A Guide to Sustainable Graphic Design

When you think of graphic design, sustainability isn’t really the first or even the second thing that comes to mind. We rarely think of design having anything to do with the environment. But it has. This is where sustainable graphic design comes in. It’s a relatively new concept which many are not aware of yet but it is becoming more popular as environmental problems become more serious.

What Is Sustainable Graphic Design?

Sustainable graphic design prioritizes the impact the design has on the environment. From the beginning until the end. This includes the impact of raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, and disposal.

Graphic design can either be on paper or digital. For each of these, there are different things to consider in order to make the design green. I would say in general digital graphic design has a much lesser impact on the planet. However, that shouldn’t deter you from printing your designs on paper or products. Both can be sustainable. All you will need is to change your habits and become more aware of the environmental issues of graphic design.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to sacrifice sustainability for your creativity. Both can co-exist together.

Why Do We Need Sustainable Graphic Design?

The world is in a critical situation. Everyone, including graphic designers, has an impact on the planet because we all need resources for nearly everything that we do. Deforestation is destroying ecosystems and putting lives at risk while paper production produces large amounts of air pollution and water pollution.

A designer needs to consider the impact their design will have on the world. On a social and environmental level. We need to create a greener approach.

Printed Graphic Design

Type of material

The first thing you need to ask yourself is what material you are going to use. You will most likely be using paper. While this is a renewable source, make sure it comes from certified sustainably grown forests (eg FSC ). Billions of trees are cut down to make paper every year and the rate of deforestation is only growing. If it’s essential to use paper, always be sure it is sustainably sourced.

The even better solution is using recycled paper, so trees are not cut down. It should be your go-to option with printed designs. This extends the life of the paper and it takes less energy to produce than new paper.

Let’s also not forget about ink. Ink has a big environmental impact but it’s often overlooked or simply ignored. Thankfully, there is eco-friendly ink out there that you can use instead of the typical ink. Here are some other pays to make printing more sustainable.

How much material

Try to be as efficient as possible. Only use the minimum amount of materials. Why waste resources when you could avoid it? The aim is to reduce carbon emissions, resources used, and therefore waste. Using fewer materials is the only way to achieve this.

Use your creativity as a designer to come up with ways to use the least amount of resources and maximize the impact of your design. Simple design is often the best design.


Another big part of sustainable design is thinking about what will happen to it after being used. The final printed design should be recyclable or maybe even compostable. And above all, make it really clear that it can be recycled. Give the user instructions on how to safely dispose of your illustration or design at the end of its lifecycle. If consumers aren’t sure if they should put it in the recycling bin or not, they will put it into the normal bin. So make it clear how it should be disposed of.

Does it even need to be printed?

Finally, think if you have to print your design in the first place, or can the same impact be reached by leaving it digital. You could email it to your audience or make it into an e-book. You might even be able to reach more people if you make your design digital. So think about your options.

Nearly every design on paper is thrown away. It could be after an hour, a day, or a year but in most cases, it will end up in the bin. That’s why you should avoid using new high-quality paper. First consider if you can go digital and if not, choose recycled paper. Think about the whole lifecycle of your design. From the extraction of raw materials to the disposal.

Digital Graphic Design

How eco-friendly is your digital equipment?

This includes computers, printers, and any other pieces of equipment you have. After making the most of the current equipment, it would be wise to invest in energy-efficient ones to reduce energy consumption.

The problem with technology is that its impact on the environment is hidden. When you use your phone, it doesn’t seem like you are harming the environment. However, you need electricity to power it and to connect to the internet or data. All these release carbon emissions.

There is no perfect solution but while both printed and digital designs produce emissions, digital design doesn’t require physical resources which is why it’s more eco-friendly.

An eco-friendly website

Do you have a website? You might be surprised, but even websites have an impact on the environment. The amount of carbon emissions they release is mind boggling. It’s all down to the servers and the hosting you choose for your website. Want to hear some good news though?

You can choose a green host like Green Geeks to make your website carbon neutral or even carbon negative. This is by far one of the best ways to make your website eco-friendly. There are other ways too, however, including deleting unwanted content, optimizing images, and speeding up your site.

A green workspace

To be fully sustainable you also need to work in a sustainable environment whether that is at home or in an office. You don’t have to completely redesign your office or workspace for it to be green. You can do small things like:

  • Unplug devices when not charging them
  • Always recycle
  • Don’t buy new devices and equipment every year
  • Switch off devices when not using them
  • and more

Always save as much energy as you can while working.

Spread The Message

It’s not just about what and how you create something. You need to think about what you are promoting with your design. What message is your design projecting?

If you are really passionate about saving the world from climate change (and many other environmental challenges), then you could create a design that explicitly tells your viewer about these problems. You can promote people to change their lifestyles or just educate them on what is happening. Design is powerful and can be used to change people’s minds.

Related: Can creativity save the world?

Becoming A Sustainable Graphic Designer

Let your audience know your values and ethics and always be transparent. Tell them what you are actively doing to make your brand sustainable. You will also gain respect when you do this and attract high-quality clients. You should let them know their options. Educate them on the benefits of going digital and see if you can persuade them. You have a responsibility to minimize the negative impact of your design.

If you are looking for work, look for companies with eco-friendly practices.

Try not to let the money guide you. If you want to have an impact and make a difference, you need to be bold. You might earn less money at the beginning, but you might start a movement and create a community around you that supports the same ethics.

Also read: Ethical Design Explained

Final Thoughts

As you can see there are many things to consider.

It’s time designers start thinking about the planet. All graphic design needs to become eco-friendly. There’s no way around this. Sustainable graphic design is the way forward.

Fortunately, there are starting to be more graphic designers out there trying to become more sustainable. It’s important that each and every designer is aware of the challenges we are facing and the role they play in tackling them.

Humans are creative beings. If we can’t solve the world’s most pressing problems, then no one can.

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Sofia Hadjiosif
Sofia Hadjiosif

I've always cared about the planet but never knew how I could use my skills to create an impact. But that's when I decided to start Terra Movement. To get other creatives involved in the climate movement and inspire more people to help the planet and its people.

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