Fight from the inside-out or boycott brands? How graphic designers shape a more sustainable and ethical food system
As the individuals who create systems and visualise our culinary choices, do designers have a responsibility to turn the tables on the food industry and lead us to a place where our consumption no longer negatively impacts the planet?
We are living in a bittersweet moment when we consider how the production and consumption of food are contributing to climate change. We have enough information to know what the healthier, more ethical and sustainable choices are but we’re far from a place where those options are widely accepted or readily available to most people. We’re seeing plant-based products fill up supermarket shelves, for example, but they are often more expensive than their planet-damaging alternatives. Drought-resistant agriculture is on the up, yes, as is hydroponics and vertical farming, and a focus on innovative biodegradable materials for packaging. But these options still feel beyond the average person’s understanding or interest and their uptake pales in comparison to widespread industrial methods.
Yet, there is a necessary need for those choices to be hastily adopted. The effect of climate change on how and what we eat will be huge, with more frequent flooding, storms and droughts disrupting traditional production. It’s a vicious cycle too, as food production is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (meat accounts for nearly 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases from food production) and when you factor in waste and overconsumption, it's a pretty grim picture.
For María Fuentenebro and Mario Mimoso of Madrid-based studio Sharp & Sour, who focus on shaping the futures of food through design, it’s a fascinating field to be working in. However, this feeling of flux resonates, as Mario remarks: “On one hand we still have these unhealthy, unethical brands from an already gone past, and on the other hand we’re on the verge of a revolution in the food industry.” This in-between-moment also raises questions around the role of the designer within this fraught system. Designers create products, systems and infrastructures and then visualise their work through tempting packaging and hunger-inducing marketing campaigns. In fact, when we question what it will take to turn the tables on the food industry and lead us to a place where our consumption no longer negatively impacts the planet and non-human life, the answer, potentially, is design.
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Sharp & Sour: The Museum of Endangered Foods (Copyright © Sharp & Sour, May, 2021)
Bruce Mau is a designer and educator with a wealth of experience. Throughout his career, he’s written and/or designed over 200 books, including the seminal S, M, L, XL in collaboration with Rem Koolhaas. He’s the founder of Bruce Mau Design, a creative studio that has worked with an enviable list of clients including MoMA, Adidas, Netflix and MTV. One project, in particular, though, had a profound impact on how Bruce looks at the world. In an exhibition and book called Massive Change, he questioned whether good design could solve humanity’s biggest problems. The project was so inspiring that he then launched a creative consultancy, the Massive Change Network, alongside his wife Aiyemobisi “Bisi” Williams, a strategist. The studio’s mission is simple and clear: to use design to create a better future.
“We have the power to do incredible things and really solve problems in a way that hasn’t been done before.”Bruce Mau
The seed for Massive Change was a quote by Arnold Toynbee who stated that the 20th Century, for all its violence or innovation in technology, will be remembered “as an era in which we dared to imagine the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective,” Bruce explains to us over a Zoom call. “And when he used the term practical objective, he made it a design project, not a utopian vision. It wasn’t by definition, out of reach, but rather something that we actually were undertaking.” That idea, Bruce continues, “was the biggest idea I’ve ever heard.” He realised it was what he had always been doing, and what other designers had always been doing. True, most would not state it in such grandiose terms, but “most designers in their work, are trying to figure out how to make the world a better place… that’s our common denominator.” Massive Change served only to prove this theory. It gave Bruce a “fresh understanding of the power of design, both positive and negative, that we have the power to do incredible things and really solve problems in a way that hasn’t been done before.” The point was not that design had the potential to do amazing things, it’s that it already is.
It’s interesting to consider how we might be making much quicker progress on the major problems of today’s world if they were treated as design problems, rather than, say, economic problems. For instance, when creating the work exhibited in Massive Change, Bruce and his team looked into what they coined “design economies”; “the regions of your life that are being changed and produced by design.” The outcome of this investigation was that there is not much left of our day-to-day which we do not navigate through design. “[Design] is determining everything about how we live,” Bruce says. And while we have a Minister of Education or Minister of Finance there is no Minister of Design even though “it’s determining our life outcomes more than any other single factor.” For design to mould and promote sustainable choices, it needs to be elevated on a global scale and understood as a vital tool.
