Workflow Tips for the Environmentally Conscious Designer

Make the world a better place with a few simple tips. Even graphic designers can help reduce our impact on the environment and ensure a future home on Earth.

Office supplies, electronics, art supplies… we can all do a better job of reducing our impact through conscious decision-making. If you don’t know where to start, here’s a handy guide for thinking about what we use, how to extend the life of our creative resources, and what to do if something loses its usefulness.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Ah, simplicity. In the ’70s, the tagline “Reduce, Reuse Recycle” became a slogan for promoting a new eco-consciousness. After decades of post-war, disposable meal packaging; cigarette butts; and fast food trash had littered the roadsides of the world, the average citizen was starting to take notice of the individual consequences of neglecting our environment.

Perhaps distilling a more thoughtful way of life from this simple, three-word mantra is all we need. It encompasses most of the approaches that I’ll discuss in this article. It’s a very direct way to contribute to the conservation effort.

Thinking About All Those Consumables

Even when we primarily use computers to produce final versions of our artwork, designers are still artists, and artists use a lot of consumable, disposable, (yet fortunately) recyclable media. Check out this list of items:

  • Printing paper
  • Printer ink cartridges
  • Pens and pencils
  • Notepads
  • Sketch pads/scrap paper

That’s just from looking around in a typical office. In our home offices or studios, we may be using a whole host of other consumable supplies. What is the solution?

First, think of how you can wring the most use out of any particular piece of “trash.” In the case of printing paper, perhaps you printed off a bunch of versions that, in physical form, don’t satisfy you. I’m guilty of this. When I’m designing something, I have to see it on physical paper to judge the relationships of the elements (or the readability) – or a host of variables that don’t translate on-screen. Is all that paper really trash?

I imagine that most graphic designers print one-sided 98 percent of the time – as opposed to double-sided printing. That means exactly half the paper we use for printing gets wasted.

To reduce this, use the back side for sketches or notes instead of buying a new notebook. Better yet, make your own notebook by collecting and binding leftovers in a spiral or with staples – or whatever other scrap supplies you have lying around. Cut them to size at random to introduce a haphazard design motif with the discarded print-outs on one side. You can also stack the pages to create a padded surface between your desk and your sketch – and use binder clips to hold the pages together for transporting to other surfaces.

Many printer and ink manufacturers offer cartridge recycling; some even offer a discount on new cartridges for turning old ones in. A cynic might think “That’s just so they don’t have to pay for more cartridges.” To that, I say, “Who cares?” For one thing, if the ink company were paying more, you’d no doubt see that fee passed onto you, so you’re saving yourself money. In keeping with the whole point of this article, if they’re making fewer cartridges by using the same ones more than once, that prevents waste and landfill accumulation. That’s covering Reuse and Recycle.

Those are a few ways to think about the office supply side of consumable media. For the more hands-on artistic types, there are plenty of ways to R, R, R. Perhaps you’ll throw out a tube of paint out before it’s totally spent. Hey, it happens. We get a new tube before we’re done, and the old one just sits there, wasted.

On the other hand, if you just can’t stand a paint-blotched, curled-up tube with a caked-up cap, you can donate it. Places that collect and redistribute art supplies are popping up all over. This goes for any supply you have. Pencils that aren’t tiny nubs are still useful pencils. Good art markers can be rehydrated – and sometimes re-tipped. Half-used sketch pads still have half a life left.

Get on your (not new but still fully functional) computer or phone, and search for places that accept art supply donations. Find an art teacher who would gladly accept free supplies. Or maybe a neighborhood kid can use them. The need is there; it just takes a little effort to find out how you can fill it with your old stuff.

Actual Lifespan of Electronics, and How to Deal with Dead Ones

Computer users get blasted by some of the heaviest marketing campaigns. Daily. Weekly. In the lead-up and during the release cycle – and then during the clearance sale to make room for the next release cycle. It’s incessant. Add smartphones, peripherals, Bluetooth headphones, speakers, tablets…

When you look at how many electronics get discarded before they are truly obsolete, it’s easy to see how mountains of still-good electronics accumulate. And most of them contain batteries that aren’t exactly what most would call safe for the environment.

There are ways to go about this that don’t cause such harm.

First Option

Read this article. It concerns several devices graphic designers use – and how to determine whether they’ve reached the end of their usefulness. Your generation-old laptop isn’t trash; it has proud battle scars marking your experience in the industry. It’s a trusted partner in the war against bad design. It carries stickers you can’t replace. Badges of honor.

Second Option

Assuming you’ve determined that you will, indeed, be upgrading, figure out if you can repurpose the old equipment. An old computer can easily become a dedicated music server. No matter how old the processor (even if it’s a 16-bit system in a 32-bit world), playing music files requires very little of a computer.

It’s the same with smartphones – use them as hard drives attached to your stereo. Or use them as dedicated games and social apps devices. This leaves your primary phone clean as a communication tool free of distraction.

You see where I’m going. One work computer doesn’t have to contain your entire life.

Third Option

Research responsible recycling or disposal methods for electronics. These will depend on the type of device – as well as the type of battery it carries. Most electronics have batteries, even if you don’t think they do. If it has a clock, it has a battery. If it has a computer (even the tiniest computer), it probably has a clock, which the computer relies on to save settings or processes…  which means it has a battery.

Explore your city’s website for information about electronics disposal – some programs will even pick the items up for you. For municipalities, dealing with battery waste later on is much more difficult (and expensive), so it’s in their interest to help you out up front.

Reverse Donate: Buy Used

Buying used is smart. As with donating, instead of throwing something in the landfill, you’re saving something from it – or, at least, prolonging its lifespan.

The more we keep using things that aren’t dead yet, the less stuff new stuff we create. Not to get all Lennonesque on you, but imagine this for a moment: instead of consumers succumbing en masse to the desperate psychological manipulation originating from manufacturers, saying we need their latest device, we all evaluate our things and say, “Nope, this is still just fine.”

The next time you donate a box of art supplies, or an old laptop, before you head to the big box electronics store for new equipment, maybe a more recent version of what you’re donating is available at that same resale shop. Maybe it’s on Craigslist, or at a used electronics shop. A little effort can save you a thousand bucks on a year-old (or a few-years-old) piece of equipment that is every bit as functional as a new one (at twice the cost).

There is incredible personal and global value in considering how much we waste for no reason. Even if something is branded as disposable, is it really? Is it okay how much of what we buy is designed to use once and discard? I don’t think it is, and our biggest power play is to vote with our dollars.

Consider the paint tube (from above) at a larger scale. Do we think we can just toss this planet out because a new one is on the shelf next to it? No. Now scale it down, and apply it to everything in your design life – and take comfort knowing that you are doing your part.

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