I recommend spending 20 minutes listening to this talk about what architect and designer William McDonough has to say about design and the world in which we all live.

A few points include how design is the first signal of human intention, and we’re asked to consider our intentions are as the dominant species on earth. McDonough talks about design humility, and how it took us 5000 years to put wheels on our luggage. He asks when will we see the end of the age of oil? And mentions how the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.

McDonough expands on these issues in his book Cradle to Cradle — on the to-read list.

How does this translate to your day job? Jennifer Seeley helps explain in a comment she left on an earlier post of mine:

“Our goal is to make people aware to the point they will always check where the products were made and if there are any warnings on them. I came upon that issue years ago with Gold Paint on mugs. I was designing mugs for some corporate branding. The decision — have shiny gold that looks impressive yet causes cancer (through the materials used), or be morally just and pick the next best option.

“Obviously, I chose the safer color.”

And a telling quote from McDonough’s talk:

“What we need is something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars into food, creates micro climates, changes colors with the seasons and self replicates. Why don’t we knock that down and write on it.”

Are you taking design responsibility at work?


November 3, 2009


There has been a great movement in the past several years towards socially responsible design. In my career, I’ve always tried very hard to think about the consequences and meaning behind every project I am involved in. I avidly want all my work to be a positive contribution to the world. However, yet again and again I am forced to take on projects for large corporations with profit-driven goals. Thus far, I cannot financially survive on doing just socially responsible work. How should a designer with good intentions and innovative ideas approach this issue?

Interesting post, as always, Mr Airey! As a portrait artist I often find myself worrying over the ethics of what I do. On the one hand, I have a responsibility to my clients: I’m dealing with their self-image, their self-confidence, and that’s a very precious and fragile thing. I want to produce a portrait that shows them at their best and makes them feel good about themselves. And more than that, I’m constantly being asked by clients to alter what they see as imperfections in their faces and bodies – to smooth out a crooked nose, or broaden out narrow shoulders. But on the other hand, I don’t like the idea that I am one of the people responsible for perpetuating society’s fixation on the body beautiful. In effect, the more flattering, idealised portraits I produce, the more I contribute to the notion that physical perfection is the norm, and anything which deviates from that is undesirable. So what do I do?


isn’t that the ultimate question? I’ve found myself asking that same question a fews years ago. On my daily work, I do a few small things that makes me more ecological and finacially responsible. I don’t make unnecessary use of my printer, for example. That is good for the world and even better for my wallet. I have to agree with Deja, up there when she says she “cannot financially survive on doing just socially responsible work”. I can’t either. But I can always offer “green” options to my clients, as my first option. I can offer a letterhead on recycled paper instead of the standard couché, on another example. This way the client is doing the right thing, without even knowing it.

I just love this subject so much, that I might write a post about it too. Thank you for bringing up this discussion, David, it’s always worth it.

Only on a foundation of a vibrant global economy can we solve environmental issues. Environmental solutions must be tied to a free-market, democratic, capitalistic system – but with regulations in place. Change will be incremental, but incremental can lead to exponential if we are persistent. When the peoples’ creativity is harnessed out of freedom, great things can happen. We can and must legislate limitations on certain behaviors (the law is for the lawless) but we can never lead or inspire by law (the letter of the law kills). We need innovation in the marketplace, and great design is always the front door, the narthex, of every great new idea.

Therefore, we need more businesses serving more niches. Which means we need a lot more logos :) Thankfully, as we discussed in another post, we aren’t going to run out of new design ideas anytime soon. Creativity is the greenest of all human endeavors. Protect freedom and creativity, and you ultimately end up fixing the environment and a lot of other things too.

Well, if we legislate “you must have good ideas”, that will be the fastest way to kill them off for sure. Creative solutions and human freedom are two sides of the same coin…

If you haven’t read cradle to cradle, please do.

I disagree with Douglas. The free market is too indebted to shareholders and profit leaving little room for the currently often more expensive route of sustainability. Unfortunately in the race to larger profits corporations often screw people along the supply chain, break promises, use greenwash which undermines the whole eco movement. Corporations often don’t care about thse things, they care about profits, bonuses, share price.

Legislation (such as the type which has vastly improved the environment by banning smoking) should help encourage sustainability, ethics and environmental issues. If we wait for the market, it will be too late.

In the meantine, we have a duty to to steer clients down a more sustainable path, a more ecological path, a more ethical path.

