Ethics and Sustainability: Graphic Designers’ Role

This speech was delivered by Metropolis’s editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy at the AIGA [American Institute of Graphic Arts] National Design Conference, held Oct. 23-26, 2003, in Vancouver, Canada and attended by more than 2000 design professionals and students.

An enormous smoke cloud is seen hovering over the northeast United States. Its origin: fires burning somewhere in China. The dramatic image—with hundreds of others like it—is posted on NASA’s Earth Science web site; here satellite cameras record the degradation of our home planet’s environment. Such graphic information is now routinely available to anyone with an Internet connection. We can see for ourselves how human actions in one part of the world effect human health in another, distant part.

On the day of the smoke cloud many New Yorkers experienced breathing problems. Most of them probably blamed the difficulties on local pollution caused by automobile and bus exhaust and chemical clouds wafting across the Hudson from New Jersey. But China? That’s too far away!

Well, as it turns out, you and I share one large breath with all human beings and other creatures living on this earth. We are closer to each other than we ever could have imagined. And now we have the science and the technology to document how interconnected we really are.

The smoke cloud over the northeast United Sates is a powerful graphic communication. The NASA web site may not be designed to your liking, but it provides information that is very hard to ignore. And this is where ethics enters the picture.

Continuing to act in a way that you know can have harmful consequences is irresponsible, unethical behavior. So, you didn’t start those fires in China, why should you be held responsible for polluting the environment?

But I say that you—collectively, as graphic designers—are starting other fires, metaphorically speaking. You are responsible for helping to create 40% of North America’s solid waste; paper accounts for 81 million tons of waste annually, according to the Printers National Environmental Center. Furthermore, the pulp and paper industry is the third largest industrial buyer of elemental chlorine. Chlorine is used to whiten paper, a process which is linked to a proven cancer-causing chemical called dioxin.

You know this, because you’ve been reading a little beige booklet in your conference packets. This booklet—No. 7—is part of the AIGA’s Design Business Ethics series and deals extensively with print design and environmental responsibility. It documents current knowledge on the subject and gives useful contact information. It is there for you to use. My health, your health, and your children’s health depend on how well you understand the information provided for you by the AIGA in booklet 7.

I am a graphic design client and I, along with thousands of other clients, need for you to do the right thing. Here is my story: I am the editor of a design and architecture magazine called Metropolis. We print around 60,000 issues 11 times a year at Brown Printing Company, in East Greenville, Pennsylvania. Brown’s giant web offset presses, perfect binders, and poly-wrappers produce some 500 titles, including elegant fashion catalogs and mass-market news magazines—all of them designed by someone, maybe some of you in this room.

Brown is an efficient, noisy industrial plant with hazardous waste signs posted everywhere. The paper waste, just from our small print-run, is staggering: garbage cans are filled with off-color color proofs during the test-runs. As employees of a magazine that has a commitment to covering environmental issues that shape our designed environment, our editors and art directors live with constant guilt. We know that the processes that produce those beautiful color pages are highly toxic and wasteful.

We have been assured that our paper comes from managed forests and that waste paper is recycled, but those assurances are not enough for us. We know more can be done, but it seems that we’re too small to make a difference. However, if every art director and every editor of every one of those 500 titles at Brown started asking questions about soy inks, recycled papers, safe press-clean-up procedures, chlorine content, and washable stock—the kind of paper that [William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s environmental manifesto] Cradle to Cradle is printed on—we might end up with a less toxic product and contribute less to the earth’s health problems.

Now, to me, the choice is not to eliminate print because it’s dirty, but rather to clean up its production and then use print in ways that only print can provide. For instance, when Paula Scher redesigned Metropolis some four years ago, we decided to print the feature well on a different paper stock from the rest of the magazine—this to provide a distinct, non-commercial zone of uninterrupted reading, an experience signaled by the tactile and visual change in the paper.

As we spend more time in the visual world of our computer screens, we search for multi-sensory experiences in our physical world. Paper technology, or polymer technology like Michael Braungart talks about, can satisfy some of our sensory needs, so we must figure out how to clean up paper technology and make it work better. It is the right thing to do. It is the ethical thing to do.

For a while now, I’ve been talking about something called the Gross Designed Product, the GDP, and how it needs to push environmental change. Think about this for a moment: an interior designer will buy 1,200 ergonomic chairs for one job, while you and I may buy 12 chairs in a lifetime. If each interior designer demanded that the chairs they specify be designed for disassembly, made of non-toxic materials, and their parts not shipped from thousands of miles away where they might be made by semi-slave labor, the contract furniture industry would have to pay attention.

Solid knowledge about your materials and processes can indeed be power—and this power is in the numbers. Put these numbers together and you have an interior design community that can make positive change, at least the way furniture is made. And we’re talking about changing one industry at a time.

