The End: Design for Destiny

The End: Design for Destiny

The following is an excerpt from the book Green Graphic Design, by Brian Dougherty, principal creative director for Celery Design Collaborative.

Designing Backwards

"Designing backwards” is a process by which designers take a mental journey, starting from a design project’s ultimate destination and working backwards until we arrive back at the design studio. It’s a multiphase brainstorm process, really. Along the way, designers gain knowledge that informs the choices we make. That knowledge enables us to creatively avoid most of the roadblocks that might prevent green solutions from continuing downstream.


Six Ways to Design Backwards
• 6. Waste: Design for destiny; Consider reuse; Recyclability; Compostability
• 5. User: User experience; Add value through design; Educate; Enable action
• 4. Delivery: Design for distribution; Explore efficient packing; Stripping away layers; Alternative distribution
• 3. Warehouse: Consider print on demand; Perform actual usage audit
• 2. Bindery: Consider mechanical bindings; Eliminate trim waste
• 1. Printing: Design for green printing; Explore recycled paper; Design press sheets; Consider digital printing; UV inks; Low VOC printing


Start at the end, by imagining the best possible destiny for a design. Next, imagine the user’s experience with the design and envision scenarios that would make the experience particularly memorable or valuable. Visualize the process for distribution and delivery to the user, including warehousing, packaging, and transport. Search for methods that would be more efficient and effective than the status quo. Finally, define a greenest-case scenario for how the design could be printed, bound, and finished. This includes all of the materials that go into the manufacturing and the ecological impacts of the manufacturing process itself.


The End: Design for Destiny

The starting point for our backwards journey is “the end.” In most cases, graphic design projects end here in a landfill...or if we’re lucky, here in a recycling facility.

It’s hard to imagine during the excitement of brainstorming and layout, but that beautiful design you’re working on will end up as trash. It will be thrown away.

But “away” is not really a destiny. It is usually a euphemism for burying something in a hole and covering it with dirt. There is a simple fact of planetary life—nothing goes away. For all practical purposes, we live in a sealed container, allowing only light to enter and heat to escape. We are on what Buckminster Fuller called “Spaceship Earth,” sealed up tightly and hurtling through space. With very few exceptions, all of our design output will stay onboard indefinitely.

Destinies for Design Materials

That means all of the paper, plastics, glues, inks, foils, coatings, and other finishes that make up our designs eventually go somewhere, and that somewhere is not so far away. There are six potential destinies for the materials graphic designers specify:

  1. Perpetual litter: for plastics and other persistent materials lingering in the ocean or on land
  2. Landfill: either conventional or hazardous waste
  3. Incineration: converting materials into energy + air emissions + ash
  4. Compost: through a municipal program or at home
  5. Recycling: into reusable fiber, polymers, or metals
  6. Reuse: for the same or a different purpose

It is possible to look at each of these destinies through the lens of material value. Each represents a loss of material value (with the possible exception of fully reusable designs). Yet some destinies are better than others.

Perpetual litter is the truly worst destiny for the materials we design. This is particularly a problem for plastics waste. In places without sophisticated waste disposal infrastructure, plastic trash has become a permanent pox on the natural landscape. Meanwhile, ocean currents have assembled plastic trash into several massive “garbage patches” of floating debris covering an area twice the size of Texas out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Landfill is an ecological dead end, although a somewhat “managed” dead end. Materials that end up there essentially have no value for society or for the natural ecosystem. Worse still are materials that require a hazardous waste landfill. These materials demand special treatment, often at great expense, to protect society and the natural environment from their inherent toxicity. The first thing to do when we design for destiny is to eliminate materials that require hazardous waste handling. Later in this book we’ll identify some of those materials and propose strategies for avoiding them. 

Incineration is the end of the line for material structure, but some of the energy embodied in the material can be captured and put to good use. Aside from energy, there are two main outputs from incineration, gaseous emissions and solid ash, and each can be problematic. Some materials, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, release hazardous gases if they are burned. Other materials, such as the metallic pigments in some inks, end up concentrated in the solid ash remaining after waste is burned. While the concentration levels in the initial use may be considered nontoxic, they can result in toxic incineration ash that must be handled as hazardous waste. The material choices that designers make have a direct impact on how good or bad incineration is for society and the natural world.

Composting represents a complete loss of physical structure, but the nutrients embodied in the materials continue to circulate within our ecosystem. They might serve to fertilize food crops or provide habitat for important microorganisms. As with incineration, though, the devil is in the details. A biodegradable polymer bag printed with noncompostable inks or a piece of compostable paper coated with a plastic laminate is essentially contaminated. Celery has a compost bin in the courtyard of our studio, and we see the results of bad material choices every time we turn the soil. For years, we’ve been composting food scraps and paper “to go” cups and containers. The paper from these containers would decompose, leaving behind an annoying plastic laminate which we would have to filter out of the compost by hand. Our local grocery chain eventually got smart (or at least reacted to customer complaints) and switched to fully biodegradable containers.

Recycling maintains far more of a material’s value. Some metals and polymers can be recycled indefinitely with little or no loss of structure. In these cases, the recycled material is “as good as new.” Other materials, such as paper and most plastic, lose some structural quality or purity when they are recycled. This is sometimes called “downcycling” because, for instance, the paper fibers get broken and are weaker than virgin fibers. Yet a great deal of material value is maintained. Any coatings and inks applied to a material must be removed during the recycling process. For metals and many plastics, this happens when the material is melted down. For paper, it happens through a “de-inking” process. A big part of designing for recyclability is eliminating or isolating any add-on materials that contaminate the base material and make it more difficult to recycle.