Of course, we’re talking about huge shifts here and it’s often intimidating, as a sole designer or studio, to visualise the initial step one should take. It would be naive and over-optimistic to suggest that everyone can up and leave their job in the name of social good, for example. But for graphic designers in client-facing roles, working within teams where they perhaps don’t call the shots, Bruce sees ample opportunity to make a difference. What is it about designers that makes them different to other people? For Bruce, it’s about caring more than others – “that’s what makes great design outcomes.”
Bruce is staunch in his belief that to truly tackle the crisis we are currently facing, we need to utilise the power of markets – and, fundamentally, that means collaborating with, or at least getting in the room with, organisations and institutions that historically have had the most negative impact on our planet. As a Canadian, Bruce admits he’s predisposed to align with the political left, but during his research for Massive Change was bowled over by the abhorrent but also inspiring work happening at each end of the political spectrum. “I realised that there really is a new political axis developing, which is not about left and right, it’s about forward and backward. And I am committed to forward because there is no backward… I want to use all the mechanisms of social institutions, and all the mechanisms of market forces. I want to use the whole spectrum to move forward.”
“A beautiful part of being a designer is to understand that I am part of something bigger.”Bebel Abreu
Take Bruce’s work with Coca-Cola, a company that many within the activist space would refuse to work with. For Bruce, however, it was an opportunity. “I remember when I started working with them, a lot of my friends were curious,” he recalls. “The reason I did it was that I knew that if we were able to really move Coca-Cola in the right direction, that thousands of companies would follow. We think of Coca-Cola as a monolithic and singular thing. But it’s not, it’s actually an alliance of thousands of companies, and many thousands more will simply follow because Coca-Cola is doing something.” Under the banner of “Refresh, Recycle, Reuse” Massive Change Network designed a system of upcycling 111 Coca-Cola bottles into a sustainable chair, the 111 Navy Chair (a nearly indestructible Navy Chair of the Second World War that is still selling well today). What the studio really did, however, was design the potential for the conglomerate to become a leader in sustainability – it planted the seed for change. But how did it do it? When working with Coca-Cola leadership, Bruce advised them to not tell anyone about what they were doing; to do the opposite of what Coca-Cola always does and not utilise its marketing machine. Take action, then talk about it.
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Bruce Mau’s Massive Change Network: M24 (Copyright © Bruce Mau’s Massive Change Network)
This approach is at the core of Bebel Abreu’s work. The director of What Design Can Do (WDCD) São Paulo, Bebel also co-founded the studio Mandacaru with her sister in 2007. AT WDCD, she’s been responsible for several live events and “challenges”, notably the No Waste Challenge launched earlier this year. This kind of work promotes tangible outcomes, not hypothesis’, which is the whole point, Bebel explains: “WDCD has a very interesting approach,” she says, “don’t complain, just do something to solve what needs to change.” She adds that “a beautiful part of being a designer is to understand that I am part of something bigger. I have the ability to understand the big picture and how the pieces fit together,” but it's important to remember that behind all good ideas is a designer. What’s more, “a good idea in the drawer is nothing… You have to act!”
Bruce’s project with Coca-Cola is testament that this approach works as, once it was out in the world, other companies very quickly followed suit – McDonald’s was almost immediate, he tells us. “McDonald’s is still a fast-food company. But it’s beginning to shift its production in a way that is more and more sustainable. And so designers have to be there. That’s not going to happen if the people who have the capacity to show them the future are not in the game. I’m willing to take the critique in order for the impact.” This attitude acknowledges the fact that “unethical and unsustainable brands,” it seems, are here to stay. So is it really feasible to suggest that designers never work with them? Probably not. Maria explains that, for Sharp & Sour, “it all depends on how unethical these brands are: there are some brands we would never work for, no matter what, but it all depends on the situation. In the end, we cannot escape capitalism, and we all need to pay our bills.”
