GDC Pro Webinar: Design for Climate Change

When we think about the outcomes of our work, we think about the client end result. This discussion considers bringing new thinking to the results we produce as designers that reflect our responsibility to the planet.

Below is a Q/A session in response to the greate questions we received during and after the webinar:

1) JW from Toronto: 

(a) In the context of the need for global solutions and massive systems change, what are the limitations of graphic/communications design?

Valerie Elliott: I don’t think there are many limitations to communications design. The application of visual communication seems endless to me. Part of massive systems change is the need to change behaviours and since almost three quarters of us learn in a visual way, our work will be instrumental in helping us move towards thinking differently. 

Our role in this is clear as has been shown in history for millennia, designers help make change by helping others envision the future. We “paint” the picture of a different world, as do filmmakers, writers and other creatives. Collectively we play an important role in removing fears and barriers to change.

Alex Quinto:Graphic design or communication design has traditionally been an extension of an arts-based practice. Most universities that first taught graphic design in the last century did so within their art faculties.

What we've learned in the last few decades is that the design field is not only a professional field but an actual field of inquiry through which new knowledge can be created. It is now common for universities to offer postgraduate and PhD programs not only in visual communication, but also in design innovation. Designers can now offer a broader set of valuable skills for businesses and civic organizations alike, informed by other disciplines like anthropology or information technology. Innovation firms like IDEO, or frog design offer design-based services that are more valuable than conventional visual communication design services. 

The design methodologies used to ideate and prototype are now applied to business innovation and the creation of new services in different industries.

(b) How do you see our design discipline connecting to other disciplines?

Valerie Elliott: We’ve been sharing collective space with other disciplines for some time. When the Web was first conceive, user interfaces were “designed” by programmers, those who had coding skills. Once code became more accessible, visionaries like Steve Jobs and other designers took the Web to another level, making a capital G user interface design practicable.

Today we see a continuation as technologies, materials and even new strategic approaches are launched. Graphic designers are involved in architecture, industrial design, environmental design and much more. Perhaps more importantly, designers of various disciplines are working collectively and blurring the lines of traditional design boundaries. I imagine much more of this in future and encourage students of design to explore the work in other disciplines so they understand the possible opportunities for learning.

2) AD from Montreal, QC: (a) Is there a resource for graphic designers describing what communication materials are more sustainable than others? A website, chart, table, blog, etc…?

Valerie Elliott: The development rate of materials and technologies is fast. It’s difficult for anyone to maintain a database especially since we don’t have policies or regulations that require submission of data about products.

 I’m sure your wish is shared by many for a resource that help us make the right decisions including me. The challenge with sustainability is that it requires considering each unique case or application. Whether you are considering web or print, shipping by ship or rail, buying a Canadian-made paper or US-made paper, the answer lies in subsequent questions.

With that said, there are many tools to help in this process. I’d suggest to start at the GDC Best Practices. Another great resource is Jennifer Nichols’ article on redesigning the design brief.

Then you’ll want to dig deeper into some GDC sustainability case studies and articles 

Other tools you will find helpful include:

  • Okala – a design resource book valuing the natural environment
  • AIGA’s Living Principles – our US counterpart for sustainable communication design
  • Ideo Scorecard – a basic scorecard to begin analyzing your work
  • GreenBlue – a particularly valuable resource for packaging design projects

Our prescient nature at GDC Sustainability suggests that we will see a significant increase in the development of tools in the coming year as designers demand more resources.

Alex Quinto: One of the key materials used by graphic designers is paper. The FSC council has a good list of certified paper producers and printers.

3) LH from Nanaimo, BC: Where do you feel the biggest impact that designers can have? I feel like a lot of people get hung up on the 'low hanging fruit' (i.e. office paper use, personal energy reductions, using transit, etc.)

Valerie Elliott: One of the most significant impacts a designer can have is their choice of clients, and therefore the strategic approach itself. When clients consider more than the economic outcomes, they become part of a new culture of business, one that will value balancing the quadruple bottom line pillars of social, cultural, economic and environmental. When company culture reflects the changing demands of stakeholders, they themselves are better positioned for future business. The companies who are willing to adapt and innovate are the companies that survive. 

While we may not have the luxury of choosing our clients, when we focus our energies on clients who have a sustainable mandate, we increase our market visibility and we support the changing marketplace. A case study or two in our portfolios makes it easier for us to show relevance for today’s RFP requirements.

I’d also be happy to see everyone tackling the low hanging fruit to make sure we have made the minimum effort to reduce our impacts, and its a great inspiration to go further once you’ve achieved them.

Alex Quinto: I think design methodologies applied to social/environmental challenges is one of the best ways to leverage design skills to achieve the most positive impact. We can design with less harmful materials like paper from well-managed forests. That has a good impact but we can also design objects, services and systems that have greater impact. 

4) TK from Victoria, BC: What are the questions or conversations you personally recommend having (around sustainability) when working with large-organizations-type-clients who are often bound by red tape?

