The Sustainable Design Office

Environmentally responsible practices in the graphic design profession are critical today with the current emphasis on waste accumulation, resource depletion, and global-warming trends. Graphic designers, and graphic design firms in particular, often espouse themselves as agents of change. However, as an unaccredited profession, accountability to the global environment has remained mostly an individual pursuit. Graphic design is often called upon to address cultural issues, cause-related interests, environmental concerns, and corporate social responsibilities, and yet designers are not held accountable for the artifacts they produce or the environmental impact of their production.

This thesis defines parameters and guidelines for “green,” sustainable graphic design practices by 1) employing current graphic-arts-industry environmental practices, 2) overlaying select architectural LEED certification criteria, and 3) creating a holistic approach to best practices in the graphic design profession. This framework was used to develop a certification-program methodology tailored for designers. Applying this new methodology to graphic design and its principles, products, and place will be crucial to shifting the status quo and creating a new level of professionalism for graphic design.

Title: The Sustainable Design Office
Client: Texas A&M University – Commerce
Designer: Rick Gavos
Category: Student

This thesis study proposes to establish guidelines for graphic design firms to augment current graphic-industry practices with select LEED initiatives to help reduce waste, realize new opportunities for environmental accountability, and establish a certification process for graphic design. Currently, there are no systems or accountability measures for the graphic design profession. This proposed certification program, Leaders in Environmental Design Responsibility (LēDR), serves as a path to “green” graphic design practices.

Considering there are no professional policies or guidelines for environmental responsibility, this program establishes a series of addressable issues for principles, products, and place. Call it the three “Ps” in the greening of graphic design. This thesis study and resulting certification process would be adaptable for an individual designer to the largest of design firms in the U.S. It addresses concerns in multiple areas – from printed materials to office space, location, and transportation.

The LēDR certification program would certainly add value to the profession of graphic design. Much as LEED does for architects, this certification would credit the individual or firm for incorporating sustainable practices into their business model and products. Clients would come to recognize this certification as a differentiating factor when choosing a designer or firm for their advertising, design, and marketing materials.

This “green” certification program would not only compel designers to change behaviors, but provide an individualized path for sustainability within the industry. It sets a higher bar and provides accountability to the profession. The LēDR program would become the new culture of graphic design. Its tenets would become a new foundation for the profession and, by incorporating this “green” education into university-level design programs, students would become the sustainability torchbearers for the future.

This 100-page master’s thesis, The Sustainable Design Office: LEED-type Certification for Graphic Design, was researched and developed during the final year of an MFA program at Texas A&M University-Commerce in Dallas, Texas. A 2009 article written by Emily Carr entitled “Applying LEED Principles to Graphic Design” inspired the idea. By incorporating certain aspects of the LEED program and developing a “pattern language” methodology, this certification for graphic design would address three major areas of concern. Using the sustainability model – Economic, Social, and Environmental – as posed by Aaris Sherrin in her book “SustainAbility,” three major areas were identified for the central core of this model: Principles, Products, and Place. Principles address elements such as attitudes, policies, standards, and transparency for design firms, clients, and individuals. The Products area encompasses the production of artifacts and materials usage by graphic-design entities. Finally, Place refers to the physical space where the work activity takes place. This area of the model incorporates some of the applicable LEED tenets identified in its certification process.

The concept and application of a pattern language, as developed by Christopher Alexander for cities, towns, communities and even homes, can be utilized as a framework for sustainability in graphic design. By identifying those three major elements of sustainability and extending them out to the smallest detail, graphic designers will be able to develop their own patterns and subsequent language. These elements will be universal yet fluid. Creating this sustainability language will be paramount to the success of a certification process and for designers to truly become agents of change.

In developing this certification process, it was determined to examine current certification models and follow the guidelines of a number of select programs. The Leaders in Environmental Design Responsibility (LēDR) program follows the “application and membership fee” model: applying to a governing organization and paying an initiation fee to become certified. It will also be incumbent on the renewal applicant to produce, either in print or digital form, an annual Design Responsibility Report (DRR) much like current Corporate Social Responsibility reports. A DRR for graphic design will bolster transparency in the graphic design industry.

This study and resultant certification process included two surveys: 1) a preliminary multi-question survey that was deployed nationally to develop a baseline of information, and 2) a post-seminar questionnaire that was given to 32 professional graphic designers at a live presentation of this thesis concept. An overview poster was developed and printed for distribution to attendees at a number of events, and a walk-through exhibition presentation was constructed for the school gallery and final thesis presentation.


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