We also need more information. Who knew gold ink was bad for you? Is fsc better than recycled paper (It isn’t apparently). Is compostable better than biodegradable? (the jury’s out on that one).

In response to Deja, yes, we often have to do things to bring home the bacon which we may not agree with. It goes with the job, but we can at least try. It depends on the relationship you have with your client.

The other thing is that can do community or charity based projects to help people out, which I do in my spare time. I worked on a couple of projects to try to get local businesses to do up their shops which could help rejuvenate the local community, we designed a logo for a local pizza restaurant (and website) for free pizza, but we got them to use vegetable based inks, recycled paper and a carbon neutral printer. We worked on some local projects which won money to improve a local park, another to create an identity and add signage to the town to great a sense of community.

Tiny acorns I know, but it’s good for the soul (which is another book David, you should add to your amazon collection, along with cradle to cradle: how to be a graphic designer without losing your soul)

Information spreads best in a free market society, such as the one that brought you the internet and this blog. Don’t forget that it’s free market PLUS regulation I’m suggesting, which will bring about more graphic design work. Without shareholders, love’em or leave’em, you have nothing, like Cuba, where people drive 50 year old cars…from the US. No new cars, no advert campaigns. I bet there aren’t a lot of logo designers in Cuba right now. Maybe that will change soon.

To have a system that works you need a few screwballs. You can’t ultimately regulate everything, or exclude all possibilities of error without killing off the thing we are trying to protect.

Free conscience, free market = profit (at some level) for all.

That’s the main reason blogs work! And we we need incentive and education on a free internet to expand our industry and develop new niches of service that could never have worked even five years ago.

Given time, markets correct themselves, with some legislation here and there keeping the train on the tracks for the most part.

Cradle to Cradle is a great book. It really puts the world we are living in a different perspective. It not only brings up the issues but the solutions for the problems that we face to create a more self-sustainable world. Nice post.

Deja, I’m like you, in that I also cannot survive on socially responsible projects alone. You’ll definitely be in a minority if you can. As Lee says, it will depend on the relationship we have with our clients, but we can at least try.

Kate, I don’t envy you having to juggle with your moral questions, and the issue is so much larger than any one of us. What would I do in your position? I think that just because we work in situations we’d prefer not to, doesn’t mean we can’t promote the situations we aspire towards. I also believe that simply spreading the conversation is helpful; making more people aware of important issues; prompting action that will hopefully turn into standard practice — such as asking our clients questions about chemicals, the environment, or in your case natural beauty.

Cláudio, glad to know you’re taking these little steps. It might sound corny, but long journeys begin with a single step. The question is are you going to move, or stay where you are? Good to see you join in the chat with your own blog post on the subject.

Doug, Lee, interesting comments. I don’t know if a thriving global economy is necessary either, Doug. Maybe it’s my wishful thinking, but consider the corporate job losses that have happened since the downturn. I can imagine some previously comfortable, static-in-their-jobs people moving into self-employment on the back of a redundancy package, needing that motivation to act upon their ideas without boardroom restrictions, applying them to socially responsible goals. We can all start. And we can all start today with small changes to our thinking and client approach.

Lee, more information. Absolutely. I went looking for this database of 4,000 chemicals that McDonough said he’d make public in his TED talk, but couldn’t find it. Gold ink — I had no idea.

Victor, I was impressed by McDonough’s take on the new cities in China (described in the last few minutes of the video). Cities that lift the farmland on which they’re to be built, placing it atop.

Thanks very much for commenting, everyone.

Very interesting topic David. I think the best thing we can do is to make the right choice when going with a client based on the company itself. If they manufacture weapons, ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing, as an example. We can’t control what they choose to do with our logo once it’s purchased from us (unless we still hold the rights).

David, nice blog. Found it through Doug Bonneville. Interesting question and discussion going here. I’m not very knowledgeable on design and have never thought through designers’ impact on the environment before, but like everyone else, we all play a part. For those, though, that are torn by their moral responsibilities I’d like to like to remind them that it takes time and we should do what we can when we can. But at the same time not feel ashamed or guilty that we still have to rely on past ways to survive. That’s how it is. Stepping stones. One brings us to the next, each having its own value. Cultures of hunters, became farmers, then machinists, then techies. It’ll come as we incrementally pull away from old ways and keep developing new. I totally agree with your response to Kate.
One day we’ll all be on the other side of the Jordan, meanwhile keep pushing. :)

Douglas, again I disagree.