Recycling usually entails melting, pulping, shredding, or otherwise reconstituting a material, but that’s not always necessary. Many materials maintain enough structural integrity to be reprocessed or, better yet, recontextualized. Designers can look to waste streams as a source for inexpensive alternative materials that often have a built-in back-story.

Reuse is the highest order of “design for destiny” because it represents the greatest persistence of material value. If a design is used twice instead of just once, its ecological footprint for the function performed could easily drop by half. If it is used several times, the ecological impact drops to a mere fraction. That dividing effect makes the reusable design more efficient than the single-use design in many situations.

Thinkbook journalThere are many different flavors of design for reuse:

Celery created the cover of the Thinkbook journal (left) from recycled silicone rubber sheets. The rubber had previously been used in an industrial process for stamping computer wires. This process left the material with an interesting ridged texture—like slick, space-age corduroy. Silicone is an inherently “nonstick” material, so conventional printing and bindery would not adhere well to it. Instead, we die-cut typography on the cover and designed a unique mechanical binding system. Individual paper sections are saddle-stitched with “loop” staples, then the sections and the cover are held together with rubber straps. The binding system is specially designed so that the interior sections can be removed and replaced, which allows the cover to be used for many years.

In Canada, more than 40 breweries voluntarily use standardized beer bottles and participate in a take-back system. The return rate for these bottles varies by province, but is consistently higher than 95 percent. In Ontario, the return rate is an incredible 98 percent! According to Jeff Newton of Canada’s National Brewers Association, “The bottle is reused/refilled an average of 15 times before being crushed and recycled into a new bottle. Hence you can use one bottle to do the work of 15 thus avoiding the manufacture and resource depletion associated with manufacturing 15 separate one-way bottles. Not only is this good for the environment but it helps brewers lower their costs of purchasing new bottles—buy one bottle and use it 15 times versus buy 15 bottles and use them once.”


NetFlix uses returnable mailing envelopes, which drastically reduce the amount of paper required for customers to mail back rented DVDs. The company has mailed over one billion DVDs since its founding, so the ecological implications of that design decision are staggering. FedEx uses a returnable envelope design that allows customers to mail their monthly payments in the same envelope that contained their bill. The company Ecoenvelopes markets a similar envelope system to other companies in North America. In the United kingdom, Shuttlepost markets a line of durable plastic envelopes (above) that are reusable many times.

AvedaAveda designed a reusable tube container for lipstick, made of aluminum and a biocomposite material (right). After their initial purchase, customers can save money and avoid waste by purchasing make-up inserts that fit into the reusable tube. Aveda projects that each tube could be used twelve times before disposal.

TerraCycle is a New Jersey start-up that markets garden fertilizer made from food scraps. The liquid fertilizer is packaged in reused plastic soda bottles. In order to procure a steady source of usable bottles, TerraCycle sponsors bottle collection drives at elementary schools—a smart strategy that keeps bottles out of the waste stream and also engages parents and kids with the TerraCycle brand.

Yahoo postcardsIn 1999, Celery designed a reusable annual report for The Natural Step. The report was written as a series of detachable postcards, and each card included a message for readers to “Tell a friend” by mailing the card. The strategy was to promote a “viral effect” whereby readers could become promoters. Turner & Associates designed an annual report for Yahoo in 1999 that also included reusable postcards (left).

The Sustainability Scorecard

Graphic designers could argue that the destiny of our design work depends upon the actions of consumers and government officials in cities where the designs end up. Designers can’t control whether a customer tosses a brochure in the trash or whether a city provides curbside recycling bins. However, the range of potential destinies for our work is often strictly limited before it reaches the end user. The moment a designer specifies a plastic laminate or a vinyl banner, the destiny of that design is pretty well set: It will end up in a landfill.

Our job as green designers is to enable the best possible destiny for our work. We can’t know what others will do, but we can do our part by creating designs that won’t necessarily end up in a landfill. We do this by choosing appropriate materials and by avoiding contaminants during production.

At Celery, we use a simple “Green, Yellow, Red” system for quickly assessing materials—we call it our sustainability scorecard. We look at three factors: source, energy, and destiny, and rank the range of available options from best to worst.

This system is not a replacement for doing thorough research and making case-by-case decisions based on individual circumstances. Most materials get a mixed score, which forces us to weigh the factors against one another. But the system serves as a quick and easy starting point for deciding what materials to specify.

We based our system on the Sustainability Toolkit and Scorecard developed by Michael S. Brown, PhD, for the catalog retailer Norm Thompson Outfitters. Brown, a specialist in environmental assessment, created the original tool to help professional buyers quickly assess the relative merits of products they were considering for inclusion in the Norm Thompson catalog. Buyers were given up to three points for a solidly “green” product and negative three points for a thoroughly “red” product. Buyers were challenged to achieve their sales goals while also maximizing their points on the Sustainability Scorecard. This tool teaches buyers and also creates a competitive environment where buyers are recognized and rewarded for minimizing ecological impact.

Celery applied the same strategy to graphic design and created a simple tool that helps us decide which materials to use and which to avoid. It doesn’t necessarily make the decisions easy, but it provides a framework for problem-solving and helps us identify how best to allocate limited resources of research time and money. 

Excerpted from Green Graphic Design by Brian Dougherty and CeleryDesign Collaborative. © 2009 Brian Dougherty. Excerpted with permissionof Allworth Press. All rights reserved.

"No dumping" sign photo - CC license by heyjoewhereyougoinwiththatguninyourhand