Graphic design Behaviour / neuroscience CX Purposeful work


Transparency between businesses and consumers in our connected world of the data deluge has never been more important. But as designers, we should also be transparent with ourselves, and have awareness of the role we play in consumerism. FSC’s Senior Designer Claire Matthews outlines how our decisions and behaviours in design shape whole industries and impact global issues such as climate change. How can we ensure the future of the design specialism is transparent, sustainable and ethically conscious for the wellbeing of the planet?

20 February 2023 • 6 min read

Photo by adrian susec on Unsplash

We’re living in uncertain times, but some things can be assured: the climate emergency is now a topic of national concern. We are waking up to the harmful impacts that advertising has had in fuelling the overconsumption that has resulted in this crisis. Yet, we are still being bombarded with marketing and advertising material that promotes harmful products and lifestyles – all of which have been designed by graphic designers like myself.

There is an element of discomfort I have always felt in my graphic design profession. The creativity involved is fulfilling, and the act of seeing my work go out into the real world is of course exciting. But when I think deeply about what my work is actually doing, I realise how much of a role in the climate crisis the industry has played. Most of the time it has been heavily predicated on making people want to buy things they don’t need. Sometimes it’s direct, through designing and producing digital and print ads for Black Friday sales, for example. Other times it’s more indirect, through designing the brand identity for a faceless corporate company that makes them feel human and approachable to their target audience. This, in turn, increases people’s willingness to buy their products or use their services.

We as creative workers need to face up to our roles in producing this material and instead use our
strengths in communication to envision a better world rather than drive rampant consumerism. But how can we stop ourselves from being part of the problem and move to becoming part of the solution?


Most of us want to be working on projects with purpose. A recent IPA survey indicates that 71% of people working across the ad industry are worried about the negative impacts their industry has on the environment; and even more want their agencies to take action against climate change. But this good sentiment can really lead to a great deal of harm, and that comes in the form of corporate greenwash. We’re all looking for more meaning in our work and, when a high-paying brief comes for a sustainable project, most of us would jump at the chance to work on it. I was recently shocked to discover that Shell spends more on their green marketing than on renewable energy, and in fact, they actually plan to grow their fossil gas emissions business by 20% in the coming years. So those creatives working on their campaigns are complicit in laundering Shell’s public image. We need to acknowledge the seriousness of helping a company distract the public from their destructive business activities.

Obviously, Shell is one of the biggest fossil fuel producers in the world, but not all greenwashing projects are so easy to spot. A recent advert by Innocent smoothies was banned for its misleading environmental claims when the truth is that drinking smoothies from single-use plastic bottles is far from sustainable. It’s a shame, because the advert was beautifully animated and I’m willing to bet that the creatives who worked on it felt good about working on a project that seemed environmentally conscious, only to end up with their hard work being pulled.


Activist network Adfree Cities say we need to look beyond the marketing when a company is making any green claims. If it’s a business such as an airline, an oil company, a fast-food chain, a fast fashion brand, a company that relies on single-use plastics, big tech that makes products designed to have a short life-span, there is of course potential for greenwashing. So, if we’re looking to work on purposeful, ethically conscious projects, what type of clients does that leave us with?

1. Work for companies that are actively doing good & are part of a circular economic structure

We need to seek out those clients that are actively doing good and get them out into the public arena. Often, these are the ones that need the most help with their public image because they’re usually run by passionate scientists, which can mean that their branding and tone of voice is the least of their priorities. Unfortunately, this is how they are perceived. As it stands, they may not pay as much as the big polluters, but that should soon change. They may not be the most glamorous of clients, but that’s where our jobs as designers come in. It’s up to us to give them the zhuzh they need to get noticed.

2. Call out the harmful advertising

Choosing our clients and projects wisely is a great way for us to take responsibility on an individual basis. But the depressing truth is that there will be another designer out there who will take the project instead. So, if we really want to take a stand, we need to take collective action and call out harmful marketing that’s going on around us.

We are all so used to the corporate control of our public spaces. If you live in a city, you’ll be used to seeing adverts pretty much everywhere you look. Sure, we’ve become somewhat desensitised to it, but it has an indisputable effect on our minds and beyond. These adverts are mostly driving consumption and, as long as these go unchallenged, our path to net-zero is merely a pipe dream. There are various ways in which you can take a stand.

You could join your local Adblock group. If your local area doesn’t have one, then why not start one up? If you work for an agency you can join Purpose Disruptors. You could even take a leaf out of Brandalism’s book and use your design skills to take part in the act of subvertising, a form of protest street art whereby anonymous artists and designers create new adverts or deface existing ones in an effort to call out companies that are destroying our planet, reclaim our public spaces and draw the public attention to the brain pollution that we are bombarded with
on a daily basis.

3. Help everyone envisage a world that doesn’t exist yet

The ultimate form of ethical graphic design and branding should be to help people envision a new way of life that’s divorced from rampant consumerism, and to make this desirable in the same way that we’ve managed to make commodities feel desirable. The only way for us to shop sustainably is to buy far less. The only real way we can eat sustainably is by eating a locally-sourced, plant-based diet and cutting out highly processed food from our diet. The only way we can travel sustainably is by carbon free travel. How do we get people to see this new way of life in a positive light rather than with a great sense of loss? It’s a difficult question and there isn’t one way to do it, but it’s our only hope if we’re to undertake the change required to avoid total climate breakdown.

The consumerism driving the climate catastrophe is built upon an incredibly complex web of global supply chains and economic structures. To say that there is one thing that graphic designers can do to help change the world is just downright wrong. However, we do have to acknowledge the role we play in driving consumerism, making products and brands feel desirable, and assuaging people’s guilt by buying them. To acknowledge that we’ve had a role to play in this mess means we can acknowledge that we can be part of the solution.

There’s a wealth of research into how advertising influences our behavior and consumer habits. A study has found that the advertising ban on junk food on the tube has seen a significant decline in the amount of calories consumed by households each week. Tobacco advertising has long been banned, and more recently the branded packaging has followed suit. Since the introduction of this measure, along with its tax increase, the rate of decline in sales has almost doubled. What if these measures were introduced to high processed food, any goods that come in non-recyclable packaging, products made in sweatshops, products proven to be harmful to mental health, products that are built to have a short life and end up in landfill, products that are carbon intensive, products that involve animal cruelty, and so on? It would be a drastic change to our industry, but it would contribute hugely in influencing the shift we need to reach net-zero.

We need to commit to not only turning down work for big polluting clients, but to seek out the clients that are actively doing something to help. And it needs to be baked into the business model, not just a gimmicky show of greenwashing while the rest of the business remains almost exactly as carbon intensive as it was before. Our ultimate purpose must be to help envisage a better world for everyone, that is free of overconsumption and corporate control.

*With special thanks to Adfree Cities for organising their Beyond Consumerism Conference which was a big inspiration for this article.

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