “saving the planet”!

2 Andy Polaine July 21, 2009 at 3:59 pm

I’m really looking forward to seeing Objectified. It’s not available here in Germany in any form yet though (apart from small screenings in Berlin, etc.)

3 pierre stokx July 21, 2009 at 4:16 pm

I think the answer is yes.
Graphic design is a conduit for messages.
Sometimes message just don’t get through.
But graphic design enables a message to punch through, potentially to the masses.
Like this old poster…not the post:
http://www.hyperism.com/?p=43

4 james December 6, 2009 at 11:01 am

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently – not just in terms of graphic design but in anything creative. What are the contributions of films, creative writing, photographs? All of it seems far less valuable or meaningful with the advent of cheap digital cameras and sites like Flickr, even blogs like your own. Can high-end video games, because of the heavy resources that go into making them and therefore relative ‘scarcity’, as opposed to someone’s photoset of sunsets on Flickr, be the only bastion of true creative possibility/social change?

But in terms of simply design/graphic design, I was thinking it the other day when I read a copy of Wallpaper that Phillipe Starck had curated. He believed the only value design had for the human race anymore was to aid the realm of science. So he interviewed half a dozen scientists about what they thought needed to change in the world. All of it actually involved the development of new technologies, which would of course need new designers to interpret and sell to the public. It’s a pretty interesting issue that kind of addressed this exact issue. Look out for it – it was last months, and some issues featured a cover by Karl Lagerfield and some by Starck.

5 Andy Polaine December 6, 2009 at 1:03 pm

I think Starck is talking nonsense and he should know better, but maybe it just reveals the vapidity of his own design approach. Let’s face it, his main contribution has been a lemon juicer than nobody uses.

Science is important, but it’s not nearly as important as most governments and scientists like to make out. I find there is an enormous arrogance amongst many scientists that science and the scientific method are the be all and end all of contemporary culture. Whilst I wouldn’t want to do without the science behind, say, the Internet or how planes stay in the air, I also wouldn’t want to do with out music or books. There is an enormous over-emphasis on the importance of science and reductionist thinking within education too, but that’s another story.

6 james December 7, 2009 at 3:53 am

Mm yes it’s not the be all and end of all of contemporary culture, but when it comes to helping save the planet, it’s going to be science that plays the crucial part, not the latest Dave Eggers. Most of the scientists in the mag agree that we’ll eventually have to leave the planet anyway. That’ll be in a billion years or summat. Maybe creativity/design will help the scientists dream up the methods to get us off here before the planet explodes.

7 Andy Polaine December 7, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Sure it is, but there’s also an aspect in which graphic design plays a part and that’s the consumption of ‘stuff’ as well as nudging behaviour. Designers do play a role in persuading people to buy and use objects and services – quite a big role. All the science in the world doesn’t help if nobody uses it.

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