POV: Designers need to think more like ecologists

Graphic design and illustration inspired by natural forms are on the rise. But this isn’t always a good thing, particularly when this aesthetic is being used to mask murkier environmental practices. The founders of creative studio Companion—Platform explain what it takes to approach design in a more thoughtful way.

Earth Month has just been and gone, and it afforded us at It’s Nice That the opportunity to reflect on a visual trend we’ve been noticing with increasing regularity: graphic design and illustration taking their cues from the natural world. Recently we’ve seen beautiful coffee-table books inspired by mycelium networks, typefaces that have been grown in a petri dish like fungi, and entire visual identities designed to resemble leaves and sinuous stems. Yet while these particular projects were all for worthy causes, we’ve also come across examples where this aesthetic is being adopted as a form of greenwashing, a way to make a brand seem more environmentally friendly than it is in reality.

“This is a dynamic in our industry that we observe and think about often, and one that doesn’t just apply to the environment, but also to a number of other socio-cultural realms,” says Lexi Visco, who, along with Calvin Rocchio, founded Companion—Platform, an independent creative studio based in the Bay Area (to see their work, take a look at our article on the studio here). Lexi and Calvin approach their projects, they say, as ecologists. “We arrived at this description by making a slight pivot from thinking about design systems in a vacuum and instead through more of an ecologist’s lens,” says Calvin. “When we begin a project, we often think about where it exists, what kinds of environments it will resonate within and what else might be going on in those environments that the project can also acknowledge or direct attention to.” As an ecologist might look holistically at an ecosystem or habitat, this approach to design prioritises context.

It’s easy enough to pay lip service to this philosophy, but Lexi and Calvin actually live it. “We try to pursue and maintain as much continuity between the time we spend outside and inside of our studio as we can,” says Lexi. “We garden, backpack, birdwatch, trail run, visit creeks, make field drawings, backcountry ski and fly fish.” Much of the inspiration they bring to their projects is also found outside of their computer or phone screens, from “things we often stumble upon when we’re out in the world,” as Lexi puts it. These could be “small illustrations we find in the pages of books from free libraries stationed around our neighbourhood, diagrams on trailside display signs, or discarded plant tags”.

OK, now obviously that sounds like a completely idyllic way to live – I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend more time outdoors, sketching, skiing and swimming in creeks? But these kinds of values almost always end up crashing against the thorny reality of running a studio or building a creative career, both of which necessitate working with clients. What makes Lexi and Calvin more unusual is that this lifestyle actually influences both the clients they take on and the work they create.

The first step they’ve taken is to prioritise control over scale. “We’re intentionally a small studio, which allows us to be quite nimble when deciding which projects to take on,” says Calvin. That means they can choose to collaborate with environmentally conscious clients. At this moment in time, for instance, they’re working with a local landscape architecture studio; a small speaker company focused on “the conservation of natural sound ecologies”; an artist collective embedded in a neglected orchard researching fruit and the cultural histories surrounding their care and cultivation; and a local outdoor experimental listening event. This kind of pickiness around clients would be much harder at a larger scale, so Lexi and Calvin have chosen to remain small. But that doesn’t absolve larger studios and agencies from any responsibility. “We think it’s important for design studios to establish a position and to acknowledge their agency,” says Calvin.

Much of their work also takes its cues from the natural world, particularly plant life. When it comes to their projects, Companion—Platform emphasises the importance of specificity. “Generalisations are usually a good indication that perhaps there’s a disconnect between design and content,” says Lexi. “Is the content or brand or organisation substantive? If it is, it should be fairly straightforward to invoke thoughtful specificity and context within the project.” There isn’t really a shortcut to gaining that – it takes a lot of research and many hours of speaking with a client to understand their mission and goals. “We generally begin working from a language-rich place,” she continues, “co-creating a shared vocabulary and conceptual grounds with clients before we begin working visually.” Alongside this, they research the context and community in which the project will operate, as well as any references or historical precedents for the project.

Illustration is quite often used by brands hoping to appear greener, for the precise reason that it can lack that sense of distinction – its potential for universality is exactly what makes illustration both such a powerful medium and, in the wrong hands, such a misleading one. “We’re fascinated by the potential illustration has for operating on both an objective-representational and subjective-emotional level,” says Calvin. A lot of Companion—Platform’s illustrative style stems from observational drawings, so it’s often detailed, almost scientific. This helps it to feel specifically relevant and considered, but, as ever, an illustrative style has to be underpinned by considered research – you can’t skip that step.

Speaking with Companion—Platform and hearing their thoughts on design, it’s hard not to feel that the world needs more designers who see their craft through an ecologist’s lens. What’s important to note, though, is that this isn’t just good practice for projects in the environmental realm – this is also, quite simply, good design. The best and most thoughtful designers around the world, no matter what field they operate in, spend their time considering context, thinking about community, pushing for specificity. Yes, this approach makes them more environmentally astute designers, but it also makes them better designers, full stop.

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About the Author

Matt Alagiah

Matt joined It’s Nice That as editor in October 2018 and became editor-in-chief in September 2020. He was previously executive editor at Monocle magazine. Drop him a line with ideas and suggestions, or simply to say hello.


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