Design for digital sustainability

Modular building. For each square window ther is a square with suspended garden.
Photo by Fer Troulik on Unsplash

There are numerous actions that individuals in regular jobs can take to address climate change. Some straightforward steps include reducing energy consumption by turning off lights and electronics when not in use, using public transportation or carpooling, and reducing meat consumption, and plastic waste by using reusable bags and containers. Moreover, individuals can endorse political candidates and policies that prioritize climate action and sustainability and can advocate for change in their communities and workplaces. Every small effort counts, and it can make a significant difference in creating a more sustainable future for everyone. By making changes in our daily lives, such as reducing energy consumption, using public transportation, and advocating for sustainability, we can contribute to a more sustainable future for all. It’s up to all of us, regardless of our profession or background, to take action and prioritize sustainability in our daily lives confidently.

It’s true that we all have different levels of understanding when it comes to the climate crisis. It’s essential to listen to one another and share our knowledge to work towards a more sustainable future. By having open and honest conversations about the challenges we face, we can collaborate and find innovative solutions that benefit everyone. Additionally, by educating ourselves on the impacts of climate change and the actions we can take to address it, we can empower ourselves to make meaningful changes in our daily lives and work towards a more sustainable future.

As designers, we play a crucial role in promoting sustainability. Designers are involved in shaping the products, services, and environments that people interact with daily, and therefore have the power to influence people’s behaviors and attitudes toward sustainability.

Designers can promote sustainability in several ways, including:

  • Creating products and services that are environmentally friendly
    By designing products that are made from sustainable materials, use energy-efficient technologies, and are designed for disassembly and recycling, designers can reduce the environmental impact of their creations.
  • Encouraging sustainable behaviors
    Designers can also promote sustainable behaviors by designing products that make it easier for people to make sustainable choices. For example, designing products that encourage energy conservation or reduce waste can help change people’s behaviors.
  • Fostering a culture of sustainability
    Designers can also help promote a culture of sustainability by raising awareness about environmental issues and encouraging people to adopt sustainable lifestyles. This can involve designing educational materials, campaigns, and events that promote sustainable practices.
  • Collaborating with other stakeholders
    Finally, designers can work with other stakeholders, such as businesses, governments, and NGOs, to develop sustainable solutions that benefit society as a whole. By collaborating with others, designers can leverage their expertise and creativity to develop innovative solutions that address complex sustainability challenges.

Overall, designers have a unique opportunity to promote sustainability through their work. By incorporating these considerations into the design process, designers can create solutions that are more resilient, equitable, and beneficial for both people and the planet.

Every human being on this planet is obligated to do our best to leave this planet in better shape than we found it. Designers don’t get to opt out.
— Mike Monteiro, A Designer’s Code of Ethics

Digital feels invisible

The use of digital technologies can also facilitate sustainability by enabling remote work and reducing the need for physical travel, which significantly decreases carbon emissions. Additionally, digital technologies can promote sustainable practices and behaviors. For example, smart home technologies can be used to manage energy consumption, while digital platforms can be utilized to enable sharing and circular economy models.

Digital products and services can bring many advantages when it comes to promoting sustainability and facilitating more sustainable behaviors. Although, there are also challenges associated with digital products and services, such as their energy consumption and environmental impact. Digital may feel intangible and invisible, but it has a significant environmental impact. Every time we use a digital product or service, such as browsing the internet or using a social media platform, there are a whole host of energy-intensive processes happening in the background that we may not be aware of.

Although digital feels invisible, it is worth understanding that clicking a button from an online website sets a whole chain of reactions impacting the planet.

Digital services and products rely on physical infrastructure and electricity, much of which still comes from the burning of fossil fuels. However, there are steps we can take to reduce the carbon footprint of digital services, such as using renewable energy to power data centers and enhancing the energy efficiency of devices and networks.

The Internet’s data centers alone may already have the same CO2 footprint as global air travel.
— Internet health report, April 2018

In summary, digital services require physical infrastructure and electricity, but they also have the potential to promote sustainability through renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable practices and behaviors.

