OK. Because Lebowski sort of asked me and just because - here at Noisy Decent Graphics we are going to run a little seriesette of posts about Sustainability In Design.
Here's the first problem. Since last year I've been collecting stuff for the first sustainability post. Links, images, quotes etc. But I've now got too much.
When I write, I often save a number of random thoughts in the drafts folder until one day something happens that pulls all those strands together and then I unleash that post.
I've been doing that with Sustainability but I've got so much stuff there's no way it will ever form one post. So instead, I'm just going to fire all these random thoughts at you, at random. Some will be like half-posts, some will be like two-posts-in-one. You'll get the hang of it.
Here's problem number two. Normally a post (or an article or a story or an argument) has a beginning, a middle and an end. If you've ever tried writing about sustainability you'll quickly find that there is no end. There are no answers. I can't complain about over zealous packaging and then come to a neat conclusion. There are no conclusions. Some of the greatest minds of our time are trying to find answers, so I wouldn't worry too much, just expect a few posts that don't wrap up quite so neatly.
Problem number three. Please note that sustainability does not mean painting everything green and walking to work on your hands humming Tubular Bells. Sustainability means, well, being sustainable. Taking and giving in equal measure.
Now we've cleared all that up, here's rambling answerless half-post number one.
Ladies and Gentlemen meet Lightning McQueen.
Lightning (as you may already know) is a branded, co-promoted child's toy. The picture above is what he looks like in the box. He looks good doesn't he? And that's the point.
You see the primary function of packaging these days is as a sales channel. Here's Will Awdry, CD at Ogilvy, talking in the new book about Innocent Drinks, "Innocent has shown that the heavy lifting of marketing communication can be carried out in hand-to-hand combat in the chiller cabinet". No one would dispute that. He goes on to say that Innocent sell through the packaging first and the TV last. We won't debate that here, but you get the point. Packaging is important.
That box has too look great. It has to catch the eye in zero seconds and shift units.
Here's Lightning out of the box. Looks good, goes like a dream. I especially recommend using it on a shiny floor.
Recently the Independent have been running a campaign to reduce packaging. I support the campaign and it's great to see a national newspaper taking this up.
Isn't that example fucking ridiculous? It also answers Lebowski's question perfectly. No, there is no better packing than that which nature devised herself. As so often, nature wins.
But nature won't packaging Lightning for us, and swedes don't really have complicated messages that need to be communicated across several territories. Below is all the packaging for Lightning laid out on the floor.
And here's the same photo but with the actual product in the shot.
Doesn't the car look very small compared to the packaging?
The Independent have asked readers to send in examples of unnecessary packaging and they promised they would take the complaints to the retailers, mainly supermarkets. As you'd expect they were inundated with examples. And then, about a week into the campaign, they received this letter from Craig who runs a Garden Centre in Nottingham. Here's some highlights.
"I run a garden centre in Nottingham and the demands from customers for packaging are enormous. People request boxes for items which do not even come in boxes. Any even slightly damaged packaging will render a product unsaleable. Customers are frequently affronted when my staff ask them if they require bags, as if we are trying to save a few pennies at their expense. And unless products come in glossy boxes with pretty pictures on them, they are fundamentally useless to the retailer because they have no chance of selling.
One only has to look at the success of supermarket "Finest" or "Taste the Difference" ranges to understand that customers are demanding more, better and more sophisticated packaging. Manufacturers have to make products that sell, and customers are forcing the issue by overwhelmingly choosing to buy those products which have excessive packaging."
Hmmm, he's got a valid point hasn't he? Is it a little naive to just expect manufacturers, retails and designers to reduce the packaging? I'll buy a swede in it's natural skin, but would I have bought Lightning in "even slightly damaged packaging" or is the product rendered "unsaleable"?
So what can we do? Well yes, certainly designers have a responsibility to promote solutions that use less packaging. We should all be actively doing that. People need to be cleverer about all that. Much cleverer.
Recycling will help, definitely. Below is a picture of one of two bags of cardboard from a recent kids birthday party. Isn't it a little odd that the packaging is twice as big as the person whose birthday we were celebrating?
I took that bag to our local tip to be recycled.
Can't write this without mentioning the Innocent corn bottle which is a brilliant innovation. Product of the year and package of the year awards must surely follow. What I've always like about Innocent's packaging is that they used to say, 'this bottle is 25% recyclable, we're working on the rest' and then it was 50% and now they've cracked 100%. I doubt that many companies would be that dedicated. The 'we're working on it' bit is really important.
The other morning I was listening to Radio 4, very early. They interviewed some waste expert who basically said that Britain wasn't well equiped for recycling. The council waste facilities weren't designed for recycling (obviously) and the public didn't really know what they could and couldn't recycle. It doesn't help that it varies from council to council. Here's our friend from the garden centre again.
"Even more important is to tackle the appalling record on recycling of our councils. I live in Nottingham city and get one general waste wheelie bin. When, as a business, we tried to look at ways of separating our waste and recycling things like plastic carry trays etc, we discovered that we did not generate large enough quantities to interest any commercial companies. By far and away the most cost-effective way to dispose of everything is to chuck it all into one big general-purpose skip"
Does that sound familiar?
The interviewer on Radio 4 said surely kids understood the importance of recycling and that eventually everyone will do it naturally. The waste guy said that kids were brilliant at recycling until they became 14 then they totally lost interest. He also said that he got plenty of "Guardian readers" recycling but the general public were really confused.
And somethings we can't recycle. But it's not just about recycling, it's about using less stuff in the first place. How long have you had your kettle at home? And your toaster? I bet you can count the years on the fingers of one hand. There was a brilliant discussion on Radio 2 the other day about how we don't repair anything anymore. When was the last time you had anything repaired?
