Designing and the climate crisis. 5 reasons that climate change needs to… | by Matt McGillvray | Aug, 2021

Not every job seems like it would be a good fit in which to either be a contributor to global climate change or one that would be good at addressing or tackling those changes. Being a designer though means being able to be both options. Knowing that, we designers should really take some time to think about what it is that we do and how exactly we do it. Revision and iteration, after all, are a designer’s friend.

I don’t want to turn this into a platform where I just talk (type, really) at you. Currently, I am writing a book on the subject and talking with designers, listening to them, reading a lot, and trying to synthesize all of those thoughts into something constructive for—hopefully—as many different kinds of designers as possible. This essay is not going to be about convincing you that designers produce real value and thus is a profession important enough to take climate change seriously. Nor will this essay serve to convince you that climate change is real. Much has been said about both topics; this essay assumes that you already know both things to be true.

There is no one way to combat climate change; it is a multifaceted problem that requires many solutions. Everyone needs to be involved in the fight and importantly, everyone needs to benefit from the solution. The problem goes well beyond the world of design, obviously, but we can fight for solutions within our profession. In the process of writing this, I have spoken with people who almost stopped designing in an effort to try to find a “green job” somewhere and had no luck. I hope that by the time you’ve finished this, you’ll have a launching off point for how you can get involved in helping to combat the existential problem that is the climate crisis, and you’ll be able to make that effort as a designer.

In the main, design does not look like those that it creates for. And it’s less effective as a tool to fight climate change as a result. Lack of diversity was a problem back when designer and author Victor Papanek wrote Design for the Real World and too often it is still true. He said, “There are many other groups that we have singled out and called deprived [and] disadvantaged*. Their skills must be investigated to lead the design and development of things for them to do. Let me stress again that members of the group concerned must in each case be part of the design team.”¹ Until designers are consistently inclusive of the types of people that they are designing for, we will have more to strive toward. And that inclusivity is important when speaking of the crisis of climate change because the scale of this problem is so big that it includes all of us. Straight, White, male, patriarchal worldviews are what got us into this mess and that needs to be changed if we want to change the trajectory that we are on, which is one that has already locked in centuries of environmental damage. It is important to remember though that we can still work to avert the worst outcomes. As designers, we can’t fix that across the board for all professions, the world over, but we can work on that at home in our own industries.

Fixing climate change means fighting for climate justice. What is climate justice? Well, at its very least, it means acknowledging that many groups of people around the world have been — and will be — harmed by the effects of climate change and making a conscious effort to address those harms and make amends.² That is the very least that all of us can do. We know that there are places on earth that have already begun feeling the heat, so to speak, of climate change. We’ve locked in a future of rising seas and melting ice. Some areas will become too hot to live in anymore and some will see the shorelines expand ever closer to our buildings and infrastructure. Climate justice means, in action, that we take steps to address those concerns now, even if we aren’t experiencing those things yet ourselves. It means sending money, aid, and supplies to places that need it and it means researching solutions for these problems and more. It means restitution for wrongs and that can mean reparations too. And it means not making the same mistakes that got us to this place.

Climate justice is not just a slogan for a t-shirt and it isn’t a buzzword. It requires (and demands) action. It is intersectional. We can work on affecting justice in our own design industries by enacting gender equality in areas of pay and position, by encouraging more (and being more inviting to) people of color to enter design industries, by decentralizing centers of design from places like major cities and enabling local designers to step up and speak to audiences that they are from or are indigenous to. It means acknowledging that design has been used to prop up ideas that are harmful to the environment, ideas that are racist, ideas that are sexist, and more. For all of the good things that designers have done, we have done and enabled a lot of really shitty things too. This could mean that we react to these truths by getting angry and saying, “but I didn’t physically do those things,” and kick the can down the road further, or we can roll up our sleeves and make sure that our generation is the one that puts an end to environmentally and socially destructive design practices.

In their excellent book, All We Can Save, authors and editors Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson write in their introduction that, “To address our climate emergency, we must rapidly, radically reshape society. We need every solution and every solver. As the saying goes, to change everything, we need everyone. What this moment calls for is a mosaic of voices — the full spectrum of ideas and insights for how we can turn things around.” This is our time to ensure that the future looks better than the past. Note that I didn’t say “different,” because that is already a given; the term climate change already implies transformation, but the extent of that transformation is up to all of us.

