For many clients, working sustainably can be a red flag signalling an outlay of time and money – here is how designers can challenge these beliefs.
Following its inaugural Design for Planet festival in November last year, the Design Council published a set of data taken from attendees. They were asked three questions, which explored how motivated they were to design sustainably, what their capability to design sustainably was, and how great their opportunity was.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of respondents reported being very motivated to tackle the climate crisis through their design practice. But nearly a quarter of those same people surveyed said they didn’t have the skills to design sustainably, and 41% reported having no opportunity with clients to do so.
Design Council chief design officer Cat Drew says this is an experience being had by designers around the world. “Designers are wanting to make the change, but a skills and confidence gap is getting in the way,” she says. “On the client side of things, especially for SMEs, priorities lie more in weathering the pandemic than achieving net-zero.”
The Design Council has begun developing pathways which can help designers address these issues. Later this year, it will be debuting an online skills and learning hub which Drew says will aim to narrow the skills gap. Meanwhile, the organisation is also developing policies and recommendations around its Design Economy research, which will seek to clearly show the economic, social and environmental value of sustainable design.
These are things that are on the horizon, however. For those looking to get sustainability into their brief right now, Drew says there are a number of practical steps to follow. A wise first step, she says, is for designers to educate themselves to a point where they feel confident pushing for sustainability.
“This is going to mean different things to different designers,” Drew says, pointing out that what a graphic designer needs to know to design more sustainably is not going to be the same for a product or interior designer. She says there are already several in-depth resources to check out, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Design Guide, or Mina Hasman’s Climate Framework.
Once designers feel confident about putting sustainability on the table, the next step is ensuring clients are on the same page. Drew says this agenda-setting moment is precisely the reason why the Design Council produced its Design for Planet short film, which she recommends designers play at kick-off meetings with clients. “It’s a way to leverage our red square logo,” she says.
One final way to ensure agreement between designer and client is to jointly pick out which elements of sustainability resonate most for a project. “There are six principles in our [the Design Council’s] systemic design framework, and putting each of these in front of a client is a good way to engage them in all areas of the sustainability conversation,” says Drew. “Helping them decide which ones particularly stand out for them as a company is a good, not ‘finger-waggy’ way to be on the same page.”
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Drew’s suggestions are similar to the regular practice of Little Fox Design founder and environmental educator Emma Fanning. Working under this environmentally-conscious brand since 2019, Fanning makes it a priority to only work with similarly sustainably-minded clients. She says her “non-negotiable” sustainable working practices are set out from the beginning, in an initial inquiry call. “We’ve found most clients are extremely receptive to these ideas,” she says. “They’re coming to you as an expert and professional; it only makes sense we should advise on materials and printing that are most appropriate for the project”.
As with any business decision, there can be push back. But Fanning has several methods for countering clients who aren’t sold by the prospect of sustainable design. “One approach that can be very helpful is to lead with debunking some of the myths around sustainability: it’s not significantly more expensive, it’s not just for environmentally focused organisations, and it doesn’t mean using only natural or green colours throughout,” she says.
“We have to remember that people who aren’t directly involved in this space are going to be fairly naïve to a lot of what ‘sustainable design’ means, so even very basic explanations can dramatically increase their understanding,” Fanning continues. Once these myths are addressed, she says designers can “shift the focus away from the hypothetical negatives, over to the positives”.
Of course, Fanning says there needs to be a meaningful connection between the client and sustainability – so-called greenwashing, she says, is an “extremely complicated” issue. “Something we frequently talk about and use ourselves, is a client evaluation system,” she says. “Instead of focusing only on the exact project that’s presented to us, regardless of the client’s actions, we focus on who the client is first and foremost. In this way, we can evaluate if the client is a good actor when requesting sustainable design from us, or if they are trying to greenwash.”
There has been a sharp uptick in designers acknowledging the climate crisis through their work and business practices in recent months. At the close of 2021, Supple Studio founder Jamie Ellul revealed the work his team was putting in to become a registered B Corporation, which, among other things like accountability and transparency, also requires a level of environmental responsibility. Falmouth-based design studio Kingdom & Sparrow announced their own B Corp status earlier this month.
As well as the obvious environmental benefits, Tudinh Duong, the founder of digital studio ON says there are business benefits too. “Doing good helps us do good for the business,” he explains, giving the example of the advantage it poses during recruitment. “[We can build] a team of individuals who want to join a company that enables meaningful and rewarding work.”
Another business benefit Duong points out is the elevated reputation of ON – the more sustainably-minded projects and clients the studio works with, the more it attracts. “To that extent, the compatibility is already there before the working relationship even begins,” he says. Similar to Fanning, Duong admits not all clients have sustainability as their first priority – but still, the ON team has sustainable pathways it can follow. “As a team, the way we approach work can still have an impact; for example, in our workflows and the ways we can design technologies to support our clients with these considerations in mind,” he says.
Ultimately, he says “forward-thinking businesses want to work with partners who have forward-thinking credentials,” which Duong says ON continues to grow with every project. “We see it as less of a challenge; more of an opportunity, because sustainability is already a crucial issue, and businesses will have to address this sooner or later,” he says.
To explore more of Design Week’s climate crisis series, head to our dedicated Design, Climate, Action page.
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