Interior designers’ new buying habits can also change the way industrial designers think about their own work. Charged with making environmentally safe products, industrial designers would no longer by slaves to the annual style change in endless ergonomic chairs with slight differences for each brand. As a result, the designers might even design a whole new set of products that better suit our new ways of working.

Some months ago, Santa Fe architect Ed Mazria sent us a paper he wrote, connecting architecture, its processes, and its materials, to global warming. We knew this, but didn’t have the facts to prove it. So, with me searching for the GDP’s environmental impact, and all our editors looking for designs that make a positive—and beautiful—contribution to a cleaner environment, Ed’s paper hit a nerve. It became the backbone of our October cover story—the cover itself being three rolls of blueprints emitting a huge black cloud of smoke, an image designed by Pentagram’s D.J. Stout—with the accusatory cover line: “Architects Pollute.”

Ed reconfigured the old pie chart that depicts North America’s energy use showing that architects put in motion 48% of the fossil fuels that cause global warming. I think this may be a conservative estimate when we know what goes into buildings—such as interior furnishings, signage, and electronics—as well as all that paper your profession puts there. So the GDP is probably responsible for producing 80% or more of global warming gases. And make no mistake about it: global warming is here. It’s no longer discussed—except perhaps by Bush-the-Younger’s administration—as a remote possibility. The climate changes we’re experiencing are dramatic, we all know this first hand.

So, is there any good news in all of this? Yes. And it has to do with design. Designers today stand on the brink of being seen by society as essential contributors to its health, safety, and welfare. If you—together with the other design professions—decide to examine the materials and processes endemic to your work, as well as demand that these materials and processes become environmentally safe, you will be the heroes of the 21st Century.

Truly, when you get away from interdisciplinary squabbling and join forces with other design organizations—each organization is now making steps in this direction, by the way—you will have the kind of power-positive and life-affirming power that [Bauhaus founder and interdisciplinary designer] Walter Gropius couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams.

Ethical decisions are personal. It is you—each one of us—who has to decide to do the right thing. Today we ponder the meanings of words like morality, responsibility, obligation, community, social justice, inter-connectedness: words we once knew intimately, then proceeded to forget as we got lost in the pursuit of what we used to call “the good life.”

We have observed the sorry spectacle of corporate executives in handcuffs, doing the perp-walk on the 6 o’clock news. These ethically flawed CEOs may still have their ill-gotten gains, but they don’t have the power that once quickened their heartbeats. And watching them, we began to understand that power without ethical standards can dissipate in a New York minute and cause a great deal of anguish all around.

I am exceedingly hopeful about the future of design, and designers’ growing power in society. This hope comes from my students, and students I meet everywhere. The best of them know that they follow in the footsteps of the great, humanist designers of the 19th and 20th centuries.

At Parsons, where I have been teaching design history for twelve years, I was asked to develop a course on ethics five years ago. I interpreted this request as a sign of the times, as a rising need for some sort of anchor in a world of great uncertainty, a kind of re-assertion of our complex humanity.

We are much more than homo economicus and we know it. Consumption isn’t our only value, and we want to assert our interest in the life of the mind, in culture, art, science, and more. Yes, I thought, this request from Parsons was to be a search for values. I was sufficiently intrigued by it, but also puzzled by how I could pull it off. Do I build ethical arguments on such designer-issues as knock-offs or cutting and pasting without giving credit?

Though important, these issues seemed paltry next to the big question that, five years ago, was focused on environmental ethics. But that, too, seemed to ghettoize the subject of ethics. Environmentalists by then were a boring lot, often rabid zealots; when they were designers, they often made ugly things and buildings.

Then I watched the 1991 film Mindwalk, based on Fritjof Capra’s writings, and realized that we needed to talk about a whole new world-view. I realized we needed to get away from the Cartesian, linear, mechanistic thinking that shaped modern humanity and gave us the Industrial Revolution (and with it amazing things like central heating and computers, as well as horrible things like over-flowing landfills and air pollution). I understood that we needed to start thinking of the world as a system, a cyclical system of interconnections, a web of connections—“The web of life,” as Capra says.

We needed a comprehensive ecological world-view. And I also understood that this was a long-term project, not to be mistaken for a marketing trend like one furnishings manufacturer told us. (“Green?” he said. “Yes, well, we did that last year, but we’re doing something really exciting this year!”) In fact, green was only a part of it, a central part that must deal with environmentally benign materials and processes, restoration, recycling, reclaiming: all those things we have to do to remedy the damage we’ve done to the natural environment and to ourselves in it.

Have you asked yourself why, for instance, is a mass media like TV running ads for cancer drugs? We must be in the midst of an epidemic. And the general population already knows that there are such things as chemical carcinogens: everyone remembers seeing the movie Erin Brockovich.

So as I planned the course, it became clear to me that we needed to talk about the ethical implications of Descartes’s cogito ergo sum principle of a man-centered universe and contrast it to a more communal, collaborative approach in which social justice is at least as important as individual well-being. This is where my students and I would find our ethical issue, and along the way also take part in building a new world-view.