There are lots of thriving businesses that don’t have shareholders, where the people who work for the company ARE the shareholders. No Stock market, no bits

Concepts such as co-operatives (The Co-op in Europe and the Co-operative in the UK), The John Lewis Partnership which includes Waitrose and Fairtrade are far more sustainable in the long run. Same with building societies over banks where the people who have ingested their savings in the building society or credit union are the ones who reap the rewards.

It has nothing to do with Cuba or socialism, just a slightly different way of doing business.

Actually Cuba as a thriving design community and a lot of talent. They design logo’s, posters etc there and the design schools are very good. But life there isn’t free (like China the internet is regulated), that’s a political thing. Nothing to do with what I’m talking about.

Sorry but as soon as the phrase “climate change” pops up, I know to prepare for a snow-job (pun intended). I am sick and tired of the greenies shoving their new ‘Earth worship’ on everyone.

As a thinking individuals, it is time to expose the true motivations of today’s self-proclaimed enviros, who are shown to take seriously the line: “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you!” Their priorities have been shown to be global government, tight controls over individuals, and the leveling the playing field for business by transferring wealth from developed countries to the rest. Since human-caused warming has little basis in science, enviro beliefs must be considered to be a strange religion. In addition, claims of consensus for the alarmist views can be shown how many climatologists with credentials, as well as other scientists, do not agree with the alarmist view.

It is sad to see our profession buying wholesale into the greenie fad — following the Pied Pipers into totalitarian/fascist future. We as a group should not participate in complicity of mainstream media in the climate hoaxes and their misrepresentations.

“As the curtain descends on the remnants of scientific inquiry into and free speech about “environmental” and other such issues of controversy, we confront a circumstance in which a naturally driven climate is seized upon to cow a population with fear by governments seeking to expand their powers and businesses itching to profit from Man’s gullibility.” — Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming

Regardless of ‘Global Warming’ or even Environmentalism, it’s important that think about the impact and repercussions of the work we create. We must take responsibility for the positive or negative effects our work has on the world. Many people are acknowledging the negative effects design can have on the environment, so they are acting on it. This does not mean they are an ignorant fear-driven followers of a fad. Whether you believe in global warming or not, you should be thinking about the meaning and impact of your work.

The “controversy” is that people actually believe global warming is “make believe” and is not happening. Whether “they” are profiting on “Green” products doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue with global warming. To say we are not responsible for the climate change is pretty ignorant. There’s nothing gullible about being healthy and living in a clean world…

@ Kiren:

Sorry, but I’m not interested in drinking your koolade. Nor am I interested in your new Earth worship. The facts simply don’t support your beliefs. Even the greenie’s messiah, Al Gore, just admitted that the majority of warming isn’t CO2 based:

“In a new development that is potentially devastating to the agenda to introduce a global carbon tax and a cap and trade system, Al Gore admits that the majority of global warming that occurred until 2001 was not primarily caused by CO2.

…his concession that carbon dioxide only accounted for 40% of warming according to new studies could seriously harm efforts to tax CO2, that evil, life-giving gas that humans exhale and plants absorb.”

“Gore acknowledged to Newsweek that the findings could complicate efforts to build a political consensus around the need to limit carbon emissions,” reports BB News.

As Andrew Bolt writes in today’s Australian Herald Sun, his flip-flopping “Suggests not only that was Gore wrong to claim the science was “settled”, but that the hugely expensive schemes to “stop” warming by slashing carbon dioxide emissions will be less than half as effective as claimed.”

Okay Matt, let’s continue our wasteful lifestyles and use up all the water and eat up all the fish in the sea and see what happens. The fact is, we have to be responsible and respect what is given to us. The earth will never cease to exist, only it’s inhabitants…us!

Kiren, you are spot on.
We have to be responsible for our actions. It’s a shame some people hide behind generic right wing political retoric with lots of miss information.

We all have to take more responsibility for our actions. Our actions have a effect.

I am not a designer, tho one day I may veer in that direction, to at least learn some basic design coding. I feel so limited by my lack of know-how. Or… maybe I’ll just leave that up to you pros and keep on with the other stuff I do.

I LOVE the whole ending quote from McDonough, as I think that I shall never see a blog as lovely as a tree, tho some blogs do come pretty close. :)

Social responsibility in design is a rapidly increasing trend and I applaud anyone who is taking it on full force. Kiren and Lee are right on, we must take responsibility for our actions.

Tessa Carroll

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