Overview of drawings and sketches, part of the visual research of the designer.

Benedetta Crippa is an Italian designer living in Stockholm, where she works as lead designer at Stockholm Environment Institute, teaches at Konstfack University, and otherwise leads a robust independent design and consultancy practice. Her richly colorful, densely ornamental work is grounded in feminist and post-colonial design theory and, in her words, works to address that which throughout history “has been stripped of power and authority,” and long existed on the margins. As the first graphic designer at SEI, she spends her work days making the institute’s scientific research on social and environmental sustainability legible for a wider audience, through graphics, data visualization, and consultancy. And at Konstfack, she is teaching the third installment of a course called “Quantum Thinking: Sustainability in and Through Visuality.”

Intrigued by the title and brief description of the course on her website, I reached out to Crippa a few months ago as Eye on Design was planning a session for this year’s AIGA Design Conference. We were building the session around ecology and environmentalism, and where those things intersect with a design practice, and I wanted to ask her about a term I’d seen her use for her course: visual sustainability. She explained that it was her way of thinking about how graphic design can be sustainable, not just through its messaging or materiality, but through its form. She started the course because she’d witnessed fellow designers struggling to reconcile a commitment to sustainability with the demands of their chosen profession. But for Crippa, visual design is crucial to sustainable co-existence—not a claim I’d heard many designers make—and she argued that point convincingly.

One thing she cautioned when we spoke was that visual sustainability wasn’t just about the environment or climate change—it also challenges and presents alternatives to dominant structures like capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Crippa practices sustainability on her terms, which she explains below, but also encourages her students to define it for themselves. This felt like the perfect way to open the conference session, which we hoped would expand people’s thinking around ecology and design, while also showing how designers can actually use this thinking in their own work and to shape the profession. In this transcription of our conversation during the conference, Crippa offers both of these things. 

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

You teach a course at Konstfack University called “Quantum Thinking: Sustainability in and Through Visuality.” How did you start teaching this class?

For the past few years I’ve been mainly working in the field of social equity, and in this period, I have observed a growing concern with sustainability, but I have also witnessed how it quickly became a word quite devoid of meaning and actual change attached to it. We’re all familiar with the urgency of environmental action, but for graphic design this also gave in to some ideas like, for example, that one should only print in black and white, or go digital whenever possible, or even not design in the first place because, after all, “design is always a servant of capitalism.” We’ve all heard this. I registered how this felt paralyzing, not only for myself but also for many colleagues and students, as they started to see their craft being dismissed at the same time both as dangerous and as something that we can live without.

But so much of what we’re witnessing today is primarily a matter of visual literacy, about what we see. The visual literacy that we create collectively impacts how we understand the world and the assumptions of value we make about one another, the hierarchies we create between people, traditions, or ideas of quality. And it’s re-negotiated all the time. “Everyday, someone is killed just for looking like me,” were the words of designer Schessa Garbutt in response to the events leading to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in June this year. The inequity we witness today is also the result of the promotion of visual whiteness as the norm, the standard, and the beautiful, to give just one example.

As designers, we must acknowledge this and find a way to work responsibly with our craft, since visuality, just like other design disciplines, impacts everyone. I think we owe it to ourselves, to our students, and also to our clients to be able to thoroughly answer the question of how visual craft is crucial to sustainable co-existence, and what to do about it. How do I design as a relational being that shares a space and a journey with others? To me, this is sustainability: a design practice grounded in co-existence.

So I wrote a proposal for a course that would cover this question and I sent it to Konstfack, my former school and the major university for the arts in Sweden, where I got my MFA in 2017. Sara Kaaman and Catherine Anyango Grünewald, who run the bachelor program in graphic design and illustration there, accepted the proposal and the course is now in its third installment.

“To me, this is sustainability: a design practice grounded in co-existence.”

To your point about how sustainability is typically thought of and talked about in the profession of graphic design, I do think a lot of designers may wonder, “If everything I do pollutes the planet, or is subservient to capitalist interests, what am I supposed to do? Can I reconcile my values with being a designer?” 

I relate to that question! I feel it’s really urgent to say that sustainability is not about stopping existing or designing, or limiting creativity, but rather is about acting with responsibility, understanding design as a relational practice to everything and everyone else around us. This can be difficult coming from a history that has stripped us of accountability, and sold us the idea that we are not really responsible for anythingour clients are. We lack both the language and the analysis to understand our own impact, but that is slowly changing. What I am hoping for is to encourage designers and especially students to believe they can contribute to meaningful change through their work, not by not doing it; that their craft is not only important but powerful and necessary; and that the question is not if but how, and that they have the knowledge to find the answer to that, too.  

