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What does it mean to design with a ‘planet-first’ mindset?

Simon Croft, Creative Director
Illustration of an orange planet and a pencil

Design as we know it has changed rapidly since we first opened our doors. Over the years, we welcomed bigger industry changes such as design systems and production sprints. We also enjoyed the arrival of tech-based evolution such as responsive mobile design and variable fonts.

But in more recent years, we’ve been so excited to see the rise and rise of sustainable design. What began as using fewer inks in large format work or printing ‘duplex’, has now matured into a globally accepted movement of planet-first product design that transcends the modern web.

What is sustainable digital design?

It’s really not too different from sustainable physical design. In the same way that manufacturers are using greener materials or cleaner processes to make products, designers of all kinds are thinking about the impact that digital products have on the planet.

This mindset is now being applied by designers and developers alike to many parts of a digital product, from the programming language used to build it, through to the servers where it’s hosted. We’re going to look at a number of planet-first practices that we use with our clients, and why they’re important. We’ll also debunk a few myths along the way.

Adopting a planet-first mindset

Engage the right kind of agency

It sounds kind of obvious, but step one is to make sure your design partner or creative agency are walking the walk. Sustainable design is more than just dark mode (more on that later) and there is a danger of some businesses promising ‘eco’ services but not delivering.

Challenge yourself – can you ditch the ‘physical’?

Roller banners, leaflets, catalogues, handouts… whilst you can make extra effort to use recycled materials, they still must be manufactured, transported, disposed of and recycled. This all comes at a cost. Ask yourself, can we make this digital?

Platforms and processes

Maybe your website is built on a legacy platform, or perhaps is just too darn big. Radically reducing the footprint of your website can not only improve its carbon footprint, but can also improve the user experience. That’s right. A better user experience is part of the planet-first mindset. A good informational hierarchy combined with a lightweight site and concise content will help users find what they want and faster. This means fewer page loads and ultimately less Googling (other search engines are available).

Think about programming languages

Did you know that some programming languages are more energy efficient than others? This comes down to how they access and load data. For instance, Python and Ruby typically consume a lot more energy than more efficient languages such as Go or C#.

Go for green when it comes to hosting

It’s no secret that data centres are power hungry. Even with the most energy efficient website in the world, it all goes to waste if you’re not using green hosting. We use green hosting with all of our clients (and our own site too).

Design with accessibility in mind

This is an interesting angle because you’re solving two problems at once. Accessible design, by nature, is clean and easy to use. This means that by building a website that is easily accessible by anyone with a disability, which should be the case anyway, you are already a step ahead when it comes to sustainable design.

Optimise your images

Photographs, despite being jpgs, can be cumbersome. Rather than uploading a 2MB header image, or a page full of 1MB images, ensure that you optimise your site’s content. With photos, this is simply a case of compression. Don’t be afraid to save images at 60-70% quality or explore more efficient formats such as webp.

Use video sparingly

This is a difficult one to balance, as video is now king when it comes to content. That said, a homepage video that autoplays is at the very least a little annoying. Not to mention the bandwidth, space and energy it requires to play. Use video sparingly, use a compressed format such as H264, and keep your bitrate and resolution at a sensible level.

Use motion as a signpost

We love to introduce subtle animation to a project. It certainly has its place, and can elevate a brand or improve usability. But go easy. Motion can be browser intensive, and for that reason, we like to use it subtly – as more of a signpost or a design flourish. Check out our recent blog that talks more about this.

What about dark mode?

Remember in the noughties when a handful of websites introduced a little toggle that allowed you to invert the website? You could be forgiven for assuming that it was an early sign of sustainable web design. Sadly not. Darker websites only benefit more recently introduced OLED screens. A darker site on an LCD device will still use the same amount of energy.

Any other myths we can debunk? There are a couple that come to mind.

“Sustainable design is expensive.”

This is a common misconception. Sustainable design is not a luxury service. In fact, sustainable design is really just good design. It shouldn’t add days or weeks to a project. A good agency (hey, that’s us) will already be baking dozens of sustainable design practices into their existing workflows.

“Sustainable design is limiting.”

Again, untrue. Sustainable design and accessible design share many commonalities, and that’s to present information in a way that is clear, concise, and can be consumed by anyone regardless of their requirements. Take a look at our portfolio or any number of sustainable website showcases and you’ll soon see that sustainable design can look great, if not better.

“I don’t want my brand to look ‘eco’.”

You don’t have to change your brand to be sustainable. You certainly don’t have to make everything green. One thing that is important to change is other areas of your business away from your website, brand or product. A sustainable digital mindset is great, but let’s see that planet-first approach across your company on a physical and cultural level.

Anything else I can do?

If you’re new to sustainable design, this might be a lot to take on board. And that’s okay. Take it one step at a time. If you’ve already adopted a planet-first mindset with your brand, what else can you do? Now would be a good time to think about additional steps you can take as a business.

This might be joining a local ESG group (that stands for environment, sustainability and governance), in which you can hold one another accountable for ongoing actions in making your business more sustainable.

You can also look into measurement. By signing up to a carbon measurement service, such as Giki, you’re able to get an understanding of how much carbon your business is using, from your office’s energy consumption to your employees’ work commutes, if any!

Once you’ve looked at measurement, it’s time to offset. Whilst offsetting is not the answer, it is a trusted way to reintroduce oxygen into the environment through activities such as tree planting. Organisations like Ecologi make this very easy.

Hopefully this gives you some insight into what it means to be ‘planet first’. You don’t have to make your website black, or ditch all the fun parts of your online brand. But there are some key and crucial steps that you can take to reduce your digital carbon footprint. It’s a journey that’s fun and insightful, not tedious or onerous. We’re on our own journey of sustainable discovery too, and there’s always something new to learn.

If you want your brand to be more carbon conscious, talk to us. We’d love to help.

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