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Sustainability is a hot topic these days. From the sourcing of conflict minerals to the changing climate, to the effects on wildlife, to preserving clean water and other natural resources…the public’s awareness of how our lifestyles affect the world around us, and each other, have never been higher than they are at this moment.

Responsible companies are developing plans to become carbon-neutral within the next few decades. Governments are working together to develop new ways of producing renewable energy and lessen environmental impacts at a global scale. Individuals are taking action by evaluating their preconceived notions about consumerism and supporting products and brands that exhibit a commitment to preserving the world around us.

Despite all of these changes to the status quo, it can still seem like an impossible challenge to make a difference in our personal and professional lives. Marketers and designers are conscious about trying to use recycled and sustainably sourced materials whenever possible, but also wonder if we could be doing more.

The answer might be hiding in plain sight: good design.

But what is “good design”? Isn’t it just design that looks nice? Or design that the client approves? Or design that produces the desired action?

All of that matters of course, but there are some fundamental principles that can be used to determine if a design is good. According to industrial designer Dieter Rams, there are ten.

  1. Good design is innovative
  2. Good design is useful
  3. Good design is aesthetic
  4. Good design is understandable
  5. Good design is unobtrusive
  6. Good design is honest
  7. Good design is long-lasting
  8. Good design is thorough
  9. Good design is environmentally friendly
  10. Good design is as little design as possible

Aside from number 9, which directly addresses the issue of sustainability, it can be difficult to understand how the other principles could have a greater environmental and social effect…and how they could apply to the design of communications and experiences.

Let’s explore a couple of ways these principles can be brought together and applied in the interest of creating more sustainable solutions, beyond just choosing a recycled stock for your next printed piece.

Good Design Is Human-Centered

The philosophy behind human-centered design (HCD) is amazingly simple, but the effects of applying this in practice can be game-changing for companies. HCD has applications throughout organizations but is commonly used in the development of communications, marketing, and digital experiences.

At its core, HCD seeks to understand problems and their proposed solutions from the perspective of the individuals who are experiencing them, rather than from the standpoint of internal bureaucracy, technological capabilities, or personal expression of the creator.

In doing so, designers need to think beyond the project at hand and look at the broader amalgamation of touchpoints that customers encounter through interacting with the company. And have profound empathy for them as people.

Where does this component fit in? Maybe it doesn’t. Should it be changed to become more relevant or usable? Could the entire process be streamlined to be more efficient and easy to understand?

HCD often starts with looking at the entire journey as an overall experience by customers or users and mapping it out over time. This process shows:

  • How digital applications intersect with printed materials
  • How customer service interactions fit in with visits to physical locations
  • Where customers are connected with and abandoned along the way
  • And more

Only through zooming out and looking at the system from the point of view of the customer or user will opportunities to streamline at a company-wide level be uncovered. And simpler solutions at this scale can have massive sustainability (and cost) implications down through the organization.

Good Design Maximizes Impact

We’re all constantly inundated with messages, promotions, offers and now notifications that are intended to capture our attention and drive us to do something. It’s overwhelming. Our mental filters are being tested every day, and every day we learn new ways to sort and reject that which is unimportant or uninteresting.

As a result, many companies keep pushing more and more promotions out at a higher volume to just compete in this over-saturated landscape, which causes other companies to do the same just to keep up.

The strategy is simple: “If we make 25 impressions, while our competitor makes only 23, we’ll win and break through the clutter”. Clearly not a sustainable strategy economically or environmentally.

The most obvious offender here is the direct mail industry, but these tactics are used in other categories of marketing as well.

What if in pursuit of the same business goal–capturing attention–a different underlying strategy was applied: “To break through with quality rather than quantity”.

This could take the shape of either a great creative concept for an individual campaign, or better yet a strong, consistent and resonant brand overall. When was the last time you were barraged by mail ads or catalogs from Apple?

Creativity is very important, but when you consider that “brands that are presented consistently are 3 to 4 times more likely to experience brand visibility”, it becomes clear that adhering to standards day after day is really the key.

If a company with just a consistent branding effort can outperform a lazy competitor by 3 to 4 times, imagine how well a truly unique and innovative brand identity that’s presented consistently can perform….and how much less it’ll have to consume and spend to break through.

