January 5, 2021

Heart of Design Conversations

Islam, design and the environment: What role do we play?

As designers, we often think about how we’re impacting people or communities. But what about our impact on the earth? We take a look at why our projects, partnerships and professional choices should also be viewed through an ecological lens

One of Gould Studio’s highlights in 2020 was our partnership with global environment NGO Greenpeace to develop a new campaign that would encourage young Muslims to play a more active role in climate justice.

The Ummah for Earth campaign is an excellent example of what can happen when organisations’ intentions and values are aligned, bringing to life an initiative that seeks to harness the collective strength of the planet's 1.6 billion Muslims, and empower them to work together for positive change.

As well as helping to focus potentially millions of people’s attention on the protection of planet earth, the project also got us thinking about our role as designers. How are we contributing to a greener, more sustainable future? What are our responsibilities? Are we doing more bad than good with our partnerships?

Given our work within the Islamic Economy, it’s easy to have a slightly skewed view of our impact. Islam - like most, if not all major religions - has a very close relationship with the environment. God has appointed us as stewards of the earth, and we are given explicit instruction to look after the planet and everything that lives on it. Everything we do should be beneficial to the environment, and we should steer away from anything that does it harm. 

It might not always be easy to put our green aspirations into practice, but our role and responsibilities are clear.

Design's relationship with the environment should be equally clear, and we have plenty of examples of how design is already integrated in the world around us; from permaculture to sacred geometry.

But the reality is much more complex. Because despite the fact designers have the power to do so much good for the planet, the truth is that the profession has been complicit in creating and exacerbating the damage we see in the world today.

The dark side of design

In his (highly recommended) book Ruined by Design, Mike Monteiro explains that “the world is working exactly as designed”. From the combustion engine, weapons and cigarettes, to the toxicity that social media can bring, negative impact has been designed into our way of life. 

When fashion is designed to be fast, it creates more landfill. When an app is designed well, it is addictive. And each time we ‘improve’ the design, it creates more landfill and addicts.

In the blurb of his book, Monteiro writes: “Design is … a craft with a lot of blood on its hands. Every cigarette ad is on us. Every gun is on us. Every ballot that a voter cannot understand is on us. Every time a social network’s interface allows a stalker to find their victim, that’s on us. The monsters we unleash into the world will carry your name.”

It’s a damning indictment that should not be disregarded - by designers and their clients alike. In environmental terms you only have to look at single-use plastics, the oil industry, fur coats and deforestation; all of which have been designed to do exactly what they do, and be exactly what they are.

But these nefarious examples do not define the profession and its practitioners. Design can, of course, be a force for good. All it takes is for the designer to choose that path.

Making better choices

In addition to Monteiro’s assertion above, he says: “Design is a craft with an amazing amount of power. The power to choose. The power to influence. As designers, we need to see ourselves as gatekeepers of what we are bringing into the world, and what we choose not to bring into the world. Design is a craft with responsibility. The responsibility to help create a better world for all.

Many designers are choosing to exercise this responsibility in positive ways. Whether graphic designers, product designers, fashion designers, architects, UX designers, or designers who don’t realise they are designing at all, there are examples from high-level to grass-roots of designers electing to do good.

For example, the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building certification programme has changed the way many architects work, while electric cars are increasingly coming to the fore in vehicle design. The fashion industry is becoming increasingly more ethically-minded, with sustainable fashion practices including the use of less water, longer product lifestyle, the introduction of organic fibres, and removal of hazardous chemicals.

Meanwhile, many graphic designers are making green messages more engaging and impactful. Just think of the famous National Geographic magazine cover of the plastic bag iceberg, the striking posters by Law Kok Yew and Gigi Lee, and the branding or artwork that accompanies environmental rallies.

Whether you are creating for yourself, or creating for a client, impact should prevail over form; and in many cases it's doing both.

Law Kok Yew and Gigi Lee created the awarding winning 'Cut a Tree, Kill a Life' series of posters for the Malaysian Nature Society.

