Making Digital Design Sustainable

Articles

by Lily Hannigan

Digital Misconceptions

The internet allows us to speak to loved ones and colleagues from all over the world, stream films, and store vast amounts of messages, documents, and media without a second thought. As a result, there’s a perception that the internet exists in an entirely different realm to the built environment. While at the same time, the internet has entered every aspect of our lives.

From shopping to socialising, and work to working out, much of our existence is now virtual. 

Thanks to coronavirus, we’ve realised that many of the things we used to do in person can be done online. In the years following the pandemic, companies will think twice before flying staff halfway across the world for the sake of a few meetings, and a quarter of UK offices plan to continue hybrid working for the foreseeable future (ONS, 2021).

As well as saving a whole lot of time and money, the shift to online stands to benefit the environment; principally by reducing the need for transportation between places. 

But that doesn’t mean the internet is carbon neutral. 

We tend to imagine that websites, apps, and the very architecture of cyberspace will keep spreading out indefinitely. In popular consciousness, the digital sphere is an unlimited metaphysical resource, where ‘the Cloud’ has no bearing on the extreme weather events affecting ‘the real world.’ 

The Environmental Impact of Digital

The two biggest environmental benefits of the internet are:

  1. The internet eradicates the need to print and mass-produce everything from train tickets to government reports.
  2. Connecting virtually eliminates the need for transportation and the associated emissions.

Because it seems obvious that the digital trumps the physical in these regard, it makes sense that few people are inclined to consider the environmental impact of the internet any further. 

But maybe they should … 

Most of the ways digital affects the environment are widely known, but rarely acknowledged:

 

  • Every time you plug in your phone, your laptop or tablet you’re using energy. Depending on how you generate electricity in your home, the effects on the environment are not huge, but they do add up. 
  • On the other hand, your smartphone is probably the most environmentally-costly device you own, thanks to the materials and processes used in its construction, as well as the impact of shipping between Asia, Europe and the US. 
  • Laptops, computers and gaming consoles quickly follow suit, all requiring materials and a global system of production to manufacture and export.   
A massive way the internet impacts the environment is neither well-known, nor widely acknowledged:

 

  • Alongside the environmental costs of manufacturing, shipping and charging devices, are the effects of running and storing digital information through data centres.
hand holding a mobile phone

The internet may transcend physical space, but it relies on physical structures to operate.

The internet is run by ‘data centres’: vast buildings which house hundreds of machines that code the data that is eventually transmitted to our screens. (If you’ve seen the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror, they look a bit like the sarcophagus-like boxes of binary code that feature in the end credits.) 

Data Centres use up enormous amounts of energy. Although they have been praised for their growing efficiency, data centres contribute to as much as 4% of global carbon emissions (The Shift Project, 2019). If this doesn’t sound like much, it’s on a par with the level of emissions from airline companies, and higher than the total emissions from any single country apart from the US and China.  

Basically, the internet is far from carbon neutral. 

When you’re refreshing Instagram, checking your email or watching a film, you’re performing an action with real consequences for the planet. 

photo of a data centre

What Can We Do to Make Digital More Sustainable?

  • Optimise page weight

You know how the digital world is full of references to its physical predecessors – like web pages,  files and  folders

In some cases, these referents are just helpful metaphors. But when it comes to thinking about energy usage, they’re actually pretty instructive.

For example, if a page is lagging, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s being weighed down by overly large files (often image or video files), convoluted styling or ill-conceived layout. 

When a page is taking ages to load, chances are that it has a high page weight and is using a lot of energy.  

You can optimise page weight by resizing images, stripping out any non-essentials and ‘lazy loading’ video content (we’re going to explain more about how to optimise page weight in a future article!). 

 

  • Choose a host that uses local servers 

Ask yourself where you expect the majority of your website traffic to come from, and endeavour to match with a local web host. 

If you’re working with a French events business, who takes on projects primarily in Provence, it’s going to be more environmentally costly to use a CMS platform with data centres in the United States than in Western Europe. 

The majority of the larger CMS platforms (eg. WIX and WordPress) have data centres in different continents for the sake of speed and security, should one location encounter (real-world) problems, such as natural disasters or war.

As a general rule, they’ll revert to the server that’s most efficient. But if you’re a business that primarily operates in a singular location, and you want to sure that your site is operating from a local server, check out The Green Hub Foundation’s list of eco-friendly hosting platforms.  

 

  •  Think about your ideal customer journey and organise around it 

If you approach design from the point of view of creating a clear and efficient user experience, you’re already halfway to designing sustainably. 

Think of your website as part map, part experiential journey. There may be more than one single pathway, but you should have an idea of what your visitor is looking for and where they’ll be going. 

Your job is to make your user journey as clear and smooth as possible. This means every page on your website will have value and reduces the likelihood that your visitors will click back and forth between web pages, increasing data usage. 

Much like optimising page weight, making your website more intuitive neatly dovetails with improving UX and SEO. So you’re winning all round!

Promotion poster with an illustration of a computer screen headlined as "The Boost Award".

Studio Lutalica’s design for The Boost Award is a good example of clear, sustainable design.

  • Consistency is key

Our final big tip is about striving for consistency.  

If a website has a logical layout: from the text classifications to the back-end architecture, it means that there is little need to overwrite HTML with more HTML. 

Sticking to a limited number of typographical elements, buttons and visual motifs, will not only make your website look more cohesive and increase usability, it will also decrease the amount of energy needed to power your site. 

If you’re looking for inspiration, we reckon our own website is a good example of sustainable digital design! Studio Lutalica’s limited palette, sparing use of imagery, logical structure and consistent aesthetic allow it to be speedy and economical.