Sustainability Insights for Environmental Graphic Design, Signage & Wayfinding: Key Takeaways & Resources

Read time: 6 minutes

Between natural disasters, the impact of natural resources and more, issues around sustainability are on the forefront of so many people’s minds. Sustainability concerns can also guide key decisions during complex design projects. Because of the issue’s importance and relevance to the field, on July 21, 2022, Peter Muller led SEGD members in a virtual discussion titled “Sustainability Insights for Environmental Graphic Design.” 

As the Design Resilience Leader for Gensler’s Brand Design practice area, Peter is responsible for sustainable brand design solutions, client advocacy, talent development, and environmentally responsible brand strategy. During his SEGD VOICES event, he shared best practices, case study examples, and actionable takeaways for practitioners seeking sustainable solutions for branded environments in the physical world. The webinar culminated in the key question: What can I do today to design more sustainably?  

The value in addressing and prioritizing this inquiry cannot be understated. Case in point: Peter’s presentation occurred in parallel with Europe and the U.K.’s record-breaking heat wave. 

It may feel as if there is not much we, as EGD and signage designers, can do to make a real difference. At times, such as with a traditional core and shell architecture scope for a major project, signage and experience design elements can feel undervalued — an afterthought required only to achieve occupancy. Instead, Peter argues the field is expressive, interactive, vibrant, and most importantly, strategically positioned to move you and your clients one step closer to achieving their sustainability goals. Our work has the opportunity to serve as a catalyst for change at a greater scale because we’re manageable, impactful, public-facing, and accessible. And, at its very core, the work of experiential designers demonstrates an outward expression of values. Peter explains that our signage and EGD elements have the ability to demonstrate your commitment to sustainability to your employees, clients, vendors, shareholders and customers.  

The first place to start is with the resources that are already publicly available. For healthy (human and environmental) material selection, Peter shared a few starting places to help you make more informed decisions.

  1. The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) publishes, manages, and governs the Living Building Challenge (LBC), the most forward-thinking and comprehensive “green” certification program in the built environment. They ask, “What does good look like?” Understanding ILFI’s philosophies and general certification requirements is a great place to start. Also, their Red List represents the 800+ “worst in class” materials, chemicals, and elements prevalent in the building products industry that are known to pose serious risks to humans and the environment. You can use The Red List  to vet the materials/products you are specifying.
  2. Similar to a nutritional label on the back of a cereal box, ILFI’s Declare Label allows you to more easily identify the contents of materials and products. Their Just label is also an amazing transparency tool for organizations. 
  3. The Health Product Declaration (HPD) is another way to analyze the health impact of a material. 
  4. The Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) discloses the carbon emissions, or Global Warming Potential (GWP), associated with individual materials. 

To demonstrate one way to use these resources, Peter offered an example of how Gensler uses them to advance both their clients’ and their own sustainability goals. His teammates developed an embodied carbon calculator that pulls in EPD/GWP data from a variety of their most commonly specified materials, adds them up, and compares them against a baseline. By swapping out different materials in real-time, Gensler design teams are enabled to quantitatively design the carbon out of their EGD and signage projects, identify a target for zero, and log metrics over time.

Gensler also is trying to find ways to improve processes through project-agnostic activities (without the pressure of a project schedule or budget), like hosting R&D sustainable materials workshops, where everyone can get together for a couple hours to experiment with new sustainable materials. This way, by the time a project comes online, we can hit the ground running and don’t need to rely on project resources to learn about new materials. The hope is for events like this to be educational, low-risk, casual and fun, and encourage the development of new muscle memory. 

These examples demonstrate what works for Gensler, though they might not be appropriate for everyone. Understanding that there is great variability between different firms and projects, we revisit our key question: What can I do today to design more sustainably?

Peter shared six action items to lead a more sustainable practice. 

  1. Evaluate your current processes, the materials you use, and your sustainability mission. Identify what works well and opportunities for improvement. 
  2. Set a sustainability goal (ex. 65% embodied carbon reductions in five years) and draft a road map to get there. Start with the best possible realization of a sustainable project, and work backwards to what is achievable. It is more effective to start from a best-case scenario than to start low and add more on top.
  3. Challenge your team, leadership, and clients to use different, more sustainable materials. Prototype and sample when necessary. 
  4. Gain buy-in from leadership. A grassroots effort can move the needle, and added support from leadership will advance a firm’s long-term commitment to change at a greater scale.
  5. Require fabricators, manufacturers, and vendors to provide EPDs, HPDs, and/or Declare Labels if they do not already disclose that information. We have the ability to shift the market!
  6. Start conversations, host eco-charrettes, and ideate with different stakeholders about everyone’s sustainability goals. Encourage everyone to join – designers, fabricators, product suppliers, manufacturers, general contractors, clients, and the general public. And be sure to invite Peter!  

Admittedly, successfully incorporating sustainable design practices into your existing workflows can be challenging because they might be different from what we’re used to. During his presentation, Peter shared, “I want to be very transparent that these are things that I and our Gensler teams think about, but it doesn’t [necessarily] happen every time. There’s always room for improvement. By exploring and talking about sustainability, we can encourage our industry at scale to start adopting these practices and build upon them. Then, we can all move the needle and encourage those in our sphere of influence to do better in our work and in our personal lives.” 

To conclude the webinar, Peter recommended the following websites, databases and written materials to aid an improved sustainability practice. Consider adding this list of resources to your reading list.