The Colour of Green
Ever heard that white is more sustainable? In a world of systemic exclusion, sustainability is only the latest aspiration to be co-opted by the ideology of less

by Benedetta Crippa

I often propose to graphic design students this real scenario. You are presenting the layout of a business card to a client, in two versions: one with red background and white text, the other with white background and red text. The client says they really prefer the one with the red background, but they add you should print the other one, because the white background saves ink and it is more sustainable.

What do you do?

Consider this: like most clients, this one was motivated by the will to ‘do the right thing’. At some point they have learnt that colour is polluting and costly, in every sense. In quickly dismissing their own preference in favour of a less appealing, supposedly ‘greener’ option, what they have actually learned to set aside is not primarily a certain look per se, but their very own emotions. In “The Shape of Green: Aesthetic Imperatives” (Places Journal, June 2012) architecture author Lance Hosey highlights how sustainability has traditionally been placed in antithesis to beauty: in the bigger picture of sustainable action, beauty (and the emotional reward it brings) becomes a luxury, an egoistic excess we must learn to drop in favour of ‘the greater good’—which should therefore be visually understated, at best. Any aesthetic consideration that does not directly and measurably contribute to a greener effect is de-prioritised, when not dropped altogether. This has established what we can call an “ideology of less” where emotion is typically the first victim.

Colour is second.

My client has internalised this idea, and they are not alone. I could have played along; one designer going for a white background is no big deal, after all. What happens though when not one, but an entire generation of designers drops colour in favour of white? I imagined a world where white is established as the most ethical choice—it was not exciting, but not entirely unfamiliar either.

Zaha Hadid, who expanded the field of architecture with her designs defiant of geometry and gravity, argued, “there are 360 degrees, so why stick to one?”. The same can be said about colour, only that in this case the possibilities become a few million (and that’s only the colours we can see). But for any graphic designer, to work bravely with colour means embarking on a quest paved with a certain degree of frustration and frequent technical challenges, many of which still remain without a solution. Printing technologies are designed so that it is still enormously costly, or indeed sometimes a technical impossibility, to print many colours. In the rare cases when budget and technique are not an issue, one still needs to reckon with the limited nature of certain inks—neon hues, for instance, will fade away in a few days if untreated and exposed to sunlight, something no client will ever wish for and therefore agree to.

Even digital devices that use the ‘additive’ method for generating colour known as RGB—able to reproduce millions of hues—are still mostly restricted to a narrow band of the spectrum, excluding very bright, very saturated tints. Because of insufficient interest and research, working with colour in graphic design is a costly, complicated and sometimes risky operation. And when we turn on the lens of sustainability, it inevitably also becomes harmful: most ink for both industrial and home printing is developed through highly polluting processes.

So how does white become the colour of green? By looking at the history of printing, we learn that the combination black on white is the sharpest the human eye can read. With black as the only possible ink for common printing for quite some time, the industry embarked on the search for the whitest possible paper for optimal contrast. Interestingly, today anybody can print hundreds of colours at home, but white remains an impossibility. Because of the way the CMYK method for common printing was designed—‘subtracting’ light from white, contrary to screens—printing white is only possible through special inks, primarily within industrial printing or at specialised workshops. In print (and therefore in graphic design, but also in most Western interior architecture), white generally remains the starting base to which colour is added—enter white paper.

The bright white we have grown to expect as the standard for paper is a costly operation. Achieved through highly polluting bleaching processes, the industry made it possible for the desire of the whitest paper to remain within parameters of social acceptance by coming up with less harmful solutions to obtain the same result. Enter FSC and ISO certifications, eco-labels and traceability of the supply chain, as well as bleaching processes free of the chemical component responsible for the worst of the environmental harm, chlorine (which remains necessary still, in many cases). This example shows that, whatever in the artificial world is most sustainable, easy to produce, or standardised—like white paper—it is always so by design. It becomes sustainable, or the standard, as we make it so—and as we make its alternative by contrast more polluting, less available, and less desirable.

From to the Puritan advocacy of visual austerity as morally superior against the lavish visual abundance of the Catholic tradition; to the notion that classical sculptures were meant to be white (an idea that contemporary neo-nazi movements fiercely defend, despite plentiful evidence to the contrary); from white being set as the default colour in most design and graphics software, to the rejection of the pink flower-shaped vaccination booths designed by architect Stefano Boeri for Italian cities in 2020, the history of visual culture is paved with examples of the ‘ideology of less’ recurrently asserting itself in ways you may not suspect or connect, with colour as a key battleground between good and evil. But it is within the sustainability discourse of the past few decades that the ideology of less brings home its greatest success yet: being globally recognised as the responsible choice.

The case of Boeri’s vaccination centres is significant. Designer of the acclaimed Vertical Forest and currently director of the Triennale institution for design in Milan, Boeri is an architect and advocate for policies on city planning often founded on profound notions of environmental and social sustainability. In late 2020, upon invitation by the Italian government, Boeri’s studio presented a proposal for fully biodegradable Covid-19 vaccination booths that utilise an illustration of a pink flower as their main visual motif. The backlash against the design was so vocal that the architect was forced to release a statement outlining the choice as aiming to bring a sense of hope and grace to a country crippled by the highest death toll from the pandemic in Europe (at the time of writing).

