Design for Planet: using storytelling to reframe the climate crisis

By shifting the focus towards storytelling, designers can reposition their own work and thereby effect change in consumers.

On day one of the Design Council’s Design for Planet festival the message was clear: humans need to resoundingly change their behaviour patterns if we want to save the fortunes of the planet – and ourselves.

Designers, several of the speakers explained, can and should be at the forefront of that behavioural change: as the developers, curators and tastemakers for huge portions of society they are uniquely positioned to do so. But to effect change in others, Finn Harries says designers need to consider their own thinking too.

A designer and filmmaker, Harries helms Earthrise Studio with his twin brother Jack. The studio is founded on the principle that design and storytelling are vital to reframe the narrative around the climate crisis. “In order to tackle the environmental challenges we face today, we really need to cultivate a new perspective,” he says.


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“Communicating the problem doesn’t go far enough”

Design, Harries says, is the visual manifestation of stories that shape our culture. To change the way we design, we need to “embrace a different story”. At Earthrise – so named for the famous picture of the Earth taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders – this means working to show how “serious and systemic” the problem is, while still fostering “the inspiration and optimism for how things could be”.

“[We] are dedicated to exploring what a just transition would like,” Harries says. On the surface, Earthrise’s output is a social platform which features information, statistics and stories in accessible ways, such as videos and infographics. When good design is used to convey these messages, Harries explains, more people are able to engage.

However, slick communications are only half the battle, he says. The major driving force behind Earthrise is reframing the narrative around the climate crisis – chiefly, in regard to who will be affected. “Communicating the problem doesn’t go far enough, so we have to create content that shows where and why change is needed,” he says.

Personal versus collective responsibility

One issue with how designers have communicated the issue of climate change in the past, Harries says, is that too often narratives rely on the responsibility of the individual. This problem didn’t come out of nowhere. He says fossil fuel companies have historically encouraged the idea of personal responsibility because it takes the pressure off. Oil company BP, for example, created the idea of the “carbon footprint” as a marketing tool in the early 2000s to shift responsibility back onto the consumer, according to Harries.

This doesn’t mean however that design and storytelling can’t be used to help consumers make a significant change. As a later talk featuring Pentagram partner Naresh Ramchandani explored, reframing a narrative in a way that helps empower people, rather than shame them, is a very effective way to change harmful behaviours.

Ramchandani, who also heads up Do the Green Thing, spoke about his Ungifted initiative. Established two years ago, the initiative takes aim at the wasteful “Secret Santa” industry and uses positive storytelling to reframe the tradition and help encourage a change in behaviour.

“Trying to replace like for like”

In the context of Secret Santa, Ramchandani says the easiest and most instinctual response is to head to Amazon to seek out a gift. Once you hand it over, recipients “get the pleasure of ownership for a second and then it kind of hangs around for a long, long time”. The idea of gifting people something sits at the core of the tradition but he says that something doesn’t need to be physical.

Ungifted works within this belief by giving colleagues or other participants the ability to gift favours, surprises or other “person-to-person” interactions. These, Ramchandani says, are “almost as easy as heading to Amazon” but still provide a level of festivity.

Crucially, the designer says, is the tone of the platform. “It’s one of the lighter projects we’ve done – it’s Christmas and people want to give each other pleasure,” he says. There is a balance to be struck between being hard-hitting and allowing people to access a conversation in a time-relevant way, he says. “We don’t even use the words waste or landfill anywhere in our branding – people know what we’re talking about.”

“Essentially, it’s about trying to replace like for like, because that’s how we can make this transition as easy as possible,” he says.

Keep up with our coverage of Design for Planet on Design Week and follow us on Twitter.

Banner image by Shutterstock.

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