A new path: design and activism for climate justice

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I’m working on a book about graphic design activism and its intersection with the movement for climate justice. This below is a condensed version of what is shaping up to be the book’s introduction.

The thing is, I used to want to design typography. I had goals to create something that would outlast me, outlast my children, something that could be my legacy. I wanted to create designs that would allow me to leave something tangible in the future for my kids to point back to and identify as made in their memory. At the same time, I was working to bring back some typography that I had found from the 1870s and give it new longevity as a customized, modern, digital typeface that could have a chance at a new life. Instead, I found that any future that I was going to leave my creations to—and by this I mean both my children and my work—was going to be a future robbed of its promise. Robbed of its hope and ability to flourish. And likewise, instead of bringing a typographic detail from the late 19th century forward to add beauty to today, I found that the way of life we’ve adopted from then to now was going to be the very thing that undoes the future I hoped to leave more beautiful than I found it.

I was under the impression that perhaps letters were going to be my way to make my mark; only as it turned out, no amount of typography will save the Marshall Islands. No serif masterpiece will prevent the ice sheets from collapsing. And no variable font will prevent the loss of every beach on earth. But maybe letters will allow me to make a mark yet. Instead of designing stems and bowls and bracketed serifs, I’ll form words. Instead of debating rising or falling x-heights, I’ll argue against rising sea levels. I don’t need to give up a career in design to do that though. You don’t have to either, and, in fact, we might just have a front-row seat to affect change. As designers we are often tasked with helping a company make an impression; we’re not always in the driver’s seat as designers, but it is our product that the world ends up seeing.

That design is a crucial step on the path to a successful business or product is an opportunity that we as designers can’t let slip through our hands. And that’s why I’m writing this. I have deferred my journey because of the unfolding climate crisis. Yes, this book is going to be about climate change. But it’s also going to be about design. It’s going to be about what we can do to do our part to bring about not just a culture that no longer burns fossil fuels, but a culture that prizes justice as a key part of any solution. This book may at times be uncomfortable, but we have some uncomfortable times ahead of us. We’ll probably have to rethink how we do our jobs. We may have to redefine our career path. We may have to realize that the path that we imagined we would travel on might not exist any longer.

This is a loss, for sure; but it is a comparatively small one. Certainly not in relation to those that will lose their homes to flooding or homelands to heat and war and hunger. This is a bleak way to begin a book to graphic designers, I know. Hear me out though: we are in a position to be a critical part of the solution.

I don’t mean just going out and buying greener products or by pushing for companies to practice sustainability. Those ideas have been expounded upon by many authors in many other books and you should read those books too. But we are designers; some of us with our own practices and companies, some of us working in-house; some of us are designers full-time, some do it on the side, and some of us are hobbyists. All of us make things though and that isn’t something that all consumers do. I am convinced that designers — and really, all commercial artists — have a unique position as makers, to, quite simply, decide what to make. But the other side of that? That’s even more powerful; reader, we also have the ability to decide what not to make. That is an angle that isn’t discussed much — after all, who goes to college or learns to do a skill to specifically decide not to do it? The choice is there though, regardless. We’ll cover it in this book. What I personally haven’t seen yet is a book advocating for designers to use the cards we’re holding on behalf of the future and so that is why I’m writing this.

If I’m honest, it’s not a book I wanted to write. Like I wrote when I started this introduction, I wanted to design type. I wanted to influence the words on the page by imbuing the letters with character and dignity. Maybe I still am. That doesn’t take away from the fact though, that you, my reader deserved this book decades ago. NASA’s James Hanson warned Congress about climate change in 1988. This means that we have done more damage to the atmosphere knowingly than we ever did in ignorance.* Someone else more influential than me should have been the writer and we both should have had this book as a guide from which to learn. This book though is about situations like these; situations where we realize that we need to pick up the reins and lead where others should have before us. Because if we don’t, then when will someone else?

Designer and author Mike Montiero writes and speaks, prolifically, on the subject of ethics. He’s quite good at it. He writes that designers should hold themselves to an ethical code and shouldn’t be afraid to hold each other accountable for lapses in ethical standards. I’m just one person — one designer who is trying to fill a gap that I see and ethically, I feel like I need to fill it if I can. This book isn’t about me though, not really. It’s about the one planet that we live on and some of the ways that we can try to fight against the injustice that is the future that we have inherited; passed down by the wealthy few that have robbed it of stability and peace for short-term gains. This book is about a crisis, but this book is also about us. It’s about action. And the time for action is now.

*(The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells, pg. 4)