Valerie Elliott: Hopefully the culture of bureaucracy will also begin to diminish. Its reduction is part of a sustainable organization’s strategy. In the meantime, I know that large organizations currently have a lot of red tape. There is little focus on sustainability and it is not a priority and won’t be until design becomes more regulated. There are efforts in Germany and other countries to legislate how we design.

Barriers invite opportunity if you seek to focus your conversations around the benefits that can be seen with sustainable practices. Design of all audiences may be desirable, and even notable. That might include design for low literacy and understanding, design for those who may have visual challenges such as colour blindness. While audio is not normally used as primary navigation, ensuring those with hearing disabilities have options can help.

Those who want to be seen as progressive leaders, whether they are a district manager, executive director or a deputy minister, seek out opportunities to promote themselves. Sustainable solutions can provide opportunities for promotion and outcomes reporting.

Sometimes your best chance is to target the good old bottom line. I haven’t run into a situation yet where an individual doesn’t welcome ideas on how to reduce costs. Some fuel for the proverbial fire might include the fact that storing excessive overprint quantities requires inventorying, heating, space resources and delivery costs or that reducing document size might allow other variables on the project that might otherwise be beyond budget.

Take a look at articles (link: for factual information to help in your conversations. I suggest the article Making Sustainability Make Cents (link: as a good start. 

And please keep this dialogue going. If you need a resource that the GDC doesn’t currently provide, please let us know so we can work that into our strategy. Sustainable communication design isn’t something we create in a silo.

Alex Quinto: The business case for sustainability is probably the most convincing talking point we can start with. As designers we need to learn the business language in order to have an influence in the decisions taken by organizations. Sustainable initiatives do not have to exclude profit. 

5) RZ from Edmonton, Alberta: Have you worked in any social innovation projects?

Valerie Elliott: I’ve worked on quite a number of social innovation projects. I’ve worked to help students reach other students in sharing UN values of the child and I’ve worked on a home innovation material that may completely change the way houses are built in future (still in development and proprietary). I’ve worked on a proposed concept to consolidate all city transportation into a mobility pass, and of course, helped to develop the ico-D Sustainability Standard that will be a valuable tool for designers worldwide.

I’ve developed self-branding tools to assist people in finding their uniqueness and focus, bringing this into the school system and reaching youth who struggle to “fit in.” 

Project strategies are important to me. This is where the real magic of sustainability happens! Working for not-for-profits is something that makes me feel like my day is also connecting with my personal values.

Alex Quinto: One of the social innovation projects that I've worked on was a project called the Now House Project, which involved the design of a zero-energy retrofit for a wartime house in Toronto, along with the design of a community driven approach to reduce energy use in a Toronto neighborhood. Currently I'm involved in the design of a social responsibility initiative for a food company in Mexico.

6) LP from Vancouver, BC: Would it be possible to get a written list of the books and projects that we are being shown images of? 

Valerie Elliott: Some of the books are on The projects I feature in my presentations change each time as technologies change and new examples become available. I’ll see if I can consolidate these into some format for the website in the coming weeks, perhaps as inspiration for the new year.

7) RZ from Edmonton, Alberta: How would you incorporate climate change design into the design curricula?

Valerie Elliott: It’s important to recognize and quantify the impact our work has. This begins the process so that strategies can be developed to lower or eliminate impacts. 

Defining values is another step in the process. When we define our values we can be clearer on what is most important to us. Interestingly, these also apply to our own personal sustainability.

Alex Quinto: For visual communication curricula I would love to see students handle data-driven projects that visualize climate change issues, perhaps maps, charts, or the like.

For more systems-based thinking, I would assign students to design a new sustainable service. For example, designing a tool-sharing service for a neighbourhood. By articulating and visualizing the complexities of such a service, they would understand the implications of a sustainable design at a larger scale, beyond the conventional graphic design object (book, poster, and the like).

8) CH from Victoria, BC: What are the four pillars of the quadruple bottom line?

Valerie Elliott & Alex Quinto: Social, cultural, environmental and economic.

9) RZ from Edmonton, Alberta: Does climate change design mix in a sense industrial design and graphic design?

Valerie Elliott: “Climate change design” is something that will address a wide variety of possible practices. And absolutely, industrial and graphic design can go hand in hand. 

Industrial design is easier for us to understand at times yet communication design can address similar issues by helping our society move forward on social and cultural issues. Again, we see cross discipline work with communication designers working in tandem with industrial designers or interior designers and visa versa.

As I write this, an agreement has been signed in Paris at COP21. “Climate change design” will bring practices together to find solutions. Each of us has a role to play.

Alex Quinto: … both graphic and industrial design skills can be combined. I can imagine a literacy campaign designed by a graphic designer while the cart used to deliver books is designed by an industrial designer.

10) GC from Burnaby, BC: What can we, as individuals, do when we work as in-house corporate designers and don't have control over the final print decisions (paper, ink, shipping, etc.)

Valerie Elliott: This is a great and difficult question. This comes back to the question of need. What is the need that we can fulfill by providing a sustainable solution? Perhaps it is positioning the organization as an innovative and brave leader. As mentioned earlier, financial savings is a starting point.