In a book titled MC24: Bruce Mau’s 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in your Life and Work, the designer sets out the 24 principles that are at the core of his philosophy. One principle that feels particularly pertinent to this conversation is “always search for the worst”. “It comes from the insight that designers have a kind of inverse relationship with trouble,” he says. “When everything is good, we’re not needed. When things are bad, that’s really awesome for us, that’s a big opportunity.” In turn, he encourages every designer to seek out the worst things they can contribute to because that’s where they can have the biggest impact. When working with those companies, try to think about what exactly is stopping them from changing and then employ empathy to prove why massive change is necessary. Of all the jobs, designers have what Bruce calls an almost “shamanistic ability to show people the future.” Most designers take that for granted but when you pitch in an idea, you are allowing the person in front of you to envision the future and you can shape what that future will be. “That’s the power that designers have. And I think we mostly squander it,” Bruce adds. “We don’t realise how powerful we are.”
“Sustainable brands can have a bold, fearless, unapologetic message and express it accordingly through graphic design too.”Mario Mimoso
Mario echoes this idea, explaining that he’s always thought “it’s more practical and effective to fight from the inside.” When working with brands that perhaps don’t align perfectly with your values, he suggests trying to educate first and, if that doesn’t work, try to show a client that the ethical route is actually the most profitable one. “In the end, more often than not it all comes down to money. It is also a smart move: if you refuse the job, someone else will accept it and you’d have lost the opportunity to make a difference. Instead, if you take the job and try to leave your mark on it, even if it is a small one, then that’s already more than nothing.” Bebel on the other hand feels it’s an issue that goes beyond design: “I believe all people (designers included) should boycott unethical brands – the money naturally plays a huge role in the company's decisions.” She does, however, add that “it is very handy to have creatives to implement changes.”
While there’s a sense that being in the room with the powers at be within some of these typically unethical companies is important, is there something to be said about actually learning from them? Reel off what you believe to be the top ten most iconic logos or brand visual identities and I’ll bet the Golden Arches, the Nike tick, the Starbucks mermaid rank among them. Clearly, these brands are getting something right when it comes to branding and marketing. If options that were less damaging (even beneficial) to the planet were packaged up in the same way, would we be facing a less dismal future?
“For designers, every problem is an opportunity.”Bebel Abreu
It’s something Sharp & Sour allude to when discussing the current visual landscape of sustainability. “A couple of weeks ago we were at a food trade show with one of our clients and all of the brands were basically the same: a green, paint-brushed calligraphic logo with a leaf floating around somewhere,” Mario says. “There were so many of them we couldn’t agree if it was funny or depressing.” It seems impossible to invite consumers to try out more sustainable options if those options always look “naive and even childish,” as Mario describes. Through their work, though, Maria and Mario are attempting to shift the needle. But it goes far beyond aesthetics. Designing a sleek black and white identity (as they did for BayWa Global Produce) for a sustainable food brand is not only challenging visually but has more to do with consciousness than just plain facade – it has a lower impact on the environment “than printing green leaves and worn-out quotes all over.” Mario continues that, for them, it is also about challenging the mainstream image that climate crisis activism has had to date: “a soft tone of voice, pastel colours and cute claims. No way! Sustainable brands can have a bold, fearless, unapologetic message and express it accordingly through graphic design too.”
Bebel, too, acknowledges this, seeing the fact that the current sustainable food landscape is visually lacking as a huge chance for designers. “For designers, every problem is an opportunity. From better packages (the materials, the information, the visuals) to initiatives such as Invisible Food (a platform that connects not consumed but good food with the ones who need to eat),” there are so many avenues to explore. The approach needs to be holistic though, she believes. It needs to consider the user, the supply and production chain as well as the environment. Simply, it has to be “intentional and daring,” and designers have a huge role to play in shaping this approach.
While the Massive Change Network was founded on Arnold Toynbee’s notion that design is for the welfare of all human life, today, Bruce’s mission has shifted, all because of a student he met while giving a talk at a high school. After telling the class about his ethos and philosophy, he opened the floor to questions. A young woman took the mic and proceeded to tell Bruce that “human-centred” design was not enough, that it still took the stance that humans own nature – that was a concept developed in the 20th Century but we are living in the 21st. Our objective today needs to be to design for the welfare of all life, not just human life. “That really started a process for us, of developing what we call ‘life-centred design’. Which is to say, we have to escape what I call the narcissism of human-centred design,” he explains. And that feels like as good a lens as any to view all of our work through. Will what I am creating benefit all life or just some of it?
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About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.