Designing more sustainable experiences

“A sustainably designed and built website isn’t just better for the planet and your business’s carbon footprint; it should also mean a faster-loading, more accessible experience for the user.”
— Matt Hocking, director of Leap

There are actions we can take during the design and development process to create better and more sustainable experiences by default.
First, we can ensure that our work is optimized for low-energy consumption. We can simplify user journeys, and avoid endless scrolling and autoloading content. We can remove visuals we don’t need and reduce file sizes for our images. There are also ways to optimize fonts and colors in order to respect accessibility guides but also to reduce energy consumption. Choosing a green hosting provider in order to make use of renewable energy to power your web app. It is also important to optimize the experience to work across devices and platforms in order to re-use resources but also to reduce the number of elements used to create the experience to the essential.

Optimizing for sustainability is part of creating a good design as has been said by Dieter Rams in his 10 principles of good design.

Furthermore, designing for sustainability goes beyond just resource efficiency, it also involves creating experiences that are inclusive, equitable, and promote well-being.

Below, you can find some good examples that demonstrate how sustainability can be integrated into digital design practices to create products and services that are both environmentally responsible and user-friendly.

Low Energy Instagram

Tom Jarrett’s experiment for a low-energy Instagram is a great example of returning control to the user and providing a calmer experience. By showing alt-text per default and allowing users to tap on the alt text to reveal the image, the design cuts through the noise and offers a more personalized experience. This approach also aligns with sustainable design principles by reducing energy consumption and promoting a more intentional and mindful use of technology.

Tom Jarrett’s experiment with a low-energy Instagram is an example of how designers can reduce the environmental impact of digital products by rethinking their design choices.

Jarrett reimagined Instagram as a low-energy platform that would use minimal data and reduce the amount of energy required to load images and videos. He achieved this by designing a pared-down version of the app that removed many of the features that are commonly associated with Instagram, such as comments, likes, and filters.

The resulting app was much smaller and more lightweight than the standard Instagram app, making it faster and more energy-efficient. Jarrett also used a technique called lazy loading to reduce the amount of data required to load images, only loading images when the user scrolled down to view them. Jarrett’s experiment demonstrates how designers can reduce the environmental impact of digital products by questioning their assumptions and rethinking their design choices.

Low Energy Instagram Experiment video by Tom Jarrett

“10k Apart”

“10k Apart” is a competition that challenges web developers to create web pages that are under 10 kilobytes in size, created within a partnership between Microsoft and Event Apart. The goal of the competition is to inspire designers and developers to create leaner and more efficient websites that can be accessed by a wider range of devices and users, including those with slow internet connections or limited data plans.

By encouraging developers to create smaller websites, the competition helps to promote sustainability in several ways by promoting:

  1. Reduced energy consumption
    Smaller websites require less energy to load, reducing the energy consumption associated with web browsing.
  2. Reduced data usage
    Smaller websites require fewer data to load, making them more accessible to users with limited data plans and reducing the amount of data consumed by web browsing.
  3. Improved performance
    Smaller websites tend to load faster and perform better, improving the user experience and reducing frustration.
  4. More inclusive
    Smaller websites are more accessible to users with slower internet connections or older devices, promoting digital inclusivity.

The “10k Apart” competition is a great example of how promoting efficiency and lean design can lead to more sustainable web design practices. By encouraging developers to create websites that are smaller, faster, and more inclusive, we can help reduce the environmental impact of the internet while improving the user experience for everyone.

As designers, we have a unique opportunity to drive change and promote sustainability in the digital industry. By questioning the status quo, reimagining new possibilities, and telling compelling stories, we can inspire others to join us in creating a more sustainable future.

Sustainable design is inclusive, easy to use and efficient for users and energy consumption.


— Ecograder and Digital beacon allow you to measure the carbon footprint of your website and provide a step-by-step guide so you can improve it.

— Sustainable web manifesto

— Low energy Instagram by Tom Jarrett is the original blog post article where tom Jarrett describes the process of creating a more sustainable Instagram experience.

— Curiously Green is a blog by Wholegrain digital agency

Originally published at Medium

Dizparada is a senior product designer looking forward to better-understanding humans. She loves sports and getting lost in nature.

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