Thursday, April 5th, 2007

I believe that design can change

I believe that design can change
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I’m not good with numbers, but I find them interesting nevertheless. For example, you and I spend a lot of money. In fact, if you are a member of the AIGA, you take part in purchasing or specifying over $9 billion of printing and paper per year. At the risk of sounding obtuse, I have to say, “That’s a lot.”

Let me give you another number: 81 million tons. That’s the amount of paper waste you and I helped generate over the past year. How about this one? More than a million. That’s how many species are expected to be at risk of extinction by 2,050 as a result of global warming. Another? $11 billion. That’s the average cost of climate-related disasters in Europe during the 80s and 90s.

These numbers make me lay awake at night thinking about the future my seven month old son has to look forward to. I suspect they are just as worrisome to someone like you.

The first steps

At our studio, we read about sustainability and committed to become more responsible. We started to use only 100% PCW papers and tried to look critically at the choices made at our studio. At the same time we felt a little dismayed; it didn’t seem like we were doing enough.

smashLAB is tiny, so changes in our studio don’t add up to much. Plus, we mostly work online and in brand design, which results in very little printing. These facts left us thinking there was little we could do to combat climate change. Perhaps we were better off to let the politicians and environmentalists sort this one out.

Changing my mindset

In my early twenties I became a vegetarian. Initially, I could only think of what I was giving up. I missed hamburgers, steaks, and bacon. (Mmmm… sweet, sweet bacon.) It took months to move past this outlook. (Mmmm… bacon.) With time however, I became aware of the options available to me.

Having grown up in a small town, I had not been exposed to Indian, Thai or Singaporean food— cuisines which often feature meat-free dishes. Needless to say, I had no awareness of Buddhist food, which I now find quite delightful. As a result of vegetarianism I became more open and aware of alternatives. Today I consider a continental meat-based North American diet somewhat dull.

I have learned that it’s difficult to think outside of the familiar, and the notion of sustainability was one which I could only apply to my own limited experience. While I was wrapped up in thinking about what our studio had to stop doing (i.e. printing on virgin fiber), I was missing out on the opportunity.

An insight

We ask clients to candidly consider their weaknesses and strengths when we work with them. In considering our firm’s ability to affect climate change, we asked ourselves the same questions.

Our weaknesses were clear: Our organization is small and has negligible influence. We had limited financial resources and our knowledge of the topic was limited. Our strengths, on the other hand, included being able to craft and distribute messages. Additionally, we could gain access to the required information. We also counted our motivation to “do good” as an asset.

This process led to a pivotal insight: We are members of a widely-distributed network with access to numerous decision makers. If we could create a sensible campaign and distribute it to our colleagues and friends, we could potentially leverage our collective strength.

Looking outside the confines of our studio and thinking of ourselves as part of a whole exposed our true strength, and that marked the beginning of Design Can Change.


Over the next ten months, we researched, engaged in debate, compiled content, built information graphics, stared at endless lines of code, and started to loathe the word “sustainability”. On many days we just wanted to go back to our lives before the project.

We struggled with our lack of knowledge. With no formal education in sustainability, we worried that it was inappropriate for us to broach the topic. As a result, we were thorough in our research and sought partners to help us with the effort.

Additionally, we accepted that as unqualified as we were, it was better to act than stand idly by. We felt it foolish to wait for some savior to solve the problem. We felt that as average citizens, it was our duty to contribute something.

What it is

Design Can Change encourages graphic designers to pool their influence and impact climate change. In some respects it is a starting point for designers who wish to embrace sustainable practices. It is a resource that contains project samples, reading lists and tools. Additionally, it is a directory that allows conscientious buyers of creative services to connect with like-minded designers. It is a framework that helps enable a sustainable mindset in a designers work. It is a pledge to do our best as professionals who have a responsibility to future generations.

It’s up to all of us

Take the next while to visit The presentation is straight forward and easy to skim. Think about what we’re proposing, and please take the pledge. If you share our hopes, I ask you to also lend a hand. We need to reach every one of our colleagues with this message. You can help by doing the following:

– If you have a blog, post about Design Can Change and your efforts to become sustainable
– Download one of the logos below and place it on your website with a link to:
– Grab a copy of this PDF and send it to the designers you know, asking them to take the pledge

There are few other professions in which ethics and social responsibility are as sincerely measured as in the field of graphic design. I believe that is why design can change: because of people like you. Please join us.

Logos for download

There are two sizes for your use, depending on your site’s design.

dcc tab 120x60
Above: Design Can Change Logo 120×60

dcc tab 56x31
Above: Design Can Change Logo 65×31

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