Responsibility is being rebranded. As businesses apply long-term thinking, a vibrant visual landscape is emerging that inspires action and optimism.
Gen Viz, a consumer mindset born from a young generation of activists and visual-first communicators, is driving a shift towards social and environmental design that is increasingly viewed as a catalyst for creativity rather than a rulebook of regulations.
Freed from tired visual stereotypes, sustainability is being boldly re-articulated to connect to a new generation of consumers. Creative practitioners are not just discussing the future of environmental resources, but redefining it through design. "Sustainability is about optimism, not about making people feel guilt," Seetal Solanki, founder of Ma-tt-er, tells LS:N Global. "It is about looking around us and exploring what’s possible – reconfiguring and rethinking."
From communicating sustainable business to taking a conscious approach to materiality, this direction is characterised by solution-based design, future scenarios and vibrant aesthetics. "Sustainability is a mentality" Wendy Plomp, curator of design collective Dutch Invertuals, tells LS:N Global. ‘We need a change in direction towards a vision that is uplifting for the future. Designers can work with sustainability without being eco, green or boring."
As recent research by Unilever shows, a third of consumers buy from brands based on their social and environmental impact, so it is more important than ever for businesses to communicate their ethical values. "People want an opportunity to be part of a revolution," says Simon Robinson, founder of global educational and sustainability consultancy Holonomics Education. Old models of consumerism are being challenged as whole-system thinking is applied across a growing number of sectors. The creative community are now leading the way on how to communicate change.
Responding to the conscious consumption revolution, designers are communicating the vision that radical change need not be a heavy or inaccessible issue. Visuals are overlaid with sketchy, expressive graphics that challenge the original narrative of the image, and stop-motion films are imbued with a playful unpredictability that feels human in nature.
"‘We wanted to appeal to innate human curiosity as a way to discuss the topic," says Solanki of the Ma-tt-er film What Does Sustainability Mean to You?, commissioned by Dazed for retailer Selfridges. The playful, low-fi film features found footage accompanied by handwritten script. Another film in the series by Jacob Levi was shot using drones, Samsung Galaxy 4 smartphones and other mixed media, and features stop-motion film and a carefree, free-flowing handwriting animation.
In a similar vein, fashion brand AnoukxVera, which manufactures garments on demand to avoid accumulating surplus stock, chose to visually communicate its supply chain through a stop-motion film that depicts a miniature on-demand production line laden with colourful props placed in playful assemblages.
In line with this aesthetic, Polly Ann Abbott’s Fast Fashion Impacts editorial imagery uses simple, hand-drawn chalk graphics overlaid on simple fashion imagery to convey the environmental impact of clothing manufacturing. "My editorial focuses on the perils of fast fashion. However, I wanted to get the my point across without making the viewer feel uncomfortable," Abbott tells LS:N Global. Her soft colour palette and the ethereal feel of her images contrast with the harsh realities of fast fashion. "Living in this social media age, attention spans are relatively low, especially among the younger generation. It’s important to try and make people think, to have something eye- catching enough to draw them in, but vague enough to make it necessary for them to read what it’s about."
Digital renderings, avatars and infographics are being used to convey the values behind both brands and individuals. Evocative digitalisations merge the virtual and technological with the familiar.
Design collective Envisions, which aims to be an ‘industry-inspiring laboratory’, presented an installation of explorative samples with MDF brand Finsa, which envisages the future of the material. Taking the physical into the virtual, Roel Deden created a virtual reality (VR) experience that enables visitors to explore a factory and the future of wood as a material in a virtual landscape. Also exploring brand transparency, Open by Pamm Hong and The Future Laboratory is a speculative platform that visualises individual businesses’ ethical and environmental credentials through digital avatars. The animal-like organisms quiver, expand and shift in shape and texture to reflect reflecting changing data sets around the individual brand.
An interactive game by The Beautiful Meme and Bong that examines the future of Europe, developed for the Collecting Europe exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, serves to represent social values through shape- shifting digital forms. Players are asked a series of questions on boundaries and identities, and a personalised generative organism is created from the data. Questions include: "Your generation will solve the issue of climate change – agree or disagree?" and "Can you imagine a world without countries?"