And there's a fantastic article in The Guardian about how our Grandparents kept stuff for ages and ages and ages. They reused because they had to, not because it was trendy. One toaster would last them a lifetime.
"Yet what best exemplified this habit of do-it-yourself recycling (a term that didn't exist in those days) was what my father-in-law did with old shoes. When at last they reached the stage where he had to accept that further repairs were impossible, he would carefully clip out the tongues, and store them in the appropriate place in the garage. These tongues were made of strong leather, and that, he liked to explain, would come in useful one day for making hinges"
Please read the article, it sums up a lot about how I feel about waste. It's not just the obvious things like packaging, it's everything.
" 'Well, at least he enjoys his food. There's never anything left on his plate.' But that too was part of the culture. To leave food that someone had grown and someone else had prepared, and which in wartime might have been brought to Britain by sailors risking their lives to deliver it, was unthinkable."
One thing that really annoys me is the way society has accepted the built in obsolescence of so many products these days. That's one thing designers can help reduce. Over to you, Mr Ive.
Surely we all know that it's better to Reduce, Reuse and then Recycle.
Reusing the delivery box from Able & Cole. You see, that's dead easy isn't it?
We recycle a lot in our house. Paper, cardboard, plastic, tin, batteries, glass and we've even got a compost thing. The picture above is Lightning's box in the cardboard skip at the tip, where it will soon be taken away for recycling.
What have we learnt? We need packaging. There is too much packaging, way too much. Designers can help reduce packaging. We should all recycle, but recycling is hard.
So that's the end of the first Sustainability In Design post. No answers, even more questions. I hope that at least sets the scene for this series.
Ben, this seems like an appropriate place to recommend
John Thackara: http://www.doorsofperception.com/
Posted by: Jeff Gill | Feb 04, 2007 at 23:44
Fantastic post and very helpful.
The bit about toaster and kettles made me think about the role of great industrial design in cracking this problem.
About 14 years ago I got given an Alessi kettle and a Dualit toaster, because I was young and liked having lovely things around me. They were expensive and rather indulgent - the sort of thing youd expect a wannabe ad man to kit his flat out with in the early '90s.
But 14 years on and two kids later they are still our kettle and toaster. The Bird shaped whistle from the kettle is toast and the timer on the toaster sometimes gets stuck. But they still work.
In part because they were well made and in part because they are very simple. There is nothing to go wrong with the kettle and nothing complicated about the toaster.
Where perhaps we are tempted to consider good design marginal to the task of reducing our carbon footprint, its clear that the better designed the stuff around us the less likely we are to need to replace it every 18 months.
Posted by: richard | Feb 05, 2007 at 09:04
As part of my commitment to sustainability I'm going to re-cycle your ideas and use them again.
I'm even going to claim some as my own.
Here's my favourite example of being green - http://www.buildagreenbakery.com/ - a cool little neighbourhood bakery in NYC. Hopefully there will be more and more shops like this going forward.
Oh, and did I mention that emeco chairs - http://www.emeco.net/ - a design classic no less - make chairs that last 150 years. How's that for sustainability? So being green doesn't have to come at the expense of good design.
Posted by: Lebowski | Feb 05, 2007 at 11:19
This feels like sustainability day. Wonderful essay! I love the examples. Here in Orlando, FL, I haven't lived in one place yet that offers recycling. That really urks me. I know it's available in some parts, but that's just sad. Not to mention the amount of waste I see pouring out of the public trash bins. The hardest thing to change is a person's idea that waste doesn't matter. If everybody cared, many things would change.
Currently I'm working on a personal design project focusing on the idea of green. I feel we're still in the "hippie" era of green. Too many people relate it to beards, sandles, and tie-dyes. We need to take the color out of the name, and replace it with the idea of sustainability.
Posted by: Blake | Feb 05, 2007 at 13:42
I lived in Berkeley California for 10 years where I shopped at the Berkeley Bowl, a fantastic, large (it was built in an old bowling alley), market where fresh food was stacked in bins instead of packaging. When I left Berkeley, I was struck by the prevalence of bright blue in most other supermarkets, a color that has nothing to do with actual food and everything to do with the incredible amount of packaging it gets wrapped in.
Posted by: Jeffre Jackson | Feb 11, 2007 at 14:50
In an effort to design responsibly with an eye on the future of my unborne children I have been following up on your idea).
First up I have no affiliations with FontFont, but thought that they have an interesting point about saving paper; their MT font (by Mr E. Spiekermann) claims to use less space, thereby less paper than other typefaces, despite not being a condensed version. That said, maybe one ought to just use condensed versions and save a twig...
Posted by: Caspian | Apr 12, 2007 at 12:40
Small thing, I know, but you showed two different Mcqeen products. Not sure what the intent was but the first one has no remote and does basically fill the box (my g/f's son has got one). The second one comes with a remote and so the packaging is bigger to accomodate this. Mcqeen appears to be smaller next to the open box, as you've placed the attention on Mcqeen and the box, and diverted it from the remote that was also in the box.
If you're going to use an item to demonstrate an argument, keep it consistant.
However, the box doesn't just provide protection, it also provides a better way to physically display the product: a whole bunch of shrink-wrapped cars won't actually stack on the toy-store shelf. It also keeps all the relevant items together: Mcqeen, the remote, the instructions and batteries (if included), again not something that can be achieved with a lesser form of packaging.
Posted by: Rainbow-Fire² | Aug 15, 2007 at 00:57
Rainbow-Fire2 - the toy store shelf is exactly the bit we should be rethinking and redesigning. Do we need to see a product in a flashy box to buy it?
Should we invent a better method of buying things that means we just go the shop to pick stuff up?
Do we have some kind of generic reusable packaging?
Posted by: Ben | Aug 16, 2007 at 15:57