What is Green Graphic Design?

by . June 19th, 2013

There are loads of designers out there that claim to be environmentally-conscious.

They tout that they use soy- and vegetable-based inks and print on recycled paper. The truth is, however, that anyone can do that. There’s no question that these efforts are a great first step when it comes to making a design more sustainable but I like to think “green graphic design” goes a few steps further.

Green the Approach


The Green Approach

Let’s start by thinking about the “after-life” of a project; before we begin the design phase it’s essential to rethink the overall marketing method. If the job calls for sending a direct mail piece, is it destined to end up in a landfill? Can we mail a piece that prospects will want to keep, hang in their cubicle (which is regular visibility for the client’s brand), pass along or reuse? By doing so, we can keep promotional materials out of the trash and gain more face-time with intended customers.

Does the client’s budget only allow for something the size of a postcard? There’s nothing wrong with sending out e-mail blasts instead. In fact, this can save the target audience a few steps. Inviting them to “click here” from an e-newsletter to visit a website is far easier than telling the prospect to visit a site online by typing in the web address manually. If the e-blast is packed with insightful and helpful information, the recipient is likely to hang onto the piece for reference later on, thus giving the client’s business another opportunity for face-time.

Printing on the Light-Side


Printing On The Light Side

Water-, soy- and veggie-based inks are by far better than their petroleum-based counterparts. But when it comes time for the paper to be recycled, those dyes still have to go somewhere. A graphic designer who keeps the environment in mind thinks about minimal ink coverage when working.

Embracing white space as part of the design, avoiding full-bleed printing, and knowing which Pantone colors are on the EPA’s watch-list for hazardous compounds are all eco-conscious ways to use color while balancing sustainability. It’s wise to employ standard paper sizes when possible (8.5×11″, 24×36″ etc.) and work within those dimensions to avoid oddly-sized materials with lots of paper scrap waste. This will not only reduce ink coverage but paper costs as well.

Paper Selection


Paper Selection

Recycled paper comes from two categories: pre-consumer waste and post-consumer waste. Let’s say you’ve found a gorgeous paper stock that says it’s 100% post-consumer paper. It’s a bright white shade of paper–so bright, in fact, that there appears to be no difference between the recycled paper and the virgin fiber paper. Truth be told, there’s more to paper than just the recycled content when it comes to sustainability.

Once pre- and post-consumer papers have been gathered for recycling they go through a de-inking process. This process removes any inks/dyes in the paper so it’s ready for re-use. With this in mind, toxic matter is left behind in landfills often including those toxic inks, chemicals, staples and other inorganic matter. These impurities then leak into water systems and can even pollute our air.

In 1998 the EPA set a deadline for paper mills, stating that all U.S. mills should have non-detectable levels of dioxin. While some paper companies have moved to bleaching processes that utilize alternatives to chlorine (such as hydrogen peroxide), others have made great efforts to be completely chlorine free. There are three levels of chlorine-free processes and knowing these and their effects on the environment is essential to creating a sustainable piece.

Printing Methods


Printing Methods

Among many other components of the design process that affect the environment, the last one I’ll share here is with regard to printing. Environmentally conscious designers know that letterpress, dryography, digital printing and flexography are all printing technologies that emit the least amount of harm. While they vary from one another, each of these options delivers more control over paper waste, has the ability to use petroleum-free inks and offers drying methods that are less hazardous to staff and to the environment.


About the Author

Angela Ferraro-Fanning is an award-winning designer who owns and operates 1331 Design LLC, an eco-friendly graphic and website design business, out of New Jersey. She specializes in working with successful entrepreneurs to design identities that accurately reflect their business while speaking to their intended customer and firmly believes that remarkable graphic design stems from unobstructed, one-on-one relationships between designer and client.