Pin It
A future world graphic design round table

What does graphic design have to do with the end of the world?

Pin It
A future world graphic design round table

What does graphic design have to do with the end of the world?

From XR to Instagram infographics, three leading climate-conscious designers discuss how accessible aesthetics translate to ecological good

Welcome to A Future World – Dazed's network, community, and platform focusing on the intersection of science, technology and pop culture. Throughout April, we're featuring conversations and mission statements from the people paving new pathways for our planet: activists, inventors, fashion pioneers, technologists, AI scientists, and global youth movements, alongside in-depth editorial exploring the new realities for our future world.

Climate activism doesn’t look like it did five years ago. From the pastel-toned, serif-heavy tiles filled with climate resources making rounds on Instagram, to the emphatic hourglass symbol stencilled across city streets, new design languages spurred by the urgency of the crisis seek to spread information about environmental injustice to as many people as possible – as quickly as possible. Time continues to slip away, and one of the central tools pushing climate activism forward has been accessible design, a vehicle for mobilising people in great numbers. When they’re engaging, activist messages are quick to travel across online filter bubbles; when something complex is expressed in a clear way, it’s all the easier to share. Case in point: illustrator Mona Chalabi’s viral and very approachable data viz, as well as the eye-popping social media slides by activist groups like @chicksforclimate and @adapt_____.  

In an act of subversion, many climate activists have started to adapt design strategies used by corporations, lending causes the same sense of unity in colour palette and typography as you would expect from a tantalising brand campaign. This was most explicitly seen with Extinction Rebellion’s emergence in 2018, having devised a series of brand elements that remain free for protestors and supporters to use however they like. The democratising of design applications and web platforms has also made it far simpler for those who aren’t formally trained in design to get involved, and activists have taken advantage of these new tools to focus attention to urgent and challenging topics with new clarity. 

For those in the privileged position of not sensing the effects of the climate crisis in their day-to-day lives, dense infographics and photographs of droughts and forest fires might do little to make the situation more immediate. Wielding design to tell stories, activists have found novel ways to foster more tangible relationships with our surroundings and draw critical attention to the non-human entities living around us. Better storytelling, in short: whether in the form of a comic, or an ingenious use of seaweed in a product, can prompt more inclusive conversations around issues pertaining to the environment, and likewise nurture a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of the fragility of the world we inhabit.

Each participant in the following conversation approaches the emergency in different ways, but they all have climate activism and design in common. We spoke together about the power of accessibility, building a movement and how, when talking about the climate, design also has a lot to answer for. 


Joycelyn Longdon is the founder of Climate in Colour, an online education platform for the climate-curious that makes conversations around climate more diverse and accessible. She’s also a current PhD student at Cambridge University, looking at applying AI to climate change issues and focusing on centring indigenous knowledge in forest management practices. 

Seetal Solanki is a designer that mainly works in the realm of materials, seeking to help people better relate to them. Her studio Ma-tt-er is a learning space that provides people with a playful and accessible way of thinking through responsible choices and getting closer to the non-human world. She’s also a tutor at Central Saint Martins and at the Royal College of Art, and is currently living between London and Lagos. 

Clive Russell is a designer based in London who co-runs the studio This Aint Rock’n’Roll. He was one of the founding members of the Extinction Rebellion arts group and was also involved with the Brixton Pound. He has two children and knows that the future of this planet will be a big part of their future. 

When you first began designing for the climate emergency, what did you find yourselves up against?

Clive Russell: The climate scientists have been banging on about this stuff for donkey’s years, and it just hasn’t resonated with people. The hippies have also been making their handmade banners, and all that they’ve done is created a sort of bubble for themselves to exist within. So the question with XR was, how do you break into the mainstream?

Joycelyn Longdon: Education is a really big part of action and a lot of really important education is hidden behind paywalls. It’s hidden behind academic papers. It’s hidden behind academic language. Going into a highly institutionalised space for my PhD, I felt I could disrupt this a little bit and provide people with access to information everyone should have access to.

Seetal Solanki: Materials have only really been presented in very academic or scientific ways. Those contexts are quite specific and the people involved in those conversations are very few. For me, materials are meant for everybody. Everybody works with materials and engages with them on a daily basis. Even now we’re all sat on something that is a material or wearing something that is made from a variety of materials, but we have very little knowledge about them. At Ma-tt-er, a lot of what we do is about access, about making materials more accessible through design. 

