Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel
Read Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel's presentation, "Culture is not always popular." Bill and Jessica are partners in Winterhouse design studio. Their work focuses on publishing and editorial development; new media; cultural institutions; and education and literacy projects. Recent clients include the New England Journal of Medicine, Norman Rockwell Museum, Yale Law School, New York University School of Journalism, University of Chicago Press and the National Design Awards.
Communicating the power of design to clients

Studio eg's design criteria include the question "Does this product have a right to exist?" However, clients rarely ask designers to make this determination. How can designers help their clients to create products, advertisements or services that are environmentally, socially and economically responsible? And is this the appropriate role for a designer?

Add your Response

Kristina Holdorf, Urban Fresh environmental Print Consultancy, Melbourne Victoria, 12-Feb-06
Be educated and prepared to learn new things, you have a chance to change the future even if it's one print job at a

Benjamin Pham, San Francisco, 03-Jun-04

Get real, want to make the world a better place. Sing this song:

We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So let's start giving
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true we'll make a better day
Just you and me
Send them your heart
So they'll know that someone cares
And their lives will be stronger and free
As God has shown us by turning stones to bread
So we all must lend a helping hand

Buzz, Bellevue, WA 9005, 01-Mar-04
This is a cool site

Christopher Simmons, Alterpop / California College of the Arts / Academy of Art College, San Francisco, 03-Jan-04

The question is rhetorical, no? It's a question we must ask of ourselves, with the goal of answering the pertinent query, "is this a project I'm prepared to support?"

Design is the means, not always the end; designers are creative, but in the context of the designer-client relationship we are not the creators. Why should clients ask us if their product has a right to exist? Really, why should they? Why us? Why designers? Should we really be the arbiters of culture? Of morality? Of existence? Is that the role we want for oursleves?

We're so worried about being taken seriously, but it's this type of inflated sense of professional worth that makes us even easier to dismiss. If we want clients to respect us and our profession, we should begin by respecting them. In those instances where a clients practices are incompatible with our beliefs we have the option to politely part ways.

allison monay, Hollywood, CA, 18-Dec-03
The question sounds stupid and sophmoric.

susan szenasy, metropolis magazine, new york, ny 10010, 11-Dec-03

You're all talking as if you were alone in this frightening world of environmental consciousness. Your are not. You have a strong trade organization behind you which, with your support and active participation, can be the major "agent of change" you're looking for. The AIGA needs to help its members learn the complexities of environmentally-conscious design; this should be the first order of business for the organization in a world where global warming is a fact.

If you don't agree that your national organization has power, what are you doing about it? Start at the local chapters which have more power than you, individually, do. Use these associations for something positive. And what is more positive than making sure that everything designed protect our water, air, and food supply?

Tap into your profession's humanist roots; and live up to the socially conscious standards of your predecessors. The world--your clients included--will respect you for it!

Don Carli, Nima Hunter Inc., New York NY 10016, 11-Nov-03
To take the Responsible Print survey or for more information go to:

Don Carli, Nima Hunter Inc., New York, NY USA, 11-Nov-03

Do vendors of paper, ink, toner and printing solutions provide you with enough information for you to make responsible design, purchasing or production decisions?

Corporate need for sustainable printing and packaging exists. Over half of the Fortune 100 already publish sustainability or environmental reports and most have executives accountable for Corporate Social Responsibility. Many have supply chain environmental management initiatives under way. Designers and printers need to understand and connect with these consituents.

Unfortunately, many vendors and suppliers of paper and printing solutions say they see little evidence of demand for environmentally preferable products from designers or from printers.

To address these issues, the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Communication and the independent research firm Nima Hunter Inc. invite you to participate in a short online research survey

To take the survey or for more information go to:

In return for your completion of this survey you will receive a fact-filled Executive Summary of the study report upon its publication, and you will be eligible to receive research reports worth more than $100.00, at no cost to you!

Participants will remain anonymous. Data will be presented only in the aggregate, companies and individuals will NOT be identified, and your email address will not be shared or used for any purpose except for delivery of free research reports to participants.

Steven Soshea, Steven Soshea Design, Oakland, CA, 09-Nov-03

For the most part, talking to a client, especially larger corporations, about ecological sustainability and socio-economic responsibility needs to be done within a business context, as a growth opportunity or a risk aversion, as Don Carli mentions below. If clients perceive sustainability and responsibility as a sort of business value enhancement, in terms of finances, PR, or brand development, they will be open and receptive.