Interior architects and product designs are presenting alternative views of energy, colour and future materiality. "To be green or eco is just one direction," says Plomp. "Of course, recycling is a good thing but it’s just one way. It’s important to discover new materials instead of just reusing the old – otherwise you don’t change." Dutch Invertuals’ Harvest exhibition raises questions about future resources by asking visitors to envisage a future of alternative consumerism in which supply and demand is disconnected from profit.
Building a scenario where humans harvest alternative forms of energy, the exhibition design was inspired by a bird’s-eye view of fields of crops that are imbued with a colour palette of sharp artificial hues mixed with natural and organic colours. Low plinths and platforms are composed from both new and old sustainable materials. "Humans seem to always try to copy nature but here the blue is bright and has a super-synthetic water feeling – it’s a new nature," says Plomp. Power Play, the collective’s earlier iteration of this line of enquiry, also explored the future and aesthetics of environmentally friendly design.
The contrast between natural pigments and future artificial hues is also considered in Broken White, an exhibition that examines the changing cultural connotations of colour, from its use as a tool of social activism to its future perception in a digital world of light-radiating screen displays.
Naama Agassi also looks towards the changing state of the environment and the spectrum of colour experienced by humans as part of an exhibition called The Age of Man by design collective Form&Seek. Agassi examines the fluctuating value and status of the colour turquoise. Combining the colour’s natural form, using oxidised scrap copper objects, with its artificial form, using found objects, she created a series of striking objects that raise questions about the Earth’s organic past and its synthetic future. "My project explores the interaction between human impact and natural occurrence," says Agassi.
In today’s fast-paced, highly visual environment, vibrant and naïve illustrations are being used to convey complex information and present brand identities that are open to change. Awash with vibrant colour, Material World by Anna Ginsburg and Sara Andreasson is a short animation produced by Strange Beast and commissioned by Selfridges. Soundbites from interviews with fashion practitioners highlight the sustainable nature of eight brands, which are brought to life through playful animations that depict a series of characters in bold, clashing colourways, including deep hues of scarlet, marine blue and mauve.
Without Violence, an animation by Edgar Ferrer in collaboration with Richard Keeling, unpacks a socially focused issue through bold illustrative forms. The viewer is led through a series of game-themed graphics that serve as a playful visual metaphor to explain how sustainable development goals can best be implemented.
Reflecting this naïve aesthetic approach, Japanese artist Kenta Cobayashi created a series of visuals for MCM and Christopher Raeburn’s Made to Move collection, which is entirely constructed from sustainable materials. Skewed graphics in tones of vivid yellow, soft dove grey and piercing blue are playfully drawn over fragmented imagery of the collection.
- Sustainability is not a trend. It is a mindset that is here to stay, and empowers consumers to align their moral values with their purchasing decisions.
- Digital tools and VR open up a new dimension of brand transparency. Use the latest technology to reveal elements of your supply chain through playful, vibrant digital worlds.
- Soften hard topics. Play with graphics and animation to channel solution-based thinking rather than tackling big issues in a way that feels intimidating. In product design, don’t be afraid to mix the natural and the synthetic.
- As Plomp explains, ‘sustainability is a mentality’, so create conscious products that are exciting and alluring, and not defined solely by their ethical credentials. Use a new lexicon that matches this. Recycling is not a new topic but as we have seen over the years, it can be viewed through a new lens.
- Be visual first. The younger demographic is driving change, but its members don’t want to read through lengthy white papers about brand sustainability – they want to consume through visual content.
To read the original article, co-written with Art Director Hannah Robinson, visit LS:N Global here.
Image credits from the top to the bottom of article: Ma-tt-er film What Does Sustainability Mean to You?, commissioned by Dazed for retailer Selfridges; Open by Pamm Hong and The Future Laboratory; Harvest by Dutch Invertuals; Envisions brand identity by Elvis Wesley.
Special thanks to Seetal Solanki, Wendy Plomp, Polly Ann Abbott, Simon Robinson and Naama Agassi for their contributions and inspiration for this article.