How designers are utilising the creative possibilities of sustainable print

18 September 2019

You don’t need us to tell you that sustainable design is, today, about so much more than ticking boxes or jumping through hoops. It’s a necessary part of the design process and should be integral to every step, not something added on as an afterthought. The world of print specifically, while clearly an industry with a guilty past, is no exception. In fact, a far cry from simply ticking boxes, many are seizing the creative opportunities that working with print sustainably affords, seeing it as a breeding ground for new and exciting ways of working.

Alison Branch is the managing director at Park Communications, a printing company based in London committed to environmental protection, minimising its impact on the environment and raising awareness of less-damaging alternatives. While clearly the company has a responsibility to adhere to these ideas, it sees them as an opportunity. On what keeps her most excited about the world of sustainable print Alison says: “It has to be the pace of innovation. Almost every month we discover a new supplier who can recycle something once thought non-recyclable – or produce from sustainable materials something which was thought eco-unfriendly. After years in the industry, nothing makes a printer smile quite like finding a paper made from recycled coffee cups.”

While Park was working with one particular client, it was the discovery of paper made from coffee cups specifically that helped guide the project. Watson & Company came to Park wanting a publication which could visually celebrate the company’s achievements – an object which could then be shared with collaborators, partners and clients. A major part of the brief was that it should meet the company’s targets in terms of sustainability. To do so, Park chose Extract Moon from GF Smith, “an unusual material made partly from recycled coffee cups (196 per book, to be precise).”


Park Communications: Kingfisher PLC

Materials such as these are now abundant, and they can really oppose your ideas of what a recycled material is like to work with. Gone are the days of having one rough, grey paper to choose from and in its place are bountiful options of varying textures and colours. Take, for example, Kingfisher PLC’s annual report which was also printed by Park. The book exudes quality but is in fact made up of three different sustainable stocks, the most impressive being the book’s inner cover which is produced in a solid colour but uncoated – something many would have thought impossible to achieve with recycled papers.

While seemingly small, decisions like these can be crucial for the credibility of a business. “Companies are at risk today of being accused of ‘greenwashing’: claiming a green agenda whilst not actually observing green practices along the whole supply chain,” Alison explains. “There’s even an Instagram account dedicated to shaming greenwashing businesses. This means businesses must demand strict sustainability standards at every stage. For their print suppliers, this includes printing materials, but also how they manage their waste and the impact of printing processes. In an environment where your brand’s every move is under the magnifying glass of social media, slapping a sustainability tagline on your brand simply isn’t enough.”

The choice of materials can obviously have a massive impact on the sustainability of a project, but it’s not the only way to affect how environmentally friendly an outcome is – decisions can (and should) be made much earlier on in the process. It’s Freezing in LA! is a magazine about climate change and when, in its early days, the team decided to produce a publication, it was aware of the potential criticisms about paper usage. Matthew Lewis, the magazine’s designer, has certain rules in place to keep the project as sustainable as possible.


It’s Freezing in LA!

“I limit myself to two dummy copies of the magazine before sending to print,” he tells us. “We are utilitarian with the way we place content. After flowing in the articles, myself and Nina [Carter – head of visual content] work to allocate space for the illustrations before we commission them. This way we can make sure that space on the page is being used as economically as possible.” What’s more, It’s Freezing in LA! comes in at just under B5 (the size it was originally planned to be) as shaving a few millimetres off means more copies can fit on the same paper stock without any compromises to the design. This paper stock is, of course, recycled and the magazine is printed using organic inks – “Simple materials used to create a beautiful resource,” Matthew remarks.

For NB Studio, when asked to design an identity and accompanying packaging for Petit Pli, a sustainable children’s clothing brand, the idea of environmentalism had to be carried through everything. It wasn’t just a question of logistics or part of the design process, but the very concept of the project itself. What the studio created is a packing design which mimics the Petit Pli product; garments which, due to a concertina of pleats, grow as children do. Inspired by this transformative approach, NB’s packaging features an origami structure which allows a simple mailing box to become a wearable jet pack for children. Within the box, the garments are wrapped in pleated tissue paper, a by-product of the garment’s production process and then secured with string which is reused as straps for the jet pack. This all, in turn, extends “the life of the FSC-sourced cardboard by adapting the packaging’s primary usage from a functional object to an object for play,” explains Sam Pittman, a designer at the studio.


NB Studio: Petit Pli

While more sustainable, these decisions also add multiple layers to the concept of the design, nodding to the brand’s aerospace roots, for example. Ultimately they are proof that concept and sustainability can go hand-in-hand – one need not come before the other. On this point, and echoing Alison’s earlier comments, Sam adds: “The product is so inherently strong in its sustainability message that the packaging had to echo this. There was no point packaging the garments in an off-the-shelf solution that creates unnecessary waste, couldn’t be recycled or was printed in a non-environmentally friendly manner. Petit Pli consumers would jump on any such an insufficiencies.”

Clearly, the world of sustainable print is one to be mined, full of creative potential. However, one thing that Park encourages all designers to do is to think about sustainability from the outset of a project, and speak to your printers as soon as possible. For Park, this means it can truly impact its collaborators’ practices because sustainability is not a one-fits-all solution. “There are dozens of ways in which a production may be considered sustainable, and clients may find that their preferred choice – a particular recycled paper, say – may actually be incompatible with another objective, such as cost, choices of colours, or the texture of the finished production,” Alison tells us. And even if sustainability isn’t your priority, there are environmentally-friendly options which are compelling for a whole host of other reasons, as GF Smith’s Extract Moon proves. “What an exciting time to be in print,” Alison concludes.

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