How Second Place (or Third) Can Mean a Win for Designers Everywhere

How Second Place (or Third) Can Mean a Win for Designers Everywhere

Never has losing an awards competition felt so good.

The Cooper Hewitt People's Choice Award was the only category in the Smithsonian Institution's recent National Design Awards to be opened to public voting, and over 6,000 designers, consumers, and interested citizens spoke up.

Some of the biggest design names in the country were nominated. Big-budget projects vied for the win. But it was an independently produced sustainable design website that managed to squeeze past the designerati to place in the final three.

That project was Re-nourish, the design industry's first truly independent online toolkit for sustainable graphic design.

Re-nourish didn't win the People's Choice Award -- that honor went to design firm Ideo for their 2007 Trek Lime bicycle. So why is my team so thrilled? Because being voted into the top three amid such established design minds as Ideo, Frog Design and nearly 200 other firms represents a significant public endorsement of Re-nourish's mission to help working designers integrate sustainability into their everyday work.

There are well over a quarter of a million graphic designers in the U.S alone. These designers have a significant -- though often unrecognized -- impact on ecological and human health. They have a hand in the creation of 65 billion pieces of unsolicited direct mail every year, not to mention magazines and books, product packaging, and other printed matter. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, the pulp and paper industry is the fourth largest emitter in North America.

Clearly, the way we design needs to change. As designer Brian Dougherty writes in Green Graphic Design, “We have an opportunity to change the way design gets made -- to forge an industry that respects the limits of our planet and contributes net value to society.”

Designers, who work in the early stages of the production line and have contact with multiple points on the supply chain, are in a remarkable position to make that change happen.

But our ranking in the People's Choice Award is more than a simple endorsement of Re-nourish. It represents a challenge for working designers everywhere to reconsider the status quo's current definition of "good design.” Re-nourish believes the design industry needs to move beyond politics, personalities, aesthetics and trends, and embrace a definition of “good design” that addresses -- in real terms --  both social and environmental impacts. This is our first and only goal.

We've moved toward this goal by providing open access to practical tools, like our Project Calculator that makes real-world recommendations for trimming waste during the printing process. We've moved toward this goal by providing independent information about sustainable design theory and practice. We've moved toward this goal by developing a comprehensive sustainable design roadmap working designers can use every day

Finally, we've moved toward this goal by reaching out to national design associations, trade associations, working designers, nonprofits, and everyone else who has a stake in making good design become sustainable design. Re-nourish aims to facilitate a collaborative, consensus-based process to develop standards and metrics for sustainable graphic design, so no voice goes unrepresented. We've been met with both open arms and resistance. We continue to believe in the collaborative process, and our nomination for the People's Choice Award tells us it is what working designers want, too.

Re-nourish is in a unique position to facilitate such an initiative, because we don't accept advertising or fiscal sponsorship from printers, paper manufacturers, design studios or other commercial design interests. As such, we're able to make recommendations, conduct research, and present information without the influence of special interests. Make no mistake: Our industry depends mightily on printers, materials manufacturers, media, and designers themselves to succeed. It's in all of our best interest to work collaboratively to create a definition of sustainable design that works up and down the supply chain.

In the end, Re-nourish remains committed to the design industry at large. We'll continue to develop tools allowing graphic designers to track their projects' environmental impacts and savings, and to provide access to reliable, independent information. And we'll continue to build on the Sustainable Graphic Design Standards, reaching out to all interested parties. Because even though we may not take first in every competition, the growth of sustainable design is a win for the entire industry.

Jess Sand runs solo communications practice Roughstock Studios, and is co-creator of Re-nourish, the design industry's first fully independent online toolkit for sustainable graphic design.