Engaging (and sustainable) graphic communication helps Green Depot customers translate environmental research into educated building and life choices.
Green Depot’s founder, Sarah Beatty, opened her environmental living and building store on the Bowery in Manhattan to much fanfare in early 2009. As one New York Times reporter wrote, “A visit last week to Green Depot, an inspiring new store stocked with environmentally-sound home improvement supplies, greatly reduced my brain’s environmental guilt emissions.”
Amidst the food paints, soy concrete stains, and compost bins is an education in what it means to be green. Throughout the store, Green Depot’s “green filter” icons guide consumers through their product selection process by helping them examine their choices’ impacts on five green living and building criteria: conservation, air quality, buying local, energy use, and social responsibility. A simple but bold graphics system leverages Green Depot’s proprietary icons and reinforces the store’s educational mission, using primarily black and white to express the idea of straightforwardness and transparency. “The big Idea,” says graphic designer Lydia Turner (New York), “was simplicity, clarity, and explanation.”
Telling the green story
Beatty wanted to define how Green Depot sees “green,” giving shoppers a clear context for all the considerations involved. She also wanted to share the stories behind the individual products. ”Every product has a story—and a shared interest in creating something ‘better,’ ‘smarter.’ Whether it's insulation made out of denim offcuts or paint made from food-based ingredients, or lumber that is harvested from sustainably managed forests, cool stories of innovation are inspiring,” says Beatty.
Architect Colin Brice of Mapos LLC (New York) developed the store concept around a collection of what he calls “interactives”—informative stations that allow customers to benefit from the in-depth research done by Green Depot’s own advisory council. The council ensures that Green Depot offers high-performance products that are truly green and not just "greenwashed."
The retail space itself is a working example of re-use, adaptation, and sustainability. The building’s existing brick walls, wood-beamed ceiling, tile floors and columns, and stone lintels, for example, were restored and integrated with new building materials from Green Depot’s stock.
Mapos’ articulation of the space owes much to the graphic statements Turner was developing at the same time. “We were often in working sessions developing the materials and construction details of a certain fixture in conjunction with how Lydia was developing signage,” notes Brice. “Prime green principles were best communicated—and understood by the customer—by reinforcing the built work with graphics and vice versa.”
The store’s lighting booth, for example, uses bold graphics to show how low-energy light bulb options compare with traditional incandesecents, while demonstrating how their light quality affects different architectural finishes.
Green Depot’s icon system, designed by Dimitrious II (Brooklyn), was designed to illustrate product attributes at a glance, simplifying all the complex variables and trade-offs of sustainability, says Donald Franklin, Dimitrious II principal.
“The objective was to build a system where environmental concerns, lifestyle concerns, and building industry could exist in one conversation,” he says. “Sarah Beatty would say, ‘Make it ‘green’ accessible.’”
Steering clear of stereotypical “green” elements such as trees and sunny skies, the Dimitrious team wanted the icons to “open up a “direct and emotive conversation,” adds Franklin. Popular culture icon elements served as reference points, helping the designers “understand how society is communicating through simple, easily identifiable symbols.”
Shoppers are introduced to the icon system as soon as they enter the store. Oversized icons cut from 65% recycled-content sheet metal are mounted to an exposed brick wall immediately visible inside the entry. Throughout the store, updatable versions of the individual icons are printed on 5x7 or 8.5x11 kraft paper and slipped inside simple, re-usable acrylic frames. The kraft paper can be recycled when products are changed or descriptions are edited based on new research.
Behind the graphic expression of the icons lies the work of Jenny Gitlitz, Green Depot’s director of environmental assessment. Gitlitz developed and administers the Green Filter system, including the awarding of icons to new products.
Invention informed by frugality
Store graphics present fresh, inventive vehicles for sustainable messaging. A frugal selection of recycled and re-used objects reduced the need for sourcing new signage material, underscoring the store’s green mission. In the children’s section, stuffed penguin “signs” made of organic canvas were hand-sewn by Turner and artist Shabd Simon-Alexander and secured in place with salvaged weights from a flea market.
