Question of the Week #11

Our first question of the semester comes from Micah Rivera, who asks, “As graphic designers, how can we use the digital medium to meaningfully participate in the green movement?”

Way to start off with a softball, Micah.

I’m not sure exactly how to answer this. If you’re asking which is greener, print or digital/virtual then we’re in some pretty complex territory. Most of us tend to think of traditional print applications of design as being ecological nasty. Books and magazines and packages and other printed ephemera are typically made of paper. Making paper kills trees. Printing paper pollutes rivers. Using paper creates waste. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. Publishing an eBook or magazine to an iPad or iPhone, on the other hand, seems resource-neutral and elegantly clean. Maybe, maybe not.

By Apple’s own estimates, the carbon footprint of an iPhone over its lifecycle (which, by the way, is considered to be 3 years) is about 121 pounds of CO2. That’s roughly equivalent to a car engine burning 603 gallons of gasoline. An issue of Discover Magazine, on the other hand, produces about 2.1 pounds of CO2 emissions — roughly the equivalent of that same engine burning 14 ounces of gas. Of course, you don’t buy an iPhone and download a single issue of a magazine to it. You probably use it to Google—(Google’s server farms produce 1.5 million tons of CO2 emissions annually, so you might want to try Bing it—Microsoft will be carbon-neutral by this time next year) or update your Facebook status (Facebook’s footprint is ‘only’ about 285,000 tons annually). Hosting and moving data from one digital device to another requires the massive infrastructure of the Internet, increasingly powered by ‘the cloud.’ Cloud computing sounds airy and elegant and ecological, but it’s actually an enormous energy hog. Companies like Apple and Google and Facebook have massive data centers in  China, Malaysia, Brazil and the rural United States and Europe. Though some are powered in part by renewable energy (or are working toward it), most of the energy infrastructure in these regions is based around coal. In other words, the cloud is powered by the same basic technology that powered the late 19th century — mining and burning coal.

So, that’s a little perspective (albeit a grossly oversimplified one). The point is that its very, very difficult to know just how green our decisions are, and it’s rarely as simple as favoring one medium over another. Well-informed designers can make smart choices about packaging dramatically reduce consumption and waste, offer the potential for reuse, or stack more efficiently for shipping, and save fuel. Sometimes they can do all of these things at once, as in the case of Puma’s “Clever Little Bag” designed by FuseProject:

However, you’re right in assuming (as I think you are) that generally speaking creating digital experiences is more efficient (and therefore more green) than creating physical ones. An online annual report saves paper and postage (transportation), as does an email campaign, digitally-delivered software, or a virtual meeting (plane travel produces a pound of CO2 emissions per passenger, per mile and Americans fly billions of miles per year). As a designer and a citizen you should always be considering digital options alongside tangible ones. This means staying up to speed on the advantages and limitations of digital platforms as well as the latest printing technologies so that you can offer informed counsel to your clients.

In our studio, we work closely with FSC-certified printers and paper manufacturers to identify opportunities for low-impact production. Lately, we’ve been concentrating more and more on digital printing, which doesn’t use chemically-produced printing plates and therefore doesn’t require film or harsh solvents. We specify low-VOC inks which produce fewer toxic emissions, and try to print locally whenever we can to reduce the cost and impact of shipping. On the digital side, we partner with a number of web developers so we’re always up-to-speed on the capabilities of that medium. Understanding your options (and/or working with other people who do) will give you the ability to choose the medium that’s best for your client, the environment and you.