Good Design is Media Independent

After considering the experience from a human standpoint, and adopting a process that prioritizes innovative solutions, a competent designer or design team will naturally begin to think about what platforms and channels will best support their strategy.

It’s that procedure that is at the center of working sustainably as a designer. If you start with the “what” before the “how”, you miss the opportunity to let the thinking determine the most appropriate and efficient format. And how a solution can meet the needs of more than one goal. For instance:

  • Maybe the current system of printed forms will suffice, or possibly it’s better to create a digital tool that’s simpler for users and streamlines the backend workflow for HR.
  • An annual report might reach a wider audience and be more engaging if it’s transitioned to an online version that can be printed on-demand, section by section if needed, as opposed to being a commercial printing run of 10,000 copies. Maybe 500 copies are printed commercially, but utilizing some high-end printing and finishing techniques that make it more brand-aligned.
  • Could an industry newsletter be transformed into a content marketing campaign that would drive traffic to the website and generate more leads, in addition to being distributed to a list of subscribers?
  • Possibly transforming branches into branded destination experiences would increase foot traffic more effectively than continuously sending promotions and special offers multiple times a year to an untargeted mailing list.

Challenging the status quo in an organization can be difficult when things seem to be “working”, but with the availability of digital solutions, the time has never been better to step back and evaluate which media are being used to communicate and provide services most effectively.

A partner that has a motivated interest in a particular medium either because of specialization or because they earn a commission, isn’t really thinking about what’s best for the customer or the environment. A good designer will look at the picture more broadly and let the strategy guide the way.

Good Design Improves Human Well-Being

I know what you’re thinking about this one: “Yeah right! This guy’s drunk the creativity Kool-Aid” But stay with me for just a little bit and I think you’ll get where I’m coming from.

If there’s one thing that we all can agree defines our modern experience in the digital age it’s the explosion and availability of information. There’s so much data being created and cataloged on a daily basis that we’re currently in the process of inventing artificial brains to help make sense of it all…for better or worse.

There’s so much information out there, that the problem is no longer an issue of supply, but an issue of interpretation and understanding. How do we put all of this knowledge to good use, if it’s too complex to even comprehend?

No one person has the ability to be an expert on anything outside of a very narrow practice area. This is one reason why professional specialization is on the rise. And society is becoming more global, cooperative and organized around large ventures. Because we have to.

Until we create a super-intelligent all-knowing robot that can solve every problem and answer any question, we need something to help make all of this complexity easier to understand and usable.

Yup, you guessed it: Design.

Consider for instance that one of the fastest growing segments of the graphic design industry is Information Design and Data Visualization. Designers in these fields can analyze complex data sets and theoretical concepts and create visually engaging and understandable images that distill the details down to the essentials and sum it all up in one beautiful picture.

While this might be the most obvious example, the concept of making information easier to understand spans the entire field of communication design. Indeed even Branding is a way of distilling emotional and practical information down into a simple visual code that can be used to communicate more efficiently with an audience in a market. It makes the process of identifying and selecting a product or service easier and less stressful…provided it’s an accurate and truthful representation of the underlying organization.

If the information explosion of the past 50 years offers any insight into what the future holds, which history tells us it most likely does, we can expect things to get even more complicated and overwhelming for all of us, compromising mental health civilization-wide. Without the assistance of good design (and/or Hal 3000) it’ll be a miserable and psychologically unsustainable existence for the humans of tomorrow.

The 3 Types of Design

When it comes to the ethics of design, there are three options: good design, bad design and no design. Good design is the only truly sustainable type. Bad design or no design that aims to be environmentally-friendly at a superficial level is ultimately irresponsible because it lacks the contextual awareness that is necessary to make it a truly sustainable solution.

By adopting the principles of human centered design, committing to striving for novel and innovative solutions, being media agnostic when it comes to production and creating informative and intuitive experiences, you will be well on your way to creating sustainable solutions. Well before you even consider aspects such as materials sourcing, recycling, waste, pollution and other well-known ways of going “green”.

It may just be that good design is not only good business but is also just….good.