Yes, we need to consume less; yes, we need to stop burning fossil fuels; and yes, we need to pull carbon from the air, we need to reinvest in people and places that our cycles of consumption have left plundered and ruined. We need to stand up and say no to those who will continue ruining. We need to boycott products that are wasteful, we need to switch to renewable energy sources, we need to decolonize the process of manufacturing and let those nations that have the natural resources benefit from the sale of them as much as the nations to which those resources ultimately end up. But look closely at many of those problems that need addressing. Those problems need solutions and solutions are what we do — these aren’t problems that merely need us to abstain from doing something, we need alternatives. And who is going to package, market, and sell those alternatives? Designers, as creators of value—value that brands and customers rely on—have an important role to play as these alternatives are developed and sold. Let’s look a little closer at some of the items on this (not at all exhaustive) list and see some more ways that our jobs as designers are critical.

We need to consume less. This is a must. As consumers though — and often our role in the economy is as participants that consume — we have to re-examine our relationship to what we use. As designers, we have to take that a little further and examine our relationship to the things that we make and how we make them. An average product today is made to be obsolescent within the span of a few years, at best. It is quite difficult to break the habit of buying, using, and trashing if the lifespan of the product is fleeting. Now, changing the culture of consumption, especially in a place like America, is a big deal, but the way that we make things — the way we design them — is something that we can have a hand in. Re-classifying “consumers” as “users” would be a good way to change our mindsets. After all, consuming implies that we use up an object and move on. The relationship of a consumer to a product is not a long-term one. Re-framing the people that we design for as users might result in us valuing what we make more and thinking of how we can make whatever that is last longer.

We need to stop burning fossil fuels. This is essential as well. But unless we design alternatives to objects that burn those fuels, we won’t have many options. And we need to remember that we can’t let perfection be the enemy of good. Will electric cars still require electricity that is produced from fossil fuels into the immediate future? On the whole, yes. Is that an improvement over the current state of affairs? Also yes. Designers of all stripes have ways to cut down on fossil fuels as well — air source heat pumps for office heating and cooling, renewably sourced electricity for office work, and even losing the office in favor of remote work. The actual energy requirements for creating designs can easily be cut down if we prioritize making those changes. And doing so in no way affects the quality of what we make.

We need to stand up and say no to those who will continue ruining our planet. This can be addressed in a number of ways, and no matter who you are, there is an option for you, and every option is critical. Prominent designers and PR firms can pledge to not provide design services for fossil fuel companies (though it isn’t just fossil fuel companies that are causing the damage). Firms of all sizes can decide to only take on clients that are committed to environmentally-friendly designs and solutions. Designers that can’t afford to outright make a pledge like that can create work that highlights the things that they stand for, like creating a video that emphasizes an issue like sea-level rise, infographics that educate viewers about issues of climate, or other projects that stretch your design skills for the purpose of both learning how to do something new and to be proactive about an issue that is of critical importance. Personally, as I write this, I fall into that latter group of people who can’t just pick and choose their potential clientele, so I dove into research and chose to write until I can do more. Designers can even use their social media to amplify the voices and actions of those that can make the choices that they can’t at the moment. If an illustrator just mentioned on social media that they said “no” to a major polluter, hit “like,” or retweet it, comment, and follow. Support can be free and is effective.

These are just a few ways that designers like us can see that we aren’t just passive observers of the crisis around us. We can affect change from within our industry and that change can be just as effective as marching, boycotting, and bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. Working toward a better, safer, more equitable world in whatever way that you can is being part of the solution. Please remember that fact. This essay is about thinking critically and exposing yourself to new ideas and ways to design and do business so that what we do produces a better world.

I want to point out a few major arguments or ideas that I hope that by the end of this essay you’ll come to see as true. These arguments are the basis of the next part of the book I’m writing and will help us find ways to become more climate-oriented designers and artists. Those arguments are:

  1. Design has the potential to contribute to climate change and its subsequent injustices,
  2. Design education has to emphasize the importance of climate change and design’s role in it,
  3. Design education should be accessible to all students, regardless of how they are learning,
  4. Designers are gatekeepers who have a responsibility for what they make, and
  5. Climate change is the most critical problem that humanity has ever faced.

I want to spend the second half of this essay focusing on these arguments.

The first major argument that I am setting out to make is that design — and designers — all have the potential to contribute to climate change, for better or worse. Not only that, but we contribute to the injustices caused by climate change as well. This is obviously a problem, but it also presents us with an opportunity in that we can either continue as we were, or we can do what we can to make a change. We can include the environment as a piece of the design process³, or we can leave it to just incorporate the consequences of whatever we design.