I agree that language, the way we talk about these things, has a lot of potential as far as changing or aiding people’s understanding. That’s one of the things that first drew my interest about your class and what you teach, which you describe as “visual sustainability,” a term I’d never heard before. Can you explain what exactly that means? 

Design is never neutral, it always puts forward certain values, and which values those are depends on both its form and the context in which it’s made. Feminist and post-colonial design theory have been crucial in uncovering this. When it comes to sustainability, to me it seems that visual design is subjected to different expectations than other crafts. So while the systems of product design for example, or architecture or fashion, seem to be re-evaluating their patterns of consumption and bringing up approaches where environmental and social perspectives are deeply linked (or should be), I felt that the common narrative was that the best graphic design can do was to print less, print better, or do good storytelling about sustainabilityto foster the cause. But for me the question is, how can my visual work not just be about something, but actually be it? How can I not only explain, but also do? What about understanding the impact of what people look at every day? What about the world that visual form creates through its inherent qualities, through its body? To explore this practice, the expression “visual sustainability” seemed to point clearly at what I meant: sustainability that’s fostered through the visual qualities of the design, beyond questions of production or materialization alone. 

A room with a neon yellow floor and circular pink bench, with a colorful, transparent curtain made by Benedetta Crippa in the background.
Ornamental curtain “Everything Has a Name”, commissioned by Teaching Design (Lisa Baumgarten and Anja Neidhardt), exhibited at A–Z Presents, Berlin (2020). Photo: Hans-Georg Gaul.

Those are fascinating questions to explore. To pose one back to you, how can graphic design go beyond storytelling about sustainability, and be instead an agent of holistic and structural change through its inherent qualities and methods, and through its form? Can you give examples of what this might look like in practice?

While I was investigating this, I wrote a manifesto for sustainable form that I don’t mean to be true for everyone, but I find it true for me. I asked myself what a “relational visuality” would look like and what intentions would be needed to guide it. I wrote this down as a list of characteristics of a visuality that would actually make me wish to live in this world. The very first point is that visuality should be non-violent. That’s where the main difference between graphic design and advertising comes in for me. Storytelling can be done in two ways, either violently or not—either to establish dialogue or to persuade. This also happens to be the most important point in the theory of non-violent communication, that says if you enter a conversation already knowing what the outcome will be, you are not there to be in dialogue but to persuade. Let’s take advertising: advertising always wishes to persuade, infallibly; to colonize and exploit is its very reason for existing. It never looks for dialogue but only for persuasion, that is its goal. In one of her works, Swedish designer Maryam Fanni demonstrates this by bringing into the public space in Stockholm some of the statements from the website of Clear Channel, one of the major advertising distributors worldwide. On their website, Clear Channel says: “Outdoor advertising is great because you can’t turn it off, throw it away, or click on the next page.” 

Ok so, that’s them. To me, on the contrary, graphic design should be about dialogue, about telling a story and relating to who listens as an equal, as someone worth respect and integrity, as well as the freedom to walk away. My form, I believe, should make this world a more bearable place to be in, not a more insufferable one. 

My list includes other characteristics, like being generous, diverse, and complex. This does not point to one form in particular, it can take many shapes. To discuss how visual sustainability translates in practice, what it can look like, I bring to students a series of examples that can show them different ways to answer the same question. I don’t believe there are designers that “embody” sustainability, but rather there are forms that point to and embody aspects of sustainability. During the course I show examples from the work of Alexander Girard, an American designer active in the ’60s, Brita Lindvall Leitmann, who works in Sweden today, Zaha Hadid and her architecture, certain examples from the work of Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, but also less-known anonymous works of folk art from different parts of the world, or things like The Temple of All Religions initiated by artist Ildar Khanov in Kazan. Folk art and decorative traditions are especially important to establish design as a humble cultural expression first and foremost, status and industrial production came later. We discuss how these works, in different ways, shake up systemic structures and speak about another way of seeing, existing, and being in dialogue with one another.

You also invite contemporary designers who are addressing sustainability in their practices to come speak to your class. Can you name a couple?

