In this article, Sandra shares some ideas and actions on sustainability in digital design.
Thinking back to my design education, I remember graphic design, learning about print and typography, layout systems, and web design. I remember sunny afternoons about ten years ago when I cut out cardboard for a board game I was designing with two friends. But I don’t have a single memory of any teacher, lecturer, or student ever asking, what’s the impact this has on the planet? And I didn’t ask this question either.
Then, I started working in tech, and my work had to be human-centered and visually pleasing. It had to be super-fast, and everything had to be so good that it got addictive; engagement was always the main metric for success. There was never a meeting where someone stopped and discussed the negative environmental impacts.
In early 2019, I was still relatively early in my tech career, but I had started on my climate journey and started with lifestyle changes; I had reduced my plastic consumption, I only traveled by train, and I went vegan to reduce my carbon emissions. At that point, I wasn’t aware that the concept of a personal carbon footprint was invented to blame people rather than companies and corporations. But at that time, I just wanted to optimize my life as much as possible, even making my tofu and toothpaste to avoid plastic packaging. I realized at some point that I spent a lot of hours at home making these changes, joining extinction, rebellion, protests, and climate marches when my biggest opportunity to make a difference might just be where I spend most of my time during the week at work.
But what does taking action and taking climate action look like, especially for someone like me, a Digital Designer in the tech industry? I started looking and researching and trying to find answers to these questions and looking for others who might want to take action as well. Through that journey, I found Climate Action Tech (CAT). Our mission at CAT is to seed climate action in companies, organizations, and industries. By supporting and guiding one another, we celebrate the change that comes from the bottom up. We believe that we can work together to change tech business culture to be better for people and the planet.
CAT is a Slack community that’s worldwide. We all come from a variety of different backgrounds. Some of us are just starting to learn about climate; others have been working in this space for decades. But what brings us together is this passion for doing better in our workplaces and our industry. We come together to learn, build on existing knowledge, share knowledge and work, ask questions, and have nuanced conversations. When I joined in 2019, I found this was not only a place where I finally learned about the climate impacts of digital design. It was also where I realized I wasn’t alone in caring about this. I started chatting on Slack and quickly got involved as a volunteer and later organizer for this lovely community.
I work as a designer in the tech industry for one of the world’s biggest tech companies, Microsoft. In my position and role, I have the freedom to think beyond business needs and the privilege of speaking up and probably not getting fired. So, by understanding my role and context, I started to understand my levers for change.
In 2019, I hadn’t heard anyone in the Microsoft design community talking or thinking about digital sustainability. That’s how I found my first thing to do: be loud and get people thinking. I did many internal presentations and workshops; I got involved with the internal sustainability community. In almost every leadership or town hall situation, I brought up climate as a question, which I still do today. I worked on hackathons in the climate space. I started to gain traction with this approach and other designers were interested in going deeper. That’s how we landed on the green design principles. This was conceived by a small group of passionate people getting together and thinking about what we could be doing.
Our first ideal goal was to create a scorecard similar to the accessibility scorecard internally at Microsoft to see how well your product ranks. We wanted to do something similar for climate; how well does your product or design rank in terms of climate? But back then, we lacked the data with active connections to the right engineers; we realized that the carbon emissions of different designs in different teams within Microsoft were not easily measurable. So, we focused on raising awareness first and looked outward to get inspired.
With our green design principles, we included a “Getting Started” backpack. This brings in concepts and things worth knowing before diving deeper into this topic of digital sustainability.
The first thing in the backpack is that the “climate crisis doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” It’s not just about carbon in the atmosphere. Climate change isn’t solely an environmental issue. It’s rooted in a web of ethical, political, and systemic issues, and many of these issues overlap with tech and design and how we do business. One highlight here is how business is often okay to harm faraway places or people if it means profit. Whether that’s extracting resources from communities without giving anything back or whether it’s exploiting user data. We can question whether this is the right approach to interacting with the world as businesses.
Similarly, the move fast and break things mentality in the tech industry is a pretty good indicator of it being okay to break things as long as it helps the company achieve its goals. All of this can feel overwhelming because it’s such big stuff. However understanding these intricacies can help determine where to change mindsets and working practices and how that might have ripple effects. Now, it’s hard to do all of that alone.
The second thing in our backpack is “big change starts small.” If 25% of people adopt a new social norm in a group, for example, at work, it can create an inflection point where everyone in the group follows. So, forming groups and pushing for change can have lasting impacts.
The third thing in our Getting Started backpack is that “talking about climate can be hard.” We are all the different points of understanding of the climate crisis. We need to be open to listening to one another and sharing what we know and what we’ve experienced as well. When it comes to convincing others in your team, your company leadership, or the wider tech industry, it can often help to figure out where the other person is, what they value, and how that might connect to the climate crisis. Having everything constantly in the doom and gloom scenario might not always be helpful. So how can you paint a picture with them and envision this new future together?
Lastly, digital is physical. Your work directly impacts the planet because digital services require physical infrastructure. All devices need electricity to run, which is still created by burning fossil fuels. Reducing electricity needs also means reducing fossil fuels at the moment.
Green design principles
Think bigger before you start – Here, we’ve two principles, “challenge the status quo” and “put care first.” You can use these things at the beginning of a project or when reevaluating a project; they are more high-level thinking. In challenging the status quo, we can ask ourselves who we work with and why we invest in certain projects. We can also ask, who is harmed and who is helped? What is the underlying purpose of this project? We can challenge our success metrics. What metrics are we basing success on? When we’ve challenged the status quo, what do we do? Instead of using the status quo as the thing to go down, we can put care first. This means interrogating power dynamics in your team and between your team members and users. It can also mean figuring out how your designs might impact humans and non-humans. This is a little bit trickier to do, but worth looking at. It also means that we should look after physical and mental health. We can also move away from the attention economy. So, not having people glued to their screens all the time might be healthier. We can set resource budgets and decide on the maximum energy we are happy to use for this project.
Build better by default – This one is more geared towards projects already running, and you want to build better. The first principle here is “optimized“. This is where a lot of goodness exists online and in books. We can simplify the UX to reduce page loads, remove visuals we don’t need, reduce file sizes, and store only what you need. A lot of these optimization techniques and actions can also help with longevity. It optimizes all the devices as well, which means that they can still run your code and run your website because it’s lightweight. That can increase the device’s longevity. Because at the moment a lot of devices are thrown away not because the hardware is broken, but because software doesn’t work anymore. Making software work for all devices has multiple benefits. Secondly, being transparent is about embedding awareness about the impact of digital devices in our designs. Lu Ye’s principle is about customization and providing options for different energy consumption modes. When renewable energy is abundant, you let the user pick a higher resolution, for example, or give them a richer experience. The last one is making things adaptable. This is about giving the user the choice and setting smart defaults.
There are a few next steps that you can take knowing all of that. Join climate action tech and use that as a resource to learn how it can make a difference and take those steps at work for some people who might be figuring out where you can speak up or grow in your craft. For others, it might be about advocating for influencing leaders and decision-makers.