Design by Cast Iron Design

Last August, Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic from Europe to the US by solar-powered boat, with the Fridays for the Future movement in tow. Halfway around the world, the Amazon and much of Australia was set ablaze. The same year, the global Climate Strike galvanized movements like the Sunrise Movement and the Extinction Rebellion and created palpable political momentum for a Green New Deal. At the same time, in the design world, there were not one but two design triennials championing international designers who are confronting the climate crisis, and the American Institute of Architecture declared the climate crisis “a top priority.” 

It was in this heightened state of climate consciousness that designer strategist Marc O’Brien and UX designer Sarah Harrison thought to build a website for anxious designers who wanted to take action. “We’re driving the car towards a cliff. It’s not a matter of slowing down—we need to actually turn the wheel,” says O’Brien. “We feel like designers can play a huge role in the crisis, with the skills that we have.” 

Using the website as a launch pad, O’Brien and Harrison started Climate Designers, an open collective of designers who are focusing their creative talents on issues related to the climate crisis. The organization serves as a platform for communication, networking, and education for designers seeking ways to integrate climate-consciousness into their professional practice. Unbeholden to any single corporate interest, the climate designer platform in its early stages resembles something like a social network bordering on a climate union, in the sense that it is working towards solidarity and collective climate action in the design industry.

Dizzied by devastating data visualizations, photographs of sprawling industrial farms, x-brand plastic coffee cups littering oceans, material pollution from y-brand shoe factories, or landfills brimming with z-brand electronics, designers have started to turn their angst into action with projects like Low Tech Magazine’s solar powered website, Ecobranding, Graviky Lab’s AIR-INK™, ADAPT’s climate club, Accurat’s The Room Of Change, and many more. Though a single climate-related project might not be enough to earn the climate designer title, any designer who is actively pushing for more climate action in their work would be a welcomed addition to the community, the founders say.

Even if a designer is not an official “climate designer,” all are welcome to the meetups, use the organization’s resources, and join the online community. Before O’Brien started the Climate Designer network, friends often referred to him and Harrison as “climate designers” for their work at The Determined, a design strategy studio that prioritizes projects focused on climate-impact. The duo, certain other designers felt the same urgency in addressing the climate crisis, quickly got to work setting up a website, multi-city meet ups, a podcast, a climate designer job board, and even a climate designer course at California College of the Arts where O’Brien is an adjunct professor. Within the first month of launching the website, they gained more than a hundred designers and their ranks have grown steadily since. 

Getting more designers involved, in whatever small way they can afford, is a big part of the organization’s mission. According to O’Brien, the label of climate designer is deliberately broad. He and Harrison devised the organization to create a community of designers who are just trying to do something, in whatever form that might take. “Maybe they’re not willing to yet quit their full-time job at Google, Twitter, small design boutique shop, etc,” he says. “What we are encouraging them to do is ask, ‘What can you do as a designer within those companies or studios that can still move the needle?’”

Richard Roche and Jonny Black of the Boulder-based print design studio Cast Iron Design were among the first members of the collective. The studio practices “sustainable graphic design,” which comes down to making responsible choices around materials and processes. 

Booklet by Cast Iron Design, printed in algae-based ink

Since 2010, Cast Iron Design has managed to build their own niche of sustainable design that has in turn attracted climate-conscious clients. The studio’s practice is defined by constantly assessing its own production footprint, explaining that “responsible paper is a gateway drug to sustainable design.” This is demonstrated in their exploration of new technologies like algae-based inks, committing to using only post-consumer paper, and generally questioning how much actually needs to be produced. Attracting the likes of Patagonia, the studio doesn’t necessarily need to be educated about how to be climate-conscious while keeping the studio profitable. Rather, for Roche and Black the community and opportunity to share what they’ve learned drew them to join the climate designers. “Any time we can band together in a group, it will make the movement more visible,” say Roche and Black. 

Giving a name to an existing practice is a tricky proposition. In creating the title, O’Brien and Harrison are hoping to help designers distinguish themselves, but they acknowledge they aren’t the first to embrace the ethos of climate-focused design. “This isn’t a new concept,” says O’Brien. “Bucky Fuller, is probably one of the O.G. climate designers.” Ecological design, defined  by architects Sim van der Ryn and Stewart Cowan as “any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes,”  has been a concept since the 19th century.  In History of Ecological Design of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science, design scholar Lydia Kallipoliti writes that Buckminster Fuller is  “arguably the single most significant predecessor of ecological design in the 20th century.” Yet the history of design that works to reduce environmental impact and deterioration predates Fuller. Kallipoliti explains that the phrase “conservation design” which relates to  the “development of land use that attempts to ensure the protection and management of biodiversity, natural resources, and/or the environment through controlled, sustainable development” in the United States dates back to 1864. 

Within this historical context, the “new” title of climate designer is instead meant to shine a light on those who have and continue to work towards climate solutions in this time of renewed urgency. “When you meet someone at a networking event or at a party, and you say I’m a climate designer focusing on x,y,z you’re automatically putting your values out there, first and foremost,” says O’Brien. All designers, regardless of discipline, are needed to make an impact. Instead of hewing a single archetype, the climate designers frame themselves as  a collective of people articulating and embodying the urgency of this need for change in the design industry.

“There is no singular silver-bullet,” says graphic designer and activist Innosanto Nagara. “Not any one single image that you’re going to produce, that’s going to stop climate change.” Nagara hopes the organization can serve as a portal for design professionals working in the industry to connect with other social movements they may not otherwise have exposure to, including groups that have already been hard at work on climate justice issues.

Nagara believes the potential for connectivity among different groups of designers can empower those who want to bring climate action into their office or workplace. Not only do most Americans believe in climate change, but it is one of the world’s greatest fears, yet designers still have to operate and be creative in an industrial culture that created and continues to catalyze the climate crisis. Many companies are built to  profit off of immense global supply chains, fossil fuel production,  industrial agriculture, unchecked land development, and the culture of mass production. But no matter how climate anxiety might trouble a designer, those feelings often must be left at home in order to make a living in a culture so rigidly built upon environmental crises. “The moment [you] walk into your workplace you’re in a undemocratic tyranny and you’re supposed to accept that eight, nine, and in the case of the designer, 16 hours a day,” says Nagara. 

The Climate Designer community is still young, but it’s thrilling to consider the potential of a democratic, climate-focused organization unbound from industrial directives. Corporate-backed climate initiatives often result in little more than vapid greenwashing campaigns and ambiguous assurances of sustainability from industries built upon environmental destruction. For the countless designers who are bound to employers or clients unwilling to compromise profits for the changes necessary to evade further climate catastrophe, an infrastructure for climate action and education is desperately needed.  While the climate designers are wading through the challenges of creating a singular definition for a diverse group of designers, the title of “climate designer” so far has served as an important signal of a shared cause among them all.