Even when more costly, there an added communication benefit to the client to be able to make the claim that the piece is free of toxins (metallics, foils, etc.), uses only responsibly sourced fibres (Forest Stewardship Council certified for instance), or is bound in a creative way that eliminates having to guillotine spines in order to be easily recycled. Or perhaps it is paper that supports our Canadian economy. Don’t be shy, add that to the back of cover. Use the opportunity to communicate the organization’s values, or at least a value they make the organization noticeable.

Alex Quinto: We can always consider the externalities of our projects and consider doing something about them. For example, if a client doesn’t want to use an environment-friendly paper, we can always propose that they plant trees instead to offset the environmental impact. Regardless of the clients’ decisions, we can be proactive and support various organisations as volunteers. 

11) RZ from Edmonton, Alberta: How would you apply sustainable design into daily activities of an advertising agency?

Valerie Elliott: Everything is up for review! The communication between CEOs and staff are an example. Are the CEOs dictating solutions or are they using communication styles that invite new ideas? Are junior designers paid a living wage? Does the office have policies to reduce impacts (energy usage, recycling, etc)? If no, consider starting that process. Are there incentives to reduce staff impacts in getting to work? Is retention of staff solely based on the financial or are there other incentives? Other than the obvious energy efficiencies and labour policies, remember that sustainability can be the umbrella under which everything functions. The culture of an organization can be addressed. Social aspects such as health and safety can be addressed, as can the environmental and economic aspects.

Alex Quinto: In the material production of their projects: What choice of papers, finishes, energy sources are being used? In the topics or causes that the agency helps promote: Does the agency support the protection of rainforests? Or does it promote the consumption of consumer products? Does the agency donate a fraction of its profits to sustainable causes? Does the agency’s staff volunteer for nonprofit organisations?

12) LH from Nanaimo, BC: Didn't the reference to the cultural pillar come from AIGA Living Principles?

Valerie Elliott: While the cultural pillar is included with the Living Principles, the GDC definition that included this pillar came two years earlier in conversation with GDC stakeholders. This additional pillar was added because of indigenous-related issues as well as our multilingual and multicultural communities who expressed that they didn’t feel “social” addressed the issues of language, dance, and other artistic/cultural expressions.

13) DP from San Francisco, CA: Is ico-D the nexus for design associations to share approaches/principles to Design for Climate Change? Which is in fact bigger topic than sustainable communication design …

Valerie Elliott: ico-D links all our professional organizations and as such is a driver for change. This is why as the Sustainability Standard is being built. It includes not only sustainable communication design principles but also principles that align with industrial, interior, fashion and other design practices. Ico-D is an organization that supports cross discipline practices.

Alex Quinto: I believe that is one of the goals for ico-D.

14) AC from Dusseldorf, Germany: Do you think the Brandalism 600 ad takeover for the UN climate change talks in Paris were an effective project to get people talking about sustainable leadership, lifestyle and culture. Do you think design pranksters can play an important role in initiating dialogue?

Valerie Elliott: Simply put, design is a driver for change, sometimes even when uncomfortably so. While some tactics may be perceived as negative, much social change has occurred because of the actions of designers. I can think of myriad examples of design that has helped us to evolve, from political campaign posters to social activism.

Sustainable process means allowing diverse voices to be heard and that includes those of dissent. While Paris allowed us to be hopeful, for some it hasn’t gone far enough and they needed to express their frustration and make efforts to push us further and challenge our assumptions. Designers who challenge our perspectives are an essential component of the dialogue. I don’t find the Brandalism 600 to be negative. I find them an expression of where we are at and what might need to be fixed in order to move forward. Some of the claims of large companies sponsoring the talks to look like part of the solution may be valid. Is it time for us to consider the motives behind the investments of large companies? Each of us has to answer that question for ourselves.

Alex Quinto: I’m not fond of campaigns with subversive messages, but after all, they catch people’s attention and get people talking. The COP21 meetings in the end succeeded in getting all participants to join to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  

15) LC  from Vancouver, BC: Many books were flashed on the screen during the presentation. Is it possible to have a list of recommended books/websites about Sustainability posted in the follow up information for this webinar?

Valerie Elliott: Most of these books are on (link: 

If you find another book you think belongs here, please email (link: and let us know. The library list continues to grow!

16) GA from Victoria, BC: What do see as the political/economic changes required to support more sustainable practices?

Valerie Elliott: Business is a driver of our economy and it is always first on the mark to innovate. It has the capital and the mandate to pursue innovations. The business case for sustainability will continue to help drive change. In addition to this, governments at all levels, particularly the federal level need to affirm their commitments to what Canadian residents and business should aim for. Without this federal leadership, businesses will not be supported in their innovation efforts.

More specifically, governments need to increase the regulation of waste and pollution, driving innovation by requirement. Carbon taxation is also a strategy that many think is important in transitioning us to a greener economy, and while I am no economic expert, the act of increasing taxes on carbon polluters is bound to cause a change in practices.

Alex Quinto: We just saw all the COP21 countries that met in Paris this month come up with a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adopt renewable energy policies, and support developing countries with the required funds to mitigate the effects of climate change. That meeting will imply major changes in policies at national and local levels all over the world.