Unfortunately, there is not an easy answer (or, to be more precise, there isn’t a simple answer) to how we address our environmental impact as designers, either as an industry or as individuals—though designing with better materials would be a good start. An important thing to note is that I said that we have the potential to contribute to climate change. The potential. But if we have the potential for negative impacts that means that we also have the potential for positive ones. We mentioned “subsequent injustices” earlier; we can’t just go forward as designers and improve our industries’ practices without acknowledging and making amends for past wrongs. Citizens of the Global North need to do this in all aspects of our society—but that’s a whole different essay.

For designers, one way to begin to mitigate this is to remember that design is for everyone and so design needs to look like everybody. Inclusive teams with diversity at every level will ensure that a White-centric worldview won’t dominate designs going forward. Localized design teams, creating things for people that they intrinsically understand and connect with is a good way to create designs that are effective and nuanced. Distance and borders shouldn’t have to define whether or not a designer or team can take a job — as we’ll see — but designers aren’t always good researchers or observers, so even long-distance design should include members of the group that will be affected by the design itself.

One important step to addressing the potential that we have for either positive or negative change as regards to the climate crisis or even climate justice is to incorporate climate change education into design curriculums. This would have the effect of subverting the standard ideas about what design is and what design is for and would make it clear from the beginning of the educational process that how a design impacts everyone, intended users or not, is important to what we do. The standard idea of the end of a project being the invoice or when that product can be used by consumers is too shortsighted. If we are to incorporate a more eco-friendly mindset in design culture, it has to begin at the educational level.

Too often design education focuses on simply how to design and not on why we design; but if we don’t address how our efforts can lead to more climate change, then we can’t see why what we do has those effects. In short, the value that we create as designers — whether that is graphic design, illustration, product design, videography, and more — when done effectively, gives legitimacy to (and increases profits for) our clients and employers. That is what they pay us for. But if we give that value to companies that use it as a license to pollute or destroy, then we have a part in the legitimacy that they enjoy. This is why greenwashing is so dangerous. Learning the causes and effects of climate change as foundational ideas when learning how to design will help ensure that we avoid those scenarios.

This is foundational to a more sustainable design industry; more participants means more ideas and makes it harder for an established group within whatever design profession we are in to define the standards for the rest of that industry. Design education needs to be democratized. Design education needs to look like the people that it serves. Design education needs to be decentralized. It needs to include people from all walks of life. If this sounds like all the reasons that you might hear for expanding voting rights, that’s intentional. When a small coterie of anyone has the keys to anything, the rules that govern tend to favor those in charge. Designers affect all of humanity and so that means that designers need to reflect humanity as well. Climate change is a global crisis that affects us all and so all types of voices and people need to be involved in the solutions.

Designers make things for humans — or at least, things that benefit humans directly or indirectly — and that means that designers need to be groups of people that are representative of humanity. The fact that climate change is already devastating many places in the Global South when many nations in the Global North are the largest historical emitters of greenhouse gases is an example of a small coterie of people making rules that benefit those that look like them. Black and Brown people live in places that White people have strip-mined for materials to make the products that build our lifestyles of comfort and wealth. That isn’t an opinion, it’s history. Governmentally, that is the history of nations like the United Kingdom, the United States, and European former colonial powers like France, Spain, and Germany, among others. Opening up design to be accessible to people of all nations — opening design schools in all nations — is key to giving people the voices they need to speak out for change. With the internet — and with disciplines for which it is possible — we can expand classrooms and extend knowledge to anywhere. Learning the history of global climate and political injustice as part of the design curriculum is essential to not repeating the mistakes of the past.

In the United States, just 32 percent of graphic designers say that they have a Bachelor’s degree. Seventeen percent of them identify online learning as how they got their start in graphic design. Six percent were apprentices before calling themselves professionals.⁴ Help wanted listings and job opening descriptions do not reflect this reality, however. Bachelor’s degrees are the standard requirement as proof of skill even though we’ve all seen designs of the topmost quality that were made by people without them. Student loan debt is a very solid reason why many don’t go to college, and if our industries are only going to accept degrees, then we limit ourselves to either those who didn’t need to worry about the debt of education or those crippled by it. And that’s not good enough. We need to normalize expanded methods of training the next generation of designers if we want a truly free generation of designers.

With the above points being made—and with the subject of freedom as designers being fresh in our minds—it is clear that designers have jobs that have real consequences. As such, it should be clear that we have a responsibility to all of those affected by our work. Victor Papanek said that designers have to be judges.⁵ And judgment as a designer happens even before the actual design phase. We have to think of ourselves as gatekeepers to our audience — intended or not — and do what we can to make things that help them, not hurt them.