Can you describe how you do that – how design can make something more accessible? 

Seetal Solanki: At Ma-tt-er, we often frame materials through play. Ultimately we’re trying to humanise materials in order for people to relate to them. For me, design is all about relationality and accessibility and that’s exactly how we work with it. It’s about getting people to feel like they can be part of it and for it not to feel like it's something that is too aspirational. For example, we’ve designed a materials personality quiz and a materials horoscope, so people can start to see themselves through (a) materials lens, not just through a human lens.

Joycelyn Longdon: The vibe of Climate in Colour is there are the facts, but also beautiful storytelling, and those things can live together. We can still talk about facts and social impacts and have it be nicely designed all at the same time to really draw people in, to make them feel inspired, positive and motivated to (take) action. The important thing is to take care when thinking about people who have sight or hearing or other issues that might exclude them from gaining that information. In contrast to more traditional methods, using social media and the digital space moves accessibility further out – you’re able to bring activism to people wherever they’re at, and that’s also important to me. 

Clive Russell: For XR, we looked backwards. We looked at the Suffragettes, we looked at the arts and crafts movement, we looked at the Bauhaus. We asked ourselves, how do we create a similar consistency today while also allowing people to bring their own thinking to protest art, their own way of displaying things? What we created was quite an open-ended look and feel that people could feel a part of. The point was to make something and give it away very quickly so everyone could then grow it themselves.

“For XR, we looked backwards. We looked at the Suffragettes, we looked at the arts and crafts movement, we looked at the Bauhaus. We asked ourselves, how do we create a similar consistency today while also allowing people to bring their own thinking to protest art?”  – Clive Russell, Extinction Rebellion

All three of you have also worked in the creative commercial world in the past. Are there certain techniques you’ve appropriated from the logic of brands for climate activism? 

Clive Russell: Some of the techniques we’ve used for XR are certainly borrowed from mainstream branding. But we did not create big guideline books – the design programme for XR says use the font, use the colours, use the logo and that’s it. That’s all it says. Giving it away is really important because that’s not what our culture does – our culture keeps stuff, it owns things. I talk about this in terms of building a presence, not a brand, because a brand is about ownership.

Joycelyn Longdon: I think some of my techniques come from a marketing perspective, too, which I did before I started my degree. A lot of marketing is digging down into who the consumer is but in my position I don’t have consumers – I have community members, I’m not selling anything. But what is human nature? What are people drawn to? Advertising is so full of just selling you crap you don’t need while making you feel like you need it, making it feel like it fits your aesthetic or that you are compelled to have it. I guess I’ve lifted that in, (in order) to work out: how do you make people want to be educated about the climate crisis? How do you make people feel excited, like they need to be involved in the movement and in educating themselves about intersections of race, oppression and climate justice?

Seetal Solanki: For me, so much of what I've come up against in the commercial space was very much a misunderstanding, a misrepresentation and also a disrespect for materials. So I had to go through a painful process of going against the grain constantly: trying to get people to really listen to how a material can shape a space, a body, an experience, because everything is made from something. Everything is designed really. In the Western world, my role and how I work with materials is very misunderstood. In a lot of Eastern environments, I’m placed on a pedestal and the idea of formal training is something people aspire to. It’s a shared experience between us, we learn from each other, it’s less of a hierarchy and more of an exchange. I have learnt so much from commercial spaces, but there has been a lot of unlearning I’ve had to go through too. 

A lot of brands succeed by creating the aura that their brand is something that people should be a part of. In fact, the language used by activists and movements is often appropriated for this end! But a consumer is rarely actually part of a brand. How has the role of participatory design –  that is collaboration and audience participation – been part of your approach and thinking?

Clive Russell: With XR, we wanted to give the tools we’ve pre-created to people, and then they can add to the tools, combine them with free programs, and use the elements together in workshops. The key thing is that you do it together. When you do things together as a group you talk, and instead of social media, you have real social interaction. That kinetic space is really important. We need spaces where we can meet, get together, think together, do things together. 

Joycelyn Longdon: Your point about kinetic spaces is very valid, but I wouldn’t underestimate the validity of social and digital spaces, too. My platform began in the pandemic, and from a standpoint of interaction and participatory design, social media has been huge especially for marginalised voices. I’m able to collaborate and participate with others who I would have no way of meeting in physical space. We create content, resources, and messages together. At Climate in Colour, we do accessibility audits, so how you interact with the video content, how you read, the language that’s used, the colours, it’s all influenced by our community. We also hand over the space to others – again, as with XR, it’s about not having ownership over the platform. People can use it whenever they want to share issues they’re experiencing and to educate others on issues that are also outside of my personal sphere. 