Sustainable strategies

Some of the most powerful environmental work designers can do, however, is to inculcate a culture, mindset, or strategy of sustainability. Our partnerships give us the opportunity to put into place systems, processes and frameworks that work in favour of the planet rather than against it.

Designers can help corporate clients think creatively - taking their thought-processes beyond corporate considerations, beyond end-user considerations, to understanding their impact on the environment. Design Thinking can help them consider the deeper implications their work might be having, whether on a local or global scale.

And if clients have set their sights on an un-environmental path, designers are in a privileged position to not only highlight the problem but steer the client elsewhere.

Introducing more eco-friendly design can take place in a variety of ways; some subtle, some obvious. On the subtle side, simplifying a client's digital user experience can mean less time online, which means fewer greenhouse gases being emitted. Only a small amount per online interaction, granted, but every little counts, and over time this adds up tremendously.

Founder and CEO of UX design and software development company Quovantis Technologies, Tarun Kohli, expands on how green thinking can be built into processes. 

In his article How designers can help deal with climate change he highlights how ‘green nudges’ can be introduced. For example, he suggests that if a ride-sharing app identifies that your desired destination is close to your starting point, it could alert you to the fact it is only a few minutes’ walk, and ask if you’d still like to take a cab.

Another example from Kohli is that e-commerce sites could offer a ‘no-hurry’ delivery option, for those who aren’t in a rush to receive their orders. This could help reduce same-day-delivery carbon footprint.

On the more obvious end of the scale, designers can help organisations inform, motivate and applaud people for their environmental efforts.

Kohli cites Nissan's ‘eco-indicator’ in its Leaf EV vehicle as a prime example. The car monitors the environmental impact of your driving style, and gives you a ‘score’ on your dashboard, helping you to adjust accordingly in order to do less harm as you drive.

Then of course there are design decisions such as the type of packaging used for products and the carbon footprint that's generated in production or delivery. The sustainability of each project should always be considered alongside its environmental ethics.

James Christie – co-founder of the SustainableUX conference, and Experience Design Director at Mad*Pow – put it succinctly in his article Sustainable UX: How Designers Can Help Make a Positive Impact on the Environment.

He wrote: "There are four main spheres of influence that designers can make the most impact on. Laddering up from local concerns to the global perspective, they are:

  • Reducing pollution in our work process
  • Understanding internet infrastructure and how design shapes energy use
  • Adding sustainable thinking to product design
  • Working with human behaviours, beliefs, and attitudes."

Building better habits

This type of mindfulness should be present in all of our daily routines, processes, and decision-making; whether we're designers or not.

We can design systems for recycling at home or the workplace, find shorter routes to the office, or ensure we have reusable cups for our morning coffees. These tiny habits, when made regular and shared by hundreds, thousands, or even millions of others, can be profound.

At the core of establishing these habits is asking ourselves questions. Do I need to keep the office lights on all day? Can I walk to the shops rather than drive? When should I separate my recyclable waste?

For designers, questions might include: Why are we making this particular product? What would happen if I took a project in X direction rather than Y? Could this client meeting be held remotely rather than me driving to meet them?

Prior to writing Ruined by Design, Monteiro penned A Designer’s Code of Ethics, which lists out a series of principles that all designers should at least keep in mind.

One of his principles is: ‘A designer takes time for self-reflection’, which he expands upon by saying: 

“No one wakes up one day designing to throw their ethics out the window. It happens slowly, one slippery slope at a time. It’s a series of small decisions that might even seem fine at the time, and before you know it you’re designing filtering UI for the Walmart online gun shop.

“Take the time for self-reflection every few months. Evaluate the decisions you’ve made recently. Are you staying true to who you are? Or are you slowly moving your ethical goal-posts a few yards at a time with each raise or stock option award?”

This self-reflection will look different for different people. At Gould Studio, for example, we incorporate self-reflection through Heart-Centered Design – our own set of guiding principles that are inspired by spiritual aspirations including sincerity, intentionality, craftsmanship, gratitude, service and blessings..

By building this into our work, we have a design modality that aspires to be in tune with nature; protecting the environment, supporting environmental causes, removing harm, and working towards a more sustainable future.

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