Think again about greenwashing. Greenwashing is creating marketing materials that allow companies like Chevron or ExxonMobil to look like climate heroes rather than the villains that they are. Greenwashing erases or obscures their culpability in the problem to many users of their products and lets them escape the consequences of their complicity. Organizations like Clean Creatives and Fossil Free Media are calling on designers to make a pledge to not work with fossil fuel companies for this very reason. Honesty and transparency are valuable things to people trying to decide which things to buy and which to avoid, so it is no surprise that corporations that would be harmed by those virtues are looking to make them as rare as possible. If good design adds value — in terms of both money and trustworthiness — to the brands that we choose to patronize or not, then the skills that we hold become even more valuable. This also is why the normalization of all kinds of design education is important; designers deep in debt can’t take a stand without risking their well-being.

Widespread adoption of a set of standards should be a short-term goal for designers of all kinds. Doctors and lawyers have them. Any profession that can make Shell appear to be at the forefront of cutting-edge eco-friendly fuels needs to have standards against that kind of malpractice.

There is no issue that is more pressing than the climate crisis. Nothing. It is a combination of a number of injustices that, over time, have metastasized into a problem capable of ending our species if left totally unchecked. Consumerism at the expense of all else is a core reason — among many others — for this situation and design is on the front lines of that arena. Simply buying things isn’t the problem; the ways things are marketed and the ways that our culture prizes possessions and then throws them away is the problem. Designers have to step into that space and begin to change the scope of how projects work and how products exist (and how long they exist) in the world in which we live. Buy, consume, throw away, and buy again is a philosophy that is great for corporate bottom lines and is a death sentence for a planet covered in plastic that won’t fully break down for centuries.

We have a limited amount of time to work in if we are going to stop warming at 1.5°C. And that absolutely needs to be the goal, especially if we believe that climate justice is an essential part of solving climate change — and you should. Any warming above 1.5°C means that many of the most vulnerable areas on the planet (equatorial areas, low-lying islands, etc.) will be so impacted by the additional heat that they will be rendered uninhabitable. The people living there will become refugees at the mercy of nations that didn’t even care enough about them to prevent the loss of their homes. How can we expect those places to offer a helping hand if doing so means accepting that they were the cause to begin with?

We hear so often that the planet will survive the changes that a warmer climate will bring as if that should be some sort of comfort. It isn’t. That kind of thinking devalues the lives of all of us, human or not and seeks to reduce all of us to nothing but pawns and distractions for the lives of the few people who have guided us to a place of catastrophe. We are not pawns; we are not helpless. We need to figure this problem out. And I believe that we will.

The book that I’m writing will focus on those arguments above. Though I won’t tackle them as individual arguments; instead, I want to weave them together by centering the book on three key themes or types of actions that will help designers to recreate the way we design and will lead design to be a regenerative profession, rather than one that too often hinges on a creation-to-waste mentality. Design needs to incorporate philosophies and practices that make climate change — and climate justice — a central tenet of its governing practices. I can’t make this happen. Honestly, unless you are someone like the president of the AIGA (in which case, hello!) or someone else equally influential, you can’t just make this happen either. We can make this happen though. We can transform the culture and traditions of design.

We have to do it because our planet needs all of us to. And though I’m speaking to and towards designers, it’s not just our responsibility. Xiye Bastida, an indigenous Mexican climate activist, writing in the excellent collection of essays and other written works, All We Can Save, exhorts all of us, “It’s time to change our mindset toward implementing solutions. A vibrant, fair, and regenerative future is possible — not when thousands of people do climate justice activism perfectly but when millions of people do the best they can.”⁶ Let’s take that mindset and run with it; we aren’t aiming for perfection, but passion. Unlike much of the global work we have to do, revising the design process is mostly painless, and it has already begun.

My book (and potentially a future essay) will look at those five arguments through the lenses of activism, education, and sustainable practices. Some of the ideas won’t be new. A few might even already come to mind. No one needs to do all of them. I’ve been deliberate in trying to make the book (and this essay for that matter) as inclusive to as many types of designers as possible — any design type or profession, any level in the career path, and for any level of financial ability — there is something that all of us can do. Design work has the potential to outlast the life of its creators. We’ll have to consider that as we continue designing because too often, our values are fleeting while our work sits in landfills. We should turn that idea on its head: our sense of values should be here long after our products have ceased to be.

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