The goal of graphic design is to make things look good. Really good. So good that we want to buy these things, even if we don't need them.
That can be a problem - or perhaps an opportunity.
Eric Karjaluoto, creative director of Vancouver design firm smashLAB, says design is "the one form everyone touches whether they realize it or not." He is hoping to use this influence to address one of the biggest issues of our time: climate change.
Karjaluoto, 34, is attracting a lot of attention with his initiative, called Design Can Change. It recently made Time Magazine's Design 100 issue, which counted off the people and ideas behind today's most influential design.
Even though Design Can Change is a tangible project with defined goals, Karjaluoto has a tough time defining it because he says it is many things. Ultimately, though, he settles on calling it a "campaign."
"The campaign," he explains, "is intended to encourage designers to take on more sustainable practices."
More specifically, it is asking the world's graphic design community to address global warming by altering its personal and professional practices. Since it was launched in April of last year, more than 1,800 designers from 77 countries have taken a pledge at http://www.designcanchange.org to pursue a sustainable work style. The project is not for profit and, as Karjaluoto stresses, is not a sales ploy.
"It's what I call smashLAB's great money-losing adventure," he says with a laugh. "It's something that we wanted to do and to do at a time when we thought it would be meaningful."
Indeed, smashLAB put off most client work for about eight months in 2006 and 2007 to focus on developing Design Can Change. Inspired in part by the Oscar-winning Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth, Karjaluoto and his business partner, Eric Shelkie, decided to look into making their own studio more sustainable. Design Can Change evolved from there.
Designers, Karjaluoto says, have a lot of power and influence when it comes to purchasing patterns. They also exert great sway over the materials used in design and marketing. By making design more sustainable, the theory behind Design Can Change goes, there will be a positive trickle-down effect that reaches and influences consumers and industry, too.
"Designers are a small enough group to mobilize globally," Karjaluoto explains, reiterating an idea supported by "the law of the few," a rule governing social epidemics that author Malcolm Gladwell explored in his bestselling book The Tipping Point.
"The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social skills," Gladwell wrote. Among those skills are being well connected, being informed and being persuasive - all of which designers are, making them a triple threat.
Designer Kaytlyn Sanders, a principal at beneficial design in Seattle, says Karjaluoto and Design Can Change have inspired her to suggest a host of green ideas to her clients. These include paperless proofing and invoicing and the use of low-environmental-impact marketing materials such as post-consumer recycled paper and soy inks.
"I never realized before that designers could influence so much," she says.
Efforts such as these are commendable, of course, but is inspired design and greener office work really enough to affect environmental change?
"I think that, realistically, it isn't enough," Karjaluoto acknowledges. "But my counter-argument would be that we have to start with steps that we all can handle."
Graham Saul, the executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, is nonetheless impressed with Design Can Change. "It's a great example of people taking an issue into their own hands," he says.
For his part, Karjaluoto says Design Can Change has already surpassed his expectations. "When we first built it, my dream was to get someone to actually go to the website," he recalls. Now, there is so much interest in taking the pledge and exploring the concept that he's making the rounds on the speaking circuit, talking about the project at design conferences across North America.
"Here I am, flying around the world and talking to people about climate change. Something is wrong with this scenario," he jokes.
But he is also warmed by the response to the initiative. "I'm just blown away that so many people have embraced it and taken it on and actually changed their behaviour as a result."