It is then incumbent upon us to create smart, compelling, and economical designs, to assure that a client has a good experience with "going green," so to speak. If we are successful, recycled and bio-friendly processes and components can become a reccuring theme within the design process.

There are also lots of other subtle ways in which we can engage with a client to reduce the creation of waste and toxins through very traditional and standard means. To start with, we can move away from trying to create "award-winning" design extravaganzas for clients, and provide them with simpler and perhaps more focussed solutions. We can also make sure that the print quantities are reflective of actual need and not over-estimated. Finally, to paraphrase Studio eg, we can ask our clients if they really even need what they are asking for. Can a few direct mail postcards be more effective than a big glossy brochure? Can the Internet be more effective than print? These are ways in which we are just simply practicing our profession that have direct effects upon our environment.

In the end, what is really important is that we incorporate ecological sustainability and socio-economic responsibility into our design processes and thinking, and manifest them in as many little ways as we can figure out, in working with our clients.

Eva Anderson, Anderson Pop Design, Providence, RI, 03-Nov-03

GEOFF: It is possible to convince clients to work with sustainable materials. Educate yourself and build your selling points first. Don't be afraid or embarrassed or didactic. Be honest, and make it sound like it's not an unusual alternative but the logical choice. We recently convinced our client to print a 320 page book on chlorine-free paper even though it cost more. And we proposed a post-consumer waste recycled paper to a conservative Fortune 100 company for their executive stationery. It was a big leap politically for them because they didn't want to come across as "greenwashing". Ultimately, they chose to print it. Most times, people do make the right choice. If given the choice.

For resources, see my responses in the "Working with sustainable materials" discussion group.

Bryan Karl Lathrop, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, 03-Nov-03

Stupid question for Sagmeister...why should one worry about sounding preachy when taking the initiative toward sustainability is clearly doing the right thing? Wouldn't it be more productive to look at this problem in terms of helping the client understand that sustainability is the right thing to do, the responsible thing to do? Of course this all sounds straight forward in theory, but in practice we are doomed to encounter the strange looks and questions upon broaching the subject. The real question is how much longer can we pull the wool over our (and our clients') collective eyes? I think David Orr's presentation provided some sobering answers in this respect. The problem is that those of us who "get it" already see the immensity of the task before us, and it really requires some urgent, immediate action.....which would explain why many of us feel so deflated upon returning from Vancouver with great ideas and intentions and sinking back into the same bureacratic ignorance. Fight the good fight.

Tabitha Holmquist, Seattle, WA, USA, 03-Nov-03

I had anticipated a mass of resistance to eco-design but am finding that if you talk to people individually and pose questions and points, then let them do the talking and come to their own conclusions, you will find them coming around to the ideas of doing what is right. Try dispersing materials about sustainability in your office, send out case studies where people received recognition for smart sustainable design. Show them by example that it can be more than just "earth-hugging". Clients will most likely jump at the chance to be more eco-friendly if you find ways to put it to them that they can feel like they are a part of and that will make them look respsonsible to the community. while printing non-toxic inks on more friendly papers could be invisible to the consumers, it doesn't have to be. Your client can take pride in this change and disclose their changes to the community. "Printed on recycled paper with non-toxic inks, because we care". Especially with larger clients who need constant PR boosts to soften the blow of seeming like corporate monsters - this can go over really well - but you have to be sensitive to their needs as a profit gathering business and explain the benefits to them as well as the benefits to the world/community. just take it one litle step at a time and find people who support your ideas. If presented intelligently and with the concerns of your boss and clients, they should respect you more for thinking beyond just pretty pictures and into their ROI.

Eric Heiman, Volume Design, Inc. / California College of the Arts, San Francisco, 03-Nov-03

It is obvious from design student (and a student of mine, no less) Michael Morris that the young are open to new paradigms, probably moreso that the seasoned professionals. Yet there is no area more neglected and behind the curve than design education. Most of the thousands of design programs worldwide are trade-focused. they do not encourage, let alone emphasize, the kind of thinking that prevails in the classrooms of our best collegiate science and humanities departments. A few design programs have taken up this mantle (MIT comes to mind, initially), but these programs are far and few between.

The issue is not that we are delinquent in teaching theories of environmental sustainability in our classrooms (although it certainly would be most wise to start doing so), it is that design education is not giving the students the intellectual tools to even pose questions of sustainability—or other inquiries beyond simple problem solving and formmaking—in the first place. The questioning of values and the considerations of societal issues beyond the individual that form the basis for humanities and science-based education is missing in most design programs. Our students are doomed to our current cursory roles we play with clients, and in society as a whole. Bravo to Terry Irwin for introducing these issues to her students.