Among others, we invited Natsai Audrey Chieza to share her work with color and bacteria, illustrator Andrea Pippins to share her approach to building community. We have web editor Mischa Andrews speaking about accessibility, graphic designer Johanna Lewengard leading a workshop on sustainable creative practice, and also printing companies Seacourt and Pureprint from the UK to talk about what sustainable printing means beyond paper alone. We also look at perspectives from Swedish scholar Hans Rosling, architecture author Lance Hosey, and graphic design critic Rick Poynor, to name a few.

Learning from these voices, each student should formulate their own approach to sustainability through practice, but within a firm framework of accountability, integrity, and change. Clients will more and more come with this question, and we need to be equipped with answers.

How does visual sustainability manifest itself in your own practice?

This is an ongoing and central question for me. The answer goes back to power. Generally, I try to work with everything that throughout history has been stripped of power and authority: emotion, empathy, color in the most obsessive investigations, folk craft, complexity, but even typefaces, systems, softwares that exist at the margins. Ornamentation and folk art are my main points of entrance into visual practice. I try to erase as much as possible the distance between my heart and my hand, and make space for radical expression of an emotion that listens and then answers back. And then I try to challenge everything I have learned, all the time. So what capitalism tries to gentrify, I try to bring back with integrity; what white supremacy has taught us means dirty and inconclusive, I try to bring it in with dignity; and to answer to patriarchy’s erasure of my very body, I try to always design something I can recognize myself in. It’s been hard work, the hardest thing probably being leaving behind ideas of quality and modernity I was taught throughout my design education before Konstfack. The idea is that form should always expand what quality and beauty can look like.

You’ve noted that with your work and in your class, you’re not just talking about environmental sustainability. You’re questioning how we challenge basic structures—environmental, social, cultural—through form. Why is it important that these things are considered holistically? And why is it important for designers, specifically, to understand these intersections?

This world is a complex one where everything is interconnected, this we know. But we rarely understand what this actually means. Sustainability is a question of power; it is about understanding consequences to our actions that are very often far away in time and space, which is why they can be so difficult to relate to. Think about our emissions melting ice we will never see in person, or our clothes being produced by an enslaved person we will never meet.

Graph part of Crippa’s research on visual sustainability.

Because of this, the world of sustainability, especially in design unfortunately, is full of absurdities—like the light bulb made of grass—and solutions that are drafted without a power analysis. We can either work on symbolic, material, or structural level, and the symbolic one typically leads to short-term, illusionary changes that never really address the structural problems that got us in trouble in the first place. So the question is, how can I, as graphic designer, work not only on the symbolic or material level, which are of course important, but on a structural one as well? The work of many committed colleagues at the Stockholm Environment Institute has strengthened my conviction that a holistic approach oriented towards structural change and grounded in power analysis is the most responsible one. Once one looks closer, the need for holistic action becomes quite obvious.

Just like it’s accepted for other fields and disciplines, for me visuality becomes sustainable only by questioning and formulating alternatives to society’s currently dominant systems: primarily capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. When I design, I ask myself how I can challenge these through the form. There’s never an easy answer, but if we are to achieve profound and lasting sustainability, we are bound to propose an alternative order of things, and do so through aesthetic production. 

“The idea is to become aware of what might happen there when I pull here.”

This can feel overwhelming—maybe you are 20 years old and you find yourself in a situation that is the result of centuries of bad decisions, and you wonder what you can possibly do to change all of that. It’s important to not pose this to students as a question that should rest entirely on their shoulders, but rather a question through which they can find their own point of entrance to practice. The idea is to become aware of what might happen there when I pull here. With education, for me the goal is to train students in understanding their own impact, as well as the potential of form, holistically.

Graph part of Crippa’s research on visual sustainability.

Separating “environment” from “people” can never be an effective strategy. Environmental and social impacts are connected and they need to be addressed as one. I can have the cleanest air in the universe, but if that’s built on a system of slavery, it will hardly be sustainable, right? I can have the most ecological printing process, I can recycle 100% of my waste, look for the most certified paper, but if my design is perpetually built on patriarchal ideas of quality and community, it will hardly be sustainable. Solving the environmental question alone has become the strategy of many companies that could then go on exploiting the very people working under them. But if we are serious about being committed to a future of greater balance, the exploitation needs to end—exploitation of the planet, but also of our fellow humans, and our own minds.