Seetal Solanki: When we talk about collaboration in the design process, there is also never just one person involved ever. There’s somebody who has grown the cotton for example, somebody who has picked the cotton, somebody that’s shipped it to where it needs to be shipped to, somebody who is sewing it, somebody who is designing it, and then somebody selling it and so on. These voices have never been presented in the space of design though they’re actually involved in the process. 

“When people say that something is ‘bad design’ or, ‘that person is not creative’, it’s an active violence against people speaking up” – Joycelyn Longdon, Climate in Colour

Has your involvement with climate activism prompted you to rethink design itself?  

Seetal Solanki: There’s no universal solution to anything. That doesn’t work at all. It needs to be way more nuanced, and therefore the voices that are involved in conversations need to be more than just the designer’s. It can't just be about design, because design is impacting everything beyond that, it’s a much larger ecosystem than what is taught. For me, I’m always trying to present something that is providing alternatives, and not solutions because solutions will always have problems.

Joycelyn Longdon: Designing alternatives is so, so important and that's basically what I’m writing my PhD on. My question is: how does one interact with people and make local-specific approaches to issues, outside of the realm of someone indiscriminately creating a solution outside of the context of those people? Broadening what we mean when we say design is vital, because basically we design our lives, we design our interactions with other people, we design our processes. 

Seetal Solanki: Right now we’re just lacking imagination really. What is taught in design schools is this idea that one thing is good and the rest is bad, and that’s just a lack of imagination. The more we imagine, the more possibilities we have. And the more expansive possibilities become, the more rich, the more impactful, the more meaningful things are because people are able to express themselves. Ultimately, that’s what design is. It’s an expression and a needs-based way of making some kind of impact. 

Joycelyn Longdon: We’re missing the ability to imagine different systems on all scales, whether the systems of how we live, how we produce energy, how we create, or how we connect. All of these things have no imagination and they’re basically built on colonial systems. It’s not an accidental oppression of imagination either, because more imagination and plurality will take us away from very profitable systems of individualism, of technocratic practices, of exclusion, and people don’t want to lose economic superiority. When people say that something is “bad design” or, “oh, that person is not creative,” it’s an active violence against people speaking up. 

Clive Russell: There’s a current day obsession with the individual. We talk about entrepreneurs, we talk about designers and how they’re going to come up with the solution. It's such nonsense. We only solve stuff by doing it together, and there's only power in collectivism.

“What’s really frustrating is design is never criticised. It’s always celebrated, and this is a really big problem. Design needs to be constructively criticised and not shown as, ‘this is going to solve the world’s problems’” – Seetal Solanki, Ma-tt-er 

How would you like to see the design world change in light of our current crisis?

Clive Russell: What I’d like the whole world to do is basically make nothing for six months! If we’re not producing anything maybe there’s a bit of recovery time for the planet, and maybe we’ll find some commonality by just stopping our lives. It often feels like we’re all on a treadmill and we’re constantly being pushed. It would be nice to not be pushed for a while.

Seetal Solanki: What’s really frustrating is design is never criticised. It’s always celebrated, and this is a really big problem. Architecture is criticised to the point where it can be harmful or damaging to someone’s reputation; I’m not saying that’s correct, but I’m also saying that design needs to be constructively criticised and not shown as “this is going to solve the world’s problems.” The lack of critique is problematic because then we’re just hyping people up and suggesting they are doing something good, when actually there are so many ways in which they are causing harm, because they’re not seeing the wider ecosystem or impact that their design is involved in.

Joycelyn Longdon: Yes! And design is often presented as a solution to the climate emergency. There needs to be accountability to the design community as a whole who, I guess, have been able to hide behind not being at fault. They’re not big bad corporations, they’re not big bad governments. But it’s this idea that “we’re artists and it’s our practice and it's this creative thing, it's for the greater good.”

Seetal Solanki: When there’s so much we can be accountable and responsible for as designers, there needs to be (new) policy, or other top down approaches. There needs to be more conversation around regulations, and there needs to be more work done within the design sphere, because it’s too celebratory, too kind. If we think that everything is designed, we have a really big responsibility to change things.