Michael Morris, San Francisco, 03-Nov-03

I find it a lot harder to ask myself "How can I not think about sustainable design?" I was a student of Terry Irwin's and at first I thought these ideas were a "San Francisco- style" environmentalist rant. But after a few weeks of listening to her in class and following up on the readings she suggested, I started to understand. Maybe designers who have been established forever will have a hard time changing, or communicating the need for this change to their clients. I'm sure some designers will make changes very easily. I'm surrounded by an energetic and smart group of students who are entering the job market with these ideas already in place. I think its a matter of building a resource for sustainable materials information. If I knew which papers or inks were less harmful, then I would be more likely present choices to the client based on that info. Maybe the AIGA should maintain some sort of database for this type of thing.

Katrina Perekrestenko, Kennewick, WA, 02-Nov-03

Geoff, I'm faced with the same problem. I came back to my office on Monday and when I tried to explain what I learned my co-workers just glazed over. In this area, "enviromentalism" has a bad reputation. Since at this point I can't change my work environment I'm concentrating on what I can do on my own. Finding pro bono work that allows you to practice what you preach is a start. I'm hoping that these will lead to a job with a like minded firm or will give me the experience to go out on my own. Does anybody have other suggestions? I'd love to hear them.

Don Carli, Nima Hunter, Inc., NY, NY, 31-Oct-03

The first order of business is to identify and understand the economic, environmental and social risks that keep your customer up at night.

When I recently asked Nell Minnow, Director of the Corporate Library, with a similar question she responded:

"The language of business is risk, and if you don't speak the language of risk business people will not hear you. You might as well be a dog whistle. "

Most business people do not want to listen to a lecture about why they should eat their spinach, so making a moral case rather than a business case is not typically the best approach.

I find that it is best to take a triple bottom line aproach to design solutions. Identify solutions that reduce costs, reduce environmental impacts and increase organization effectiveness and/or the quality of stakeholder relationships in measurable ways.

A number of additional suggestions and resources on this topic are provided in the AIGA "Print Design and Environmental Responsibilty" authored by yours truly that was distributed to all conference attendees.

I am interested in how useful you find the guidebook to be, and would welcome any feedback or suggestions for additional information that would be of value to you. send you questions, comments or suggestions to:

Bruce Sterling, Viridian Design, Somewhere in Canada, "The Maple Leaf State", 30-Oct-03

I wrote an article for TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
about technologies that don't deserve to exist.

And boy did I get flamed, too. Seemed like
most every techie whose ox had suffered goring
had to personally insist to me that land mines (for instance)
are great.

Objections like this used to annoy me, until I realized
two things. (1) If you say something and nobody
get upset, you haven't really said anything. (2)
Shocking novelties that afflict the comfortable are
a highly marketable writerly skill!

Geoff, Seattle, 30-Oct-03

Thanks for the response, David. But wasn't the message of the conference that designers need to be agents of change? In order to fulfill this role, they need to lead--rather than just respond to--trends in the market, right? If I can sell recycled paper to a client by pointing out that consumers will value their environmental statement then I will. I fear, however, that, for the most part, my arguments to the client will have to be moral, rather than economic. I don't think that consumers will notice if the ink that the ad is printed with is non-toxic. Frankly, I don't think they will care. Therefore, I will have to make this argument by appealing not to their own interests but to the interests of the greater good. Which, as Stefan Sagmeister pointed out in the other forum, is hard to do without seeming preachy.

David, One Lane Studios, Sausalito, CA, 30-Oct-03

Context, of course, is everything. It's appropriate to bring up issues with clients, when it's appropriate. For the person who indicated a belief that asking whether something is on recycled paper guarantees that they will never be in front of the client again, I suggest they consider context, perhaps more deeply. If the client ever indicates an interest in improved image in the public eye, THAT's when to point out that most people (even Americans who are generally much more ignorant than developed cultures) prefer companies that use recycled paper, for example.

Geoff, Seattle, 30-Oct-03

Although I really loved the conference, now that I'm back I'm at a loss as to what to do next. There's no way I'm going to go to my boss and ask if the ad we're about to run is printed on recycled paper. In fact, asking questions like that is almost a guarantee he will never put me in front of the client. Ironically, by advocating responsibility I am actually reducing the likelyhood that I will have contact with the people who need to make the responsible decisions. How do I start the discussion without alienating my coworkers and (if I ever get that far) clients?

©2003 AIGA | the professional association for design | credits