Visual Communications for Sustainability



Arlene Birt (MDes) is an information designer who is dedicated to sharing the ‘visual stories’ of companies’ sustainable products and services. We recently caught up with her to discuss her career with Background Stories as well as her new Summer 2014 fully online course devoted to the subject of how to communicate sustainability stories, Visual Communications for Sustainability.

SDO: What spurred you to become a sustainable designer?

Arlene: I don’t know that I can ever feel comfortable calling myself a true ‘sustainable designer’, but I’m certainly always striving in that direction.

In my undergraduate studies, I followed interests in journalism, graphic design, and advertising. I then realized that I didn’t want to sell potato chips and soda for a living. So I became interested in pairing visuals with marketing principles to communicate the ‘background stories‘ of sustainability and I’ve followed that theme ever since.

LCA SystemMap_Pages from FINAL-Craig Johnson

SDO: Describe one of your favorite moments/projects as a sustainable designer.

Arlene: I’m fascinated by the way we, as consumers, are endlessly tied to the world through our daily purchases and actions. I enjoy bringing the stories behind products and places to life, and drawing connections between these products and the world around us.

The moment when someone, for the first time, understands a little bit more how the world is connected, and their own individual role in ‘the big picture’ – that is absolutely the best part for me. Through engaging visuals and interaction, I strive to create that moment in my work.

SDO: What is your class about and who is it for?

Arlene: The course, Visual Communications for Sustainability, looks at how to measure and communicate the full life cycle of a product to consumers through visual communication, storytelling, and information graphics.

In this course, we look at methods of communicating sustainability to consumers in an engaging, visual way in order to help people understand the sustainability (or lack thereof) of products, and establish a personal connection to products’ environmental impacts. Ecological accounting – or Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) – is a method of quantifying sustainability. Students will learn how to do a basic LCA by following products from material creation through manufacturing, use, and end-of-life all the while exploring design alternatives and documenting ecological impact. Students will then learn how to communicate the results of LCA to a lay audience through visually-invigorated life cycle ‘stories’. The study of information design and the development of visual communication is a key component of the course.

The course is for anyone with the ability to draw a stick figure and the desire to better understand and communicate product life cycles in terms of sustainability.

Koehler_W2 StoryofTote_wk2

SDO: What are the most important things you want students of your class to leave with?

Arlene: A good understanding of how sustainability can be measured in products and some info-design tools with which to visualize some of these measurements.

I want students to be able to craft visual stories of the life cycle data of a product; stories that will inspire people to understand how the product connects them to the world throughout the entire cradle-to-grave cycle of the product. By the end of the course, students will be able to create visual tools to educate a consumer audience on aspects of sustainability.

SDO: How do you imagine your students will apply what they learn in your class to their lives and/or jobs?

Arlene: Information design is a field that’s growing fast on its own. Pair that with an understanding of techniques for the ‘measurement’ of sustainability, and the ability to communicate complex sustainability information: it’s definitely a winning combination. Both for your career, and for the world.

Social and ecological issues are of growing importance on a global scale, and will continue to play an increasing role in business, consumer education and the future of our world. – so there’s no shortage of need for these skills.

SDO: In what ways do you apply this topic to your work?

Arlene: In my role as a visual storyteller, I focus on communicating sustainability for the companies I work with as well as public art projects. Understanding methods to measure sustainability is an important part of my work as it helps me to create visual stories that communicate complex social and ecological information to consumers in an approachable way. With background in design for sustainability, life cycles and system thinking, I also make sure that each company I work with can back up their claims to steer clear of greenwash.

SDO: What is one piece of advice that you’d give to a designer interested in sustainability?

Arlene: One step at a time. It can be tempting to feel an ‘all or nothing’ attitude when embarking upon a more sustainable work or lifestyle. Take your time and learn about the context in progress toward sustainability (or lack thereof) exists. A campaign to promote more sustainable products and services needs to be approachable in order to educate the population on what sustainability means, and help individuals grow toward it.

Think about some of the difference you can help make in every situation – and make it. Small changes do add up. Step by step. Learn as you go, and enjoy the process of discovery!

Images courtesy of students of MCAD’s MASD program: examples of student work from Noble Cumming, Craig Johnson and Stefanie Koehler.