It’s Time to Save the World: One Pixel at a Time

By Emma Gregory, Senior Experience Designer, Tribal EMEA

Every time we access the internet, buy on a website, query ChatGPT or develop AI solutions we are using valuable energy. Indeed, if our digital emissions were a country, it would be the fourth largest contributor of CO2 globally. As our use of digital technology expands, so too does our environment impact. In fact, our digital environmental footprint accounts for around 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions (twice as much as air travel). An average data centre uses about 16 million litres of water per day. That’s about as much as a city of 45 000 people.

As digital designers we need to be aware that digital = physical. Digital services require physical infrastructure and electricity. With physical products the impact on the planet of how we source materials is much easier to understand. But with digital design the downstream consequences of how we develop the user journey and experience feels much less tangible in terms of the environment. And yet, it needn’t be. With just a small shift in mindset from the user to humanity our design solutions for brands can absolutely take account of the environment and be more sustainable.

Shift in mindset: from user-centricity to humanity-centricity

Transitioning to sustainable UX design requires a shift from a user-centred approach to a humanity -centred one – we could even call it planet-centred. So often, designers focus on the aesthetics and user experience at the expense of the products’ ecological footprint. For example, Apple products like the iPhone, beautifully designed but notoriously hard to repair, force the user into new purchases when the latest IOS software is released, encouraging a cycle of unsustainable consumption.

As designers, we’ve been trained to promote increased dwell times, page views, and content rich in visually appealing images. Yet, these practices come with significant energy implications. However, with small, practical steps designers can challenge the status quo and design a more ecological framework for brands who care about their environmental footprint.

Practical steps within the design processes

To integrate sustainability into our digital design processes, practical measures must be taken. Consider early conversations with clients at the research stage about their sustainability objectives, as well as their brands ecosystem and how it impacts our society and planet. We need to ensure we’re always staying accountable and challenging the status quo.

In the design phase, we need to consider minimalistic, carbon-conscious designs that reduce data load and energy consumption. One innovative example is from Organic Basics who have recently launched a low-impact version of their website that reduces data transfer by up to 70% compared to their regular website. The company built the low impact version of their site as a separate place with completely fresh code, with a series of rules which prompt questions about what is necessary to run not just low impact websites, but websites in general. For example, loading only the most crucial programming scripts and cookies and questioning which pages should contain analytics.

Other considerations for digital designers include reducing the steps in the user journey and streamlining content – both of which have the additional consumer benefit of helping the user reduce the amount of content they consume before reaching their goal. Image and videos are the biggest users of energy – and designers should think about how much of this is necessary to deliver the same result with less. Even adding a blur on an image can make a significant difference.

The use of colour too can be made more efficient as darker colours are more energy efficient. Equally the amount of data we collect on consumers all requires storage which in turn requires data centres water and electricity. By asking ourselves key questions in the design phase about the amount of data we really need positively impacts both privacy and sustainable design. And, as consumers become ever-more socially conscious, they will be on the lookout for environmentally friendly design choices moving forward.

Metrics and evaluation

Brands must ensure that their metrics go beyond purely user satisfaction and also consider environmental and societal impact. Establishing benchmarks for evaluating the carbon footprint throughout the product life cycle is crucial and there are now numerous tools available to companies to help with this assessment, such as carbon calculators.

At the moment, the planet isn’t considered enough within our design processes and that needs to change. Working in digital, we can often feel disconnected from nature, but we have a responsibility as digital designers to pre-emptively consider how our work impacts our planet and society with the digital products and services we create.

Evolving from user-centricity to humanity-centricity in our design processes is imperative for a sustainable future. Baking sustainability into every phase, from research through to implementation, and embracing continuous learning, adaptation and education are essential components of this journey toward eco-conscious design. Brands committed to reducing carbon footprints can make a substantial positive difference by adopting these sustainable practices.

About the Author

Emma Gregory, Senior Experience Designer, Tribal EMEA & Sustainability Affinity Group Lead on the DE&I board for Critical Mass

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