Illustration by Beatrice Sala.

Imagine you’re browsing the aisles of Whole Foods for your next meal, when your eyes pass over a package of Classic Norwegian Roasted Salmon. You’re glad to see that the omega-3-rich fish, farmed half a world away, is cleanly packaged for you—and even better, that the package bears the proud promise of being “responsibly farmed.” This means the farm has been audited by a third-party to ensure that it meets Whole Foods “Quality Standards” for sourcing seafood, which puts it in relatively good standing compared to other industrial-salmon farming operations. But that official seal of approval also belies a larger problem: that wild salmon are on the brink of extinction, in large part due to industrialized fish farming that have warped the life-cycle of wild salmon and the conditions of their ecosystem. 

The salmon package communicates and conceals these things all with a simple blue badge that conveys authority and trust-worthiness: a set of standards has been met. But what exactly were those standards? And who made them? Similar looking seals might communicate that a product is “fair trade” or “green” or “recyclable,” certifications that appear uniformly as ethically good for people or the planet, but also obscures the massive and complex impact of multinational supply chains. 

This may not seem like a design problem as much as a regulation problem, and indeed, it is up to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as well as nonprofits and other independent organizations, to set and maintain standards for these types of classifications. But the design of labels and the packaging they appear on also influences what a customer knows about the product. The design of a product’s packaging has the ability to obscure the labor practices and ecological impact associated with making a product with palatable aesthetics and “universal” design, whether that’s intentional on the part of the designer or not. 

Because companies rely on design to convey how a product was made, designers have a unique influence on what gets included on a product’s packaging—and a responsibility to use it. And while universality is typically understood as good practice in modern communication design, the more inherently complex an object or idea is, the more the communication must be distorted in order to fit into a clean and simple design.

“The design of a product’s packaging has the ability to obscure the labor practices and ecological impact associated with making a product.”

“Images are literally consumed as a form of nutrition,” wrote architect Mark Wigley in his 1999 essay Recycling Recycling. In revisiting ecological architecture theory of the 1970s, Wigley makes the case that the image of the house can have far greater cultural and ecological implications than the physicality of the thing itself. This can also apply to the image of a product: Take the universal recycling symbol, an icon so ubiquitous and familiar it’s practically inextricable from the good-for-the-planet practice that it communicates. In truth, the American recycling system is ineffectual; it has for half a century been used to justify ecosystem-collapsing mass production. The symbol, in this case, is far more powerful than the system it represents.

Like the recycling label, good faith certifications and “ethical branding” enable producers to define standards for ecological production and fair labor practices, leaving consumers with little information with which to discern between vastly different products. Designers could make a difference in this respect: they could hold their clients accountable to transparent and ethical communication standards that empower consumers, not producers. 

“Designers also have an opportunity, and a responsibility—to push companies toward transparency.”

How, exactly, might designers do this? One idea is to look toward studios and agencies that have developed internal ethical and ecological standards that guide not only their own work and processes, but also the clients they take on. The San Francisco-based Office of Ordinary Things, for example, lays out in detail its policies around sustainability and the standards it expects its clients to uphold. Today After, a studio that works solely on projects that fight climate change, has similarly published its internal standards, and Harmless Studio only designs packaging for products that are vegan. 

These are small studios working in niche areas, but imagine what an impact an agency that works with major companies could have if it established similar values and standards that pushed clients to meet social-ecological expectations for design communication if they want to work with them. This would put pressure on brands to reexamine deceptive marketing strategies, and ideally, their production practices (or at the very least, give an insightful glimpse of how far a client is willing to go for their “values”). 

In Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Victor Papanek wrote of designers, “Our role is changing to that of a ‘facilitator’ who can bring the needs of the people to the attention of manufacturers, government agencies, and the like. The designer then logically becomes no more (and no less) than a tool in the hands of the people.” Setting aside Papanek’s overly-idealistic outlook of the design industry from 1972, the idea still holds potential, especially considering the outsized role branding and visual media now plays in the marketing of commodities. There’s also been a growing interest in recent years in ethically-made products, and more and more designers who care about the impact of their work on the climate

Of course, real change relies on significant legislation regulating communication of production practices both domestically and internationally. But designers also have an opportunity, and a responsibility—to push companies toward transparency.  It’s up to designers to recognize that power, and to look below, not above, for guidance on ecological and social communication.