It’s important to build in sustainable thinking throughout a project’s development; not just at the end, when you’re trying to figure out how to get it made. Here are some tips for how to make your creative thinking a little greener, as well as some suggestions for talking to printers and fabricators once you are preparing your design for production.

ask your printer

  • What recycled materials are available to suit this project?

    If you’re talking paper, what’s even better than just recycled is post-consumer. “Recycled paper” can mean that a paper-making mill collects their own trimmings of virgin paper (100% trees) and puts them back in the paper-making machine to make what is essentially more virgin paper. Post-consumer content, on the other hand, means content that everyday consumers have used and have been diverted from landfill.

  • I don’t want to use PVC. What other alternatives do you have?

    PVC is a particularly nasty type of plastic which is extremely common in environmental graphics: banners, display boards and so forth. Many printers/suppliers now offer alternatives to PVC but keep demanding more options! Check out Smart Matter vs. Dumb Matter for details.

  • Do you use vegetable-based inks?

    Veggie-based inks are more and more common as an alternative to petroleum-based inks.

  • How can we minimize the amount of materials needed?

    For example using direct-to-substrate printing means that you can print ink directly onto all kinds of material, including plywood, metal, etc. This means that you don’t have to first print onto one material which is then glued/mounted to an additional material.

  • Can you advise me on material sheet sizes so that we can reduce off-cut waste?

    Rather than wait until a project is fully designed before talking to a printer or fabricator about getting it made, check with them first about available paper or material sizes; then you can design your work to suit rather than create a lot of waste. If the piece you need doesn’t completely fill up the sheet, often you can ‘gang up’ additional pieces of small artwork to fill the print sheet rather than just have it cut off and get thrown away.

  • I need this project to last X long. What sustainable materials can we use that are appropriate for that lifespan?

    Designing an exhibition out of cardboard might sound very ‘green’, but if it needs to last for a year, it just doesn’t make sense. If something needs to last, then use materials that are appropriate. This will minimize the need for re-printing and repairs, which are wasteful.

  • Parts of this may need to be updated later. How can we create it with that in mind?

    If a display or exhibition may need to be updated (and many do), then design with that in mind: use screws rather than glue so that panels can be replaced easily.

  • Do you source many of your materials from the Pacific NW? Or at least from the U.S.?

    The shorter distance they have to come, the less energy used and less pollution created.

  • Do you use local vendors?

    In addition to reducing energy and pollution, you can support your local economy. And what comes around goes around.

  • Do you have a sustainability policy?

    A printer/fabricator who has taken the time to get their own house in sustainable order is always a good sign. Get your own working space up to speed: print on both sides of the paper, buy recycled paper and sustainable products like rechargeable batteries, energy-saving bulbs. Spend a little extra on nice, well-made things that you’re likely to want to keep for a long time. They’ll pay off in the long run.

ask yourself

  • Can I minimize materials but maximize impact?

  • Can I reclaim existing materials to make it?

  • Can I make it with post-consumer recycled materials?

  • Can it be made with less toxic materials?

  • Can it be multi-functional?

  • Is the way that it is made appropriate for how long it has to last?

  • What is going to happen to it afterwards?

  • Do I really need all of it? What can I live without?

  • Can it inspire the audience to change their own behavior?

Printing is not always the evil option. Server farms that host our online creations can use up to 100 billion KwH of energy nationally.

Find out more here.

is online better?

No! For example, making one thing serve two purposes can save on costs and increase impact.

greener = spendier?

For more great tips on printing green, visit Lovely as a Tree. Though it’s UK-focused it’s full of useful information for any designer.

lovely as a...