The familiar “Home Sweet Home” sentiment is playfully reinterpreted on an embroidered sampler featuring a Henry David Thoreau quote: “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” The embroidery is framed by a re-used junk store find. A desk made from a salvaged door and an old steel restaurant prep table (from Build it Green in Queens, the city’s only non-profit retail outlet for salvaged and surplus building materials), displays products.
Signage: material as message
Green Depot’s mission and message are reinforced in signage ranging from hanging chalkboards to recyclable product category signs made from cardboard boxes wrapped in kraft paper and stenciled with locally sourced, zero-VOC Ivy Coatings paint.
Three-dimensional letterforms used to spell out building construction terminology were made entirely from Green Depot materials by local art fabricator Jake Klotz. The words “insulate,” “skin,” “frame,” and “pour” are cut out of the same materials used in those product categories. “The “insulate” sign is made from radiant barrier insulation, cotton UltraTouch, Cel-pak (recycled newspapers), and Roxul mineral wool. The “skin” sign is cut from QuietWood sound-dampening plywood, low-emitting particleboard, and Advantech OSB. The “frame” sign is made from steel studs and FSC wood, while the “pour” is concrete containing reclaimed fly ash.
Andrea Lewen, senior account executive for project fabricator One Source Visual Marketing Solutions (New York) says the One Source team tested the environmentally preferable materials and methods Turner was interested in to make sure the print quality was good. One Source researched newly emerged materials and substrates as options if the test results were unsuccessful. “There was a lot of back and forth but we were all on the same page and trying to accomplish the same thing,” says Lewen.
Direct-to-substrate imaging was also used in store signage to minimize the materials used. Stenciled letters were painted on the walls using low-VOC Ivy Coatings paint, a local product. “Supporting local manufacturers is something Green Depot is very committed to,” says Beatty.
Gitlitz explains the store’s reluctant use of vinyl, due to its suspected toxicity. "There were a few cases where we reluctantly had to use PVC lettering on wall signs. We really did not want to, since we strive to exclude vinyl-containing products in the store, but the alternative materials we explored for those wall sites were technically infeasible. I felt that in these cases, an exception could be made because the total amount of material used was very small (at most, a few ounces of stenciled-letter PVC), and because it facilitated customer education about green in the best possible way.” Green Depot also relies heavily on the perspectives of non-profit environmental organizations that have collected and analyzed evidence about PVC, including the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, the Healthy Building Network, and the National Resource Defense Council.
Setting the bar higher
The Bowery store received the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum certification in early 2010. But Green Depot has its sights set even higher than achieving LEED’s top rating. The store maintains its own rigorous standards for vetting and communicating environmentally preferable building and living products. Five Green Depot Advisory Council members continue to inform the store’s inventory and messaging. Products undergo the store’s stringent Green Filter process before hitting the shelves. And the results of this layered vetting system continue to be translated into engaging, straightforward graphic communications. Environmentally preferable choices are accessible to anyone who steps off the street and into the store.
--By Naomi Pearson, segdDESIGN No. 28, 2010
Editor's note: Guest Editor Naomi Pearson is a designer, illustrator, and consultant living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She also works for the Wildlife Conservation Society's Exhibit and Graphic Arts Department in the Center for Global Conservation at the Bronx Zoo. She is a member of the SEGD Sustainability Forum.
Location: New York
Client: Green Depot
Mapos LLC (architecture, experience, and interior design): Colin Brice, Caleb Mulvena (principals in charge)
Dimitrious II (filter icons and Green Depot identity): Donald Franklin, Kareem Collie (principals in charge)
Lydia Turner (in-store graphics)
Consultants: Shine Engineering (MEP engineering), IDEA Engineering (structural engineering), Kinetix LLC (LEED consultant), Johnson Light Studio (lighting consultant)
Fabrication: One Source Visual Marketing Solutions (in-store graphics), MSD Visual (signage), MG Concepts (fixtures), Good News, Auburn Sun Corp. (3D letters), NYCT (general contractor)
Photos: As noted