We don’t have a great summing-up of this world-view yet—as cogito summed up the modern world. We now use awkward and hard-to-grasp words like “sustainability,” “eco-design,” “green design,” “green-washing,” “biophilia,” “biomimicry,” “bioinspiration”; we even use “universal access” and “universal design,” since social justice is part of this new thinking.

These are early days, but incredibly exciting ones. The last time that humanity was challenged to rethink the world, we came up with the Enlightenment, which served our kind very well up to now. So use whatever words you like, but understand that you are at the center of a revolution where an ethical compass is useful and even essential. This may be a time when intellectual pursuits become as important as financial and entertainment pursuits. For without understanding the new world taking shape around us, we will surely go the way of dinosaurs.

So what can you do to be part of this eco-revolution? I offer five quick suggestions.

1) You—designers—should get out of your darkened rooms with their big, flashy images and figure out how to talk about design in the sunlight. In fact, just try talking about design once in a while without showing anything. It astounds me how creative people can readily buy into the mind-numbing, homogenizing visuals of corporate blandness.

PowerPoint presentations have killed thinking in the late 20th Century. We’re living in new times now. Stop using PowerPoint for everything. Give others credit for being able to follow your argument without the aid of bullet points for every factoid you flash. Spend your time and our precious energy resources on creating truly inventive and persuasive presentations.

Let’s cut back the time we spend looking at screens in mechanically cooled rooms that always hum with the powerful machines required to keep them a steady 70 degrees. Let’s design rooms that take advantage of the great and beautiful world outside with its shimmering waters and colorful foliage and cooling breezes.

2) This shift of world-views is a complex and serious business. It needs all kinds of expertise and it needs every one of you, and more. Many of you are already involved in education. Turn your involvement into something significant, relevant, and timely.

Develop courses where collaboration, research, social justice, and scientific and cultural understanding are at the heart of the design problems being solved. Make universities—with their unique capacity for research and analysis—into the intellectual leaders of your profession, with you as their collaborator. We know what happens when the design professions—all of them, including architecture and graphic design—lead academia. That’s what we have now and everyone’s unhappy.

3) If you teach at a university where there’s a teachers’ college, infiltrate that teachers’ college with your design ideas by making friends with the professors there. While it’s great that some designers do wonderful programs with public schools, these efforts are few and far between. We have an urgency here.

It would be more productive to educate the educators. Help them figure out how to add your design methods to a more linear way of learning. This can lead to a better understanding of the designed environment by future grade-school and high-school teachers and their students.

Such an understanding is crucial to a well-informed citizenry. Nowhere was this need for design-informed citizens better demonstrated than during the so-called design debates about the schemes presented for rebuilding the World Trade Center site. Our esteemed architecture critic on our newspaper of record confused a planning and massing document with architecture; the architects—except for Daniel Libeskind—spoke in jargon that even they couldn’t penetrate; and the public had no idea what they were looking at and what the design debate was about.

4) Become citizen designers. When architect Beverly Willis and I launched our civic group, R.Dot, in those heartbreaking days after 9/11, we didn’t know we could attract politically savvy designers who’d want to attend regular meetings and work very hard pro bono. As it turns out a graphic designer, Roland Gebhardt; an industrial designer, Brent Oppenheimer; and an architect, Ron Schiffman, became the guiding lights behind several of our detailed and comprehensive position papers on managed streets, culture zones, and housing.

Roland and Brent, for instance, used the kind of anthropological and anthropometric studies they learned as industrial designers and office planners to create a whole new system of maps. They called it experience mapping, which is a way to understand what works and what doesn’t work in neighborhoods by interviewing residents and visitors about how they use the neighborhoods. Experience maps are great graphic presentations of people’s everyday lives. They’re much more revealing than cold statistics.

The citizen designer is on the ascendant, especially post 9/11. [Esteemed graphic design critic] Steve Heller even named one of his books after him and her.

5) Find collaborators in whatever area of expertise your project requires. Become a design detective, a forensic designer: the path has been cut for you by others, make it wider.

One of those pathfinders is Kirsten Childs, the interior design partner in the Croxton Collaborative, which has become a sought-after green architecture firm. But 15 years ago Kirsten just began looking for the ingredients of the chemical soup she was brewing with the furniture and furnishings she was specifying. So she hired a chemist. Together they started asking questions about the fibers, fiber-boards, finishes, and glues she was putting into offices—usually located in sealed buildings designed to control the temperature.

Individual decisions. Personal, ethical choices. That’s what Kirsten started out with. Others in her field are flowing.

She’s a good example for you, too. Thousands of these personal choices put together will make our world, as Bush the Elder so memorably hoped, a “kinder, gentler” place. But I’m also with Blanch Du Bois on this. We need to start relying more on “the kindness of strangers.”

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