Don’t Wait for the Green Brief!
An invitation to design with sustainability in mind - by default. And some effortless tips to start right now.
It’s a usual Monday. Except today we’ve just finished a studio-wide meeting where all 25 attendees in Europe and the US dialed in with their phones. No Zoom, no screen, no WiFi. Just the phone.
Why did we opt for that format? Awareness. Provocation. Experimentation. But mostly it fulfilled our needs – we successfully ran a presentation and kicked off a workstream with that minimalist format, steering away from the ‘new meeting norm’ of a 60-min video call with cameras and screen sharing on, whilst consciously attempting to lower our environmental footprint.
For years now, many of us have made changes to our personal lives in hopes of maintaining a livable planet, but we tend to leave that conviction at the door when we walk into (or sign in to) our jobs as digital designers and consultants. While we’ve all focussed on designing apps and websites that are seamless, always-on, and easy to use, it can be easy to ignore what it takes for that experience to be available to users, too often considered the responsibility of a remote IT department or third party. It’s time to start designing with the understanding that digital is physical, too.
It requires energy to host, serve, and interact with content. The three main components required for your interfaces to reach your users—data centres, network infrastructure, and devices—require a massive amount of energy and are responsible for 4 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is more than the entire United Kingdom, where I live and where our studio is based. If we don’t change our ways, digital pollution will increase exponentially, as French think tank The Shift Project demonstrated in a report dated 2019, contributing to creating an uninhabitable world for our children. Once this sinks in, it’s hard to stand still.
So at Method, we’ve begun to take responsibility. To stop leaving our personal convictions at the door. To stop leaving it to the consumer to solve environmental issues. As business consultants and digital product makers, we’re considering the impact of what we design and release into the world — now and in the future.
Creating digital products, services, and experiences more responsibly is paramount. In this article, we’ll share with you 6 actionable quick tips for you to start evolving your design practice today.
Tip 1 – REFRAME: There is no such thing as ‘designing for sustainability’
It’s not about switching to a ‘sustainability mode’, ditching your current process for planet-centric techniques, nor waiting for that ideal ‘green’ project. It’s about continuous improvement – enriching our current process with a systemic, circular approach and environmental knowledge. Consider every client brief, every design activity as an opportunity to work towards awareness and reduction of our collective environmental footprint.
Look at your current project plan, at the upcoming design activities you have planned for today, for this week. Could you “green” them? What elements from existing planet-centric and circular design toolkits and techniques could you integrate into your “classic” design activity?
Don’t get bogged down creating your own planet-centric toolkit. There are quite a number of good libraries out there, with techniques and canvases mapping to the design process. Get started with small steps, by using canvases that already exist and adapt them (or part of them) to your needs. Our go-to’s are Stop Designing for Yesterday by Alex Crowfoot, IDEO’s Circular Design Guide, Design Council’s Beyond Zero: a systemic approach and Mightybites and Wholegrain Digital’s Sustainable Web Design. They give us a blend of strategic and tactical tools when designing services and their interfaces.
Tip 2 – ENVISION: Articulate your values as a team
Team values define what you stand for as a group. It creates a shared vision and helps the team, designers, managers, and engineers alike to bond together behind a common mission.
They can be described as a set of guiding principles that help everyone in the team follow a code of conduct and make decisions along the process.
For example, you might collectively agree that your values are “high quality”, “transparency”, “curiosity”, “respect and empathy” ; to which you can easily weave in systemic design principles like “people and planet-centred” “circular and regenerative” or “zooming in and out”, or sustainable web principles like “honest”, “open”, “efficient” for what you are aiming to bring out into to the world.
Tip 3 – REDUCE / REUSE / RECYCLE: Design for low impact with the 3R in mind
Great UX and streamlined user flows are an important factor in lowering a digital product’s environmental impact. If end users can achieve their goal in the most efficient way possible, it should be saving time, energy, and reducing waste – there might not be much to do differently.
But there is a watch out – heavy content requires more data transfer. Which in turn requires more power, and more storage.
REDUCE: To create UIs with low impact, we made an easy checklist for our designers, compiling tips from leading sustainable web designers. This list includes considerations around font choice, colour choices, imagery and UI components. It also acts as a reminder to respect the interests of end-users by encouraging accessibility, inclusivity, privacy, and safety as a default.
REUSE & RECYCLE: Create a design system, and maximize its use. Don’t reinvent the wheel, you can repurpose existing interaction patterns. Both will save on manpower, time, development efforts; and will help with consistency and making your interface intuitive for the end-user.
Tip 4 – PREVENT & MEASURE: Focus on the minimum valuable
Designing for low impact also means working hand-in-hand with the engineering team. Engage the conversation for them to adopt sustainable software engineering principles and implement the designs with energy-saving goals in mind.
Prior implementation, a great exercise – that will also bring your design and engineering team together – is identifying the time spent on the product and data exchanged, mapping where the value for users and business is, and whether it is worth it. What if your next release or MVP was no longer ‘minimum’ because of low budget, short timeframe, and lack of resources, but intentionally thought through with limited energy resources, optimized features, and coding in mind?
To measure success, we involve our business designers and data designers and work closely with our clients to focus on a minimum but meaningful set of KPIs. This not only sets the dev teams for success but also saves on data capture and streamlines analytics.
Tip 5 – REGROUP: Bring everyone on board
In the tips above, there is a common thread: collaboration. The most effortless and effective tip is actually to talk about it, raise awareness, instigate interest, and showcase value. In order for it to work, it needs to be a collaborative effort, everyone should feel accountable.
Talk about it to your project teammates. Not just the designers you work every day with; include the dev team, the QA team, the PM, the strategists.
Engage your end-users in the conversation, too. It can be as simple as slotting a short environmental consciousness question at the end of a usability test. Report the learnings from end-users to your clients. Most consumers care about the environment, and most clients care about being relevant to their customers – so create room to talk about it with your client. Research examples of industry case studies where environmental gain led to financial gain.
Tip 6 – RELATE: Collect the stories, the learnings, and make them visible
Sustainability is not a destination but a journey. A collective journey. One that we build together, and where we learn together. At Method, we use a shared notebook to gather knowledge, questions, links to toolkits, and industry case studies. We collect project stories and started to monitor our journey through a regular internal survey. And thanks to this survey, we can also spot where there are gaps or needs, so we can help a team or team member with their process or the outcome.
These small steps are seeds we’re planting today. Sustainability is not a topic or a mode you switch to, but an embedded necessity: the evolution of our design practice, from designing with unlimited resources (and energy) to designing with a greater awareness of the scarcity of the world’s resources and within limited ones.
It’s about creating the digital services and the world of tomorrow today. Not one that always strives for more, but for better (and only if necessary). One that we want to be respectful, inclusive, safe, low impact, and even regenerative – by default.
We invite you to join the journey, ask questions, share thoughts and learnings as we go.
Illustration by Mike Andersen
On the Internet energy consumption and working towards digital sobriety:
Planet-centric and sustainable web toolkits: