Image by Beatrice Sala.

It’s no longer possible to shrug off the climate crisis as a problem we can deal with at some vague point in the future. It’s here now, and it’s arguably the most urgent issue of our time. In this year alone, we’ve witnessed communities around the world struggle with massive wildfires, devastating drought, and rising sea levels, all on top of a global pandemic. These are issues the UN, among many others, warn will only get worse if global temperatures continue to rise. But what can graphic designers do about it? Can we use our skills and knowledge to meet the moment?

For this year’s AIGA Design Conference, Eye on Design and Scratching the Surface brought together a group of designers, educators, and activists to respond to these questions. Their answer, broadly speaking, was yes—but we can’t do it alone, and we can’t do it while operating the same ways that we always have. For designers to address climate change, we need to do so locally, learning from and listening deeply to the communities who have long been on the frontlines. We need to think differently and more expansively about what design is and what it does. We need to understand how environmental justice intersects with race, gender, class, capitalism, and political power, and to look for ways to address sustainability that go beyond material production and instead focus on lasting structural change.

All of this and more was addressed on Monday in a series of discussions around ecology and design. Here are five takeaways from the session:

Visual design is crucial to sustainable co-existence—use it responsibly

To start off the session, Eye on Design editor Meg Miller spoke with Benedetta Crippa, lead designer at the Stockholm Environment Institute, about a course she teaches at Konstfack University on “visual sustainability.” Crippa started the course after seeing many designers, herself included, grapple with the question of how to reconcile designing and making with environmental sustainability. “I felt it is really urgent to say that sustainability is not about stopping existing or designing, or limiting creativity, but rather acting with responsibility, understanding ourselves as relational beings to everything and everyone else around us.”

Crippa stressed her view that visual literacy is crucial to understanding inequity and encouraging change. “There’s a common narrative that the best graphic design can do [in regards to sustainability] is to just print less, print better, or do good storytelling about sustainability to foster the cause. But for me the question is, how can my visual work not just be about something, but be it? How can I not only just explain, but do?” To that end, she wrote a manifesto to guide her own practice (parts of which you can find here), building on a framework of responsibility, integrity, and change. In her work, sustainability manifests itself in challenging power; working with folk craft, complexity, and work found at the margins; and making sure her graphic design is in service of dialogue, rather than persuasion.

Crippa’s course on visual sustainability approaches the concept of sustainability in an expanded and holistic sense, applying quantum thinking vs. binary thinking to three layers of action: Symbolic, Material, and Structural. When combined, she said, they have the potential to promote new ways of thinking and behavioral change.

Benedetta Crippa, “Layers of Action“ from her talk on visual sustainability for the AIGA Design Conference

Support place-based solutions vs. universality

Jarrett Fuller, host of Scratching the Surface, sat down with urban designer Julia Watson to talk about her book Lo-Tek: Design by Radical Indigenism, which features indigenous communities from around the world that are implementing nature-based technologies for the built environment. She asserted that when homogeneous climate solutions are exported globally, local knowledge, culture, and ecosystems are erased—and that this erasure occurs when design systems are exported as well.

Western design lineages stem from the Industrial Revolution and the ideologies that developed out of that era, such as the idea that nature is a force to be conquered. However, design is fundamentally about human survival, and so it should respond to specific environments with an intimate understanding of the local land and communities.

Fuller and Watson also discussed how Western savior complex is deeply embedded within the climate movement, and while there’s a universal understanding of climate change, it’s crucial to implement place-based knowledge systems that reflect the specific needs of individual locations and communities. Watson urged designers working in the climate movement or within communities that are not their own to center indigenous leaders and processes rather than ignoring or intentionally erasing them. These leaders have been protectors of their local biodiversity for centuries, and they hold the knowledge systems that will benefit their communities.

Learn to deal with your “eco-anxiety”—and limit the doom scrolling 

In a panel moderated by designer, writer, and educator Anoushka Khandwala, one of the topics discussed was the notion of “eco-anxiety,” or the anxiety caused by the climate crisis and the overwhelming nature of a problem that we feel we can’t solve. “Too much doom scrolling can actually have the opposite effect on you, and instead result in numbness and inaction,” said Jonny Black of the Office of Ordinary Things.

While numbness might be a symptom for people who live in cities that aren’t witnessing climate disasters firsthand, Melina Laboucan-Massimo of Sacred Earth Solar explained that trauma is a daily reality for frontline communities who are living in resource extraction zones or directly impacted by wildfires and flooding. She posed the question of what collective healing and liberation might look like as a way forward, particularly in a society that values capitalism and hyper-productivity.

Yes, design can be based on more than just capitalism 

Creative director, climate researcher, and MRes+PhD candidate Joycelyn Longdon posed this question during the panel: “How do we move design away from being based on capitalism and extraction and consumerism, and are there more opportunities to use it for other things?” The question echoed a similar one that Benedetta Crippa also posed in her interview: Is it possible to work in the design industry and not be a servant to capitalism?

Melina Laboucan-Massimo on her TV show Power to the People.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo says amplifying the work of activists through design is an essential way to support the climate movement. Similarly, Longdon explained that designers can foster opportunities to redistribute wealth, using design to promote community mobilization and education rather than focusing our efforts on exponential consumerism.

There’s no silver bullet to the climate crisis

The idea that design can save the world has become a cliche. But as Joycelyn Longdon discussed with her fellow panelists, “there’s a plurality to solving these issues that should absolutely include design.” She continued, “In wanting to invest in intentional and sustainable design, that’s not saying it’s the only way. The climate movement is a holistic movement. There are so many different forms of activism and so many different forms of mobilizing.”

This mobilization can manifest through design in several ways. Jonny Black suggests starting conversations within your company or organization, or with peers, and seeking out and encouraging the clients to adopt similar commitments to sustainability that you practice.

Scott Starrett, founder and creative director Tandem NYC spoke to using design to promote climate literacy through his Green New Deal poster campaign for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office, while staying mindful of the danger of performative allyship that can come in the form of a pretty poster. “Our goal is to make the Green New Deal and environmentalism a dinner table conversation,” says Starrett.

Normalizing conversations about climate change among families and communities might seem like a small step, but it’s crucial at a time when science has become politicized and misinformation runs rampant. “I love this idea that we don’t need to measure how effective a movement is by its scale,” says Anoushka Khandwala. “That’s a trait that capitalism has taught us, so unlearning that I think could be really, really valuable.”