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Designers Can Help Save the Planet

Why we need to encourage more artists and graphic designers to think about presenting our climate change problems in a visually compelling way.
Photograph taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. (Photo: Public Domain)

Photograph taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. (Photo: Public Domain)

Earlier this spring I took a look at the draft of the National Climate Change Assessment, which was posted online for public comment. I felt discouraged, and not for the obvious reasons—I expected the climate news to be bad. What upset me were the lackluster and confusing graphics.

I was much relieved when the final report went live last month. It is beautifully designed, with an intuitive, interactive format, gorgeous, moving images, and sophisticated graphic representations of data. This is great news, because if humanity is going to survive climate change, it will be in part, I think, because designers applied their skills to help us visualize what's really at stake.

The U.S. public needs climate change illustrated and explained in all of the ways we know how. Though 67 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening, a January Pew poll found that we as a nation ranked it 19th on a list of 20 priorities for Congress and the president to handle (ahead of only dealing with global trade issues). A more recent Gallup poll found that less than one-third of Americans worry about the environment—the lowest level of concern since Gallup began measuring it in 2001. Clearly, the data alone isn't making a difference. And that's in part because it hasn't been communicated in a way that makes us care.

Students need to learn to be proactive about finding or creating situations where they can put their knowledge, skills, and values into practice.

Scientists have a critical message, but now more than ever messages need to be packaged and branded. Consider that most information comes to us through various forms of communication design, from the postage stamp to the nutrition label—and how design has the power to make it meaningful. Modern life has meant replacing the “natural” with designed messages, objects, and experiences, which means that the people doing the designing play, now more than ever, a critical role.

In fact, if we as a culture have become more aware of our role in wasting the planet, it is thanks in some small part to a successful collaboration between a passionate environmentalist and a designer that went viral several years ago; the short video “The Story of Stuff,” has been seen by over 12 million people, and was translated into 15 languages within the first three years of its launch in 2007.

That passionate environmentalist, Annie Leonard, was recently named the new director for Greenpeace USA. That designer, Jonah Sachs, is the founder of Free Range Studios and is now a driving force for bringing environmental issues into the national debate.

But designers who can work effectively with scientists and make environmental issues engaging to a broad audience are still on the margins of a field that hasn’t fully embraced its potential impact and responsibility. There are notable exceptions, such as Stamen Design, creators of an app that predicts sea level rise, and the National Climate Data Center, which was behind the transformation of the most recent National Climate Assessment website. But in truth, most professional design is still in the service of selling us stuff—much of it we don't really need, with ingredients that aren't good for us, and made of materials that end up polluting our land, air, and water.

Design education is at the root of this problem. While sustainability permeates every aspect of architectural education, most communication and graphic design programs still focus on formal and technical skills without any connection to social and environmental impact.

I’m a graphic design professor at the University of Arizona, a leader in climate change research—eight UA researchers (more than any other university in the country) worked on the NCA report, and the group’s director, Katharine Jacobs, recently returned to UA to start the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions. I have worked with my design students on environmental projects like Ground Water: The Art, Design and Science of a Dry River, and I'm part of a budding art and environment initiative to bring faculty from across campus to collaborate. Still, there is surprisingly little discussion in our own School of Art about the role that art and design can play in the creation of a more environmentally conscious culture.

If we are to tackle climate change, a good place to start would be in convincing designers to be prepared to bring their strengths as creative thinkers—and makers—across the aisle to work with natural and social scientists. An immediate challenge for academic institutions is to provide opportunities for students to use their design thinking skills as members of interdisciplinary teams working on real environmental and social problems. We need to shift how we educate designers so they don’t think of themselves as artists for hire but as informed and empowered creative forces working for the greater good. And students need to learn to be proactive about finding or creating situations where they can put their knowledge, skills, and values into practice.

Design educators aren’t entirely turning a blind eye to the problem. There's the recent collaboration between Adobe and the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), “Defining the Designer of 2015.” But the main problem remains: Most communication design jobs are not Earth sustaining, and certainly not the most lucrative ones. The Obama Administration may be supporting a strong team of climate change communicators (in addition to the NCA report there's the Climate Action Plan website, which includes an innovative challenge calling on researchers and developers to create data-driven simulations of climate impacts). But for the most part, research scientists and policymakers don’t have the funding to attract and support the visualizers they need.

It has often been said that the image of Earth taken from Apollo 8 in 1968 launched the environmental movement. Now we have myriad technologies to visualize and communicate our planet’s vulnerability, and we're at a critical moment to do so. What will ultimately change minds and inspire us to take action? Will it be an app that predicts sea level rise, a jaw-dropping immersive visualization of hurricanes, a stunning graph, an interactive website, or a perfectly targeted public relations campaign? It will surely be a combination, and their effectiveness will depend on the designers' skills and intentions.