A 1971 poster for PanAm shows men on horseback against a sunset. Text reads 'Argentina / PanAms World'.

Chermayeff & Geismar (1971): Poster from PanAm’s World” Campaign.

Eye Magazine

When I was an un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent, a rel­a­tive gave me this big cof­fee table book about air­line vi­sual iden­ti­ties. It doc­u­ments the vi­sual out­put of the 20th cen­tury avi­a­tion in­dus­try in all its glory: Full-bleed Kodachrome pho­tog­ra­phy over­laid with tightly-set Helvetica at PanAm. Colourful, bold il­lus­tra­tions and let­ter­ing, printed in stone lith­o­g­ra­phy well into the 1950s at Air France. The cool func­tion­al­ism of HfG Ulm at Lufthansa.

I love look­ing at these im­ages. But as I do so now, at a time when the cli­mate cri­sis has (rightfully) be­come the sub­ject of al­most daily news cov­er­age, I’m also acutely aware of the ru­inous im­pact com­mer­cial avi­a­tion has on the world. It con­tributes around 2.5% to global CO2 emis­sions, a fig­ure which is ris­ing sharply, not to men­tion count­less ways air­craft noise and pol­lu­tion causes mis­ery around the world, and the dam­age caused by its var­i­ous sup­ply chains.

Most of the ma­te­r­ial in the book was pub­lished around the mid­dle of the cen­tury, when the sci­ence around global heat­ing was al­ready well-un­der­stood, and we still had the chance to avert most of the dam­age — a chance which we squan­dered.

Against this back­ground, do­ing any de­sign work for the avi­a­tion in­dus­try (like those beau­ti­ful posters re­pro­duced in the book) seems morally im­pos­si­ble to me. This was a painful re­al­i­sa­tion: Throughout my ed­u­ca­tion, de­sign­ing an air­line was al­ways one of those crown­ing achieve­ments wait­ing at the end of a suc­cess­ful ca­reer. That as­pi­ra­tion is gone.

But the trou­ble does­n’t end there: Since I’ve had that re­al­iza­tion a few months back, the list of in­dus­tries that seem at least ques­tion­able to work for in light of the cli­mate emer­gency has been get­ting longer and longer. First, I added fos­sil fuel cor­po­ra­tions, car man­u­fac­tur­ers, ship­ping com­pa­nies and the like. Then it be­came clear that the tech in­dus­try does­n’t have a great record ei­ther: The Co2 emis­sions of the world’s data cen­tres al­ready ri­val those of the avi­a­tion in­dus­try, and are like­wise ris­ing. And, of course, Google is di­rectly fund­ing cli­mate-deny­ing think­tanks, ap­par­ently to save taxes. What about cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions who are in­creas­ingly re­ly­ing on these in­dus­tries for fund­ing? Universities who refuse to di­vest?

This is where I’m be­gin­ning to think that some­thing big­ger has been lost here. It’s not just that I can’t imag­ine do­ing de­sign work for an air­line; I can’t imag­ine de­sign­ing any­thing as op­ti­mistic, openly in favour of con­sump­tion, ex­cited about tech­no­log­i­cal progress as the PanAm poster for any­one. Graphic de­sign was never in­no­cent in the de­struc­tion of the planet, but over the past few months I’ve felt more vis­cer­ally guilty than ever be­fore.

The usual re­sponse to con­cerns about the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age cause by graphic de­sign are tech­no­log­i­cal fixes: Printing with soy-based inks on re­cy­cled pa­per, us­ing lighter type­faces to save on ink, or mov­ing from print to dig­i­tal: Please con­sider the en­vi­ron­ment be­fore print­ing this email1.

These ideas are no doubt well-in­ten­tioned, but ul­ti­mately they’re in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ments to a deeply bro­ken sys­tem — equiv­a­lent to re­plac­ing petrol cars with elec­tric ones, or plas­tic straws with corn­starch. At best, what these pro­pos­als achieve is shift which nat­ural re­cources we’re go­ing to waste on con­sumerism.

The only way I can see to make graphic de­sign truly sus­tain­able is to make sig­nif­i­cantly less of it. Smaller print runs, less pack­ag­ing, fewer, lighter web­sites, less ad­ver­tis­ing, less stuff

Plastic debris is washed up on a beach.

Some vi­sual com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the Pacific

Kevin Krejci, CC BY 2.0

It’s de­press­ing and scary to be a young worker com­ing into an in­dus­try that, like many other in­dus­tries, needs to shrink or oth­er­wise trans­form it­self rad­i­cally to limit the dam­age it causes to our planet.

The rea­son it’s so scary is that my en­tire un­der­stand­ing of eco­nom­ics, of how you’re sup­posed to be­come suc­cess­ful in the world, taught to me by my par­ents and teach­ers, comes from the same era as those PanAm posters: Success equals growth, big­ger equals bet­ter, tech­nol­ogy will save the day.

Success in graphic de­sign is mea­sured fol­low­ing the same logic: Whoever gets to work with the largest print bud­gets, the biggest brands, who­ever gets the most views, who­ever shows their work in the most coun­tries is the most suc­ces­ful.

But with every news story about a wild fire, heat­wave, storm, or flood, that model looks more un­ten­able. Smarter peo­ple than me are work­ing on al­ter­na­tive mod­els for de­sign, and cul­tural pro­duc­tion in gen­eral. In Duty Free Art2, Hito Steyerl writes:

The con­trary [to cur­rent ways of do­ing de­sign] is a process that does­n’t grow via de­struc­tion, but very lit­er­ally de-grows con­struc­tively. This type of con­struc­tion is not cre­at­ing in­fla­tion, but de­vo­lu­tion. Not cen­tral­ized com­pe­ti­tion but co­op­er­a­tive au­ton­omy. Not frag­ment­ing time and di­vid­ing peo­ple, but re­duc­ing ex­pan­sion, in­fla­tion, con­sump­tion, dept, dis­rup­tion, oc­cu­pa­tion, and death.

Intellectually, I know that what she and oth­ers are propos­ing is true, nec­es­sary, and prob­a­bly with­out al­ter­na­tive. But emo­tion­ally, I’m not ready to feel hope­ful about that new form of de­sign prac­tice: I’m not done griev­ing the end of the old one. 3

  1. I’m not aware of any sim­i­lar ideas for screen-based de­sign, maybe be­cause we tend to as­sume it’s cleaner by de­fault? It is­n’t: See dat­a­cen­ter emis­sions. ↩︎

  2. Hito Steyerl (2019): Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War, p. 18. Verso Books ↩︎

  3. This es­say was first pub­lished on Content Free. ↩︎