The critique of Boeri’s design is driven by the familiar argument that there are more urgent matters to think about than plastering cities with pink flowers. We have grown to expect so little from our public spaces, such misery in our visual surroundings, and such pervasiveness of aesthetics and colours attached to stereotypical ideas of masculinity, that anything which deviates from that becomes a radical element of disruption; a cause for commotion that swiftly establishes the legitimacy for its own rejection.

Aesthetics exist within a system of values that vary with time and geography. As we have seen with colour in printing, each culture establishes certain features as more desirable, then concentrates efforts toward making those features the easiest to obtain. In a time dominated by patriarchy and white supremacy, it is not by chance that, whatever the aspiration—be it good design, inclusive design or sustainable design—we seem to somehow always arrive at the same conclusion: whiteness, uniformity and rationalisation as the benchmarks of the very best we can do.

Users’ preferences are often called in to support this order of things. In the field of design in general (and especially so in advertising) user research is commonly relied on to make aesthetic decisions, possibly because it boils the creative process down to a fact-based methodology that clients, especially those trained in the sciences, can read as safer and more authoritative because apparently less ‘arbitrary’.
Colour is the one element clients can have strong opinions about. In a recent meeting with a sustainability product for the financial sector, backed by millions of dollars, a stakeholder requested the colour pink to be dropped because “people in finance do not like pink”. This is founded on a few assumptions, some of which are correct. Finance is still a male-dominated field and men are generally socialised to dislike pink as a colour attached to femininity, which they are also socialised to dislike (that same stakeholder could obviously not recall that pink is often the colour of business newspapers, starting with the Financial Times).

Whatever the veracity of these assumptions, however, it does not make them any more relevant. User research, albeit useful under certain circumstances, bears the fundamental flaw that it always tends to confirm what is already established. It rarely takes into account power dynamics, implicit bias, nor the history of selective exclusion visual culture is built upon. The 101 on sustainability would indicate that power dynamics are the very first thing to challenge in order to bring about any meaningful change, but without the conscious effort of doing so, design does nothing more and nothing less than confirming the world as it already is. In a society crippled by power imbalances, to make aesthetics a matter of consensus means that all that is not already recognised as carrying authority will be consistently excluded—with plenty of ‘research’ to support it.

In February 2021, the design duo FormaFantasma published a new website that founder Andrea Trimarchi advertises as “designed to minimise the energy consumption and CO2 emissions that result from navigating the internet”. FormaFantasma is an Amsterdam-based sensible design practice of international recognition, exhibited in major institutions around the world and awarded as Designers of the Year 2021 by Wallpaper. With them not being graphic designers, the new website is the result of a collaboration with the graphic design practice Studio Blanco (translated as Studio White in English). Landing on the site, two elements stand out: the complete absence of colours other than white or black—the user is allowed to choose between them, with the black one intended to save energy—and the typography: the ubiquitous Times New Roman and Arial in either black, white or blue. They see the design as a statement on sustainability to the extent that they dedicate a whole page to its concept, where they explain: “The interface uses system typefaces (Arial and Times New Roman) to avoid unnecessary HTTP requests and it is available in dark mode, following the OS color scheme’s preference by default [...]. The design is intended to be as clear as possible to avoid loading unwanted content.”

Note how this description limits the concept (for a communication product) to a matter of precise calculation of minuses and pluses, leaving behind any considerations in regards to emotion, aesthetics or indeed, communicativeness. In this scenario, nobody would need to train as a graphic designer by learning to combine shapes, shades, patterns, typography and visual cues in harmonious configurations, like in the good old days—it would be enough to learn the science for the most anesthetised form possible.

At the dawn of the Internet age, Times New Roman (designed by Stanley Morison in 1931) and Arial (designed by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders in 1982) were selected by Microsoft with a handful of other typefaces to be installed by default on every Windows and Macintosh computer in the world as part of Microsoft’s standardisation initiative “Core Fonts for the Web”. This choice would have far-reaching repercussions for years to come, considerably limiting humanity’s options for digital visual expression to 10 “system” typefaces (plus 1 for symbols). Recent technological advancements have made it possible to render virtually any typeface on the web, no matter which are installed on the user’s device.

It is easy to see how yesterday’s choices of standardisation resonate in choices of aesthetic reduction today, only for different reasons—and how easily what is already defined as the norm reinforces itself. “When we have no variety in typefaces to visually express the hopes and aspirations of who we want to be, then we have no voice” says type designer Nadine Chahine, acclaimed author of Arabic typefaces of global recognition, commenting on the historical lack of typefaces for Arabic. The rationale behind FormaFantasma’s site seems to suggest that it is more than auspicious to go back to such a state of things—not only that: it is, in fact, ethical. According to this logic, dropping colour and aesthetic variation should be every designer’s response (and responsibility) toward sustainability. It remains unexplained what vision the designers would suggest for sustainable aesthetics at scale.

You see the ideology of less in action. It is not uncommon today, even in sustainability-savvy environments, to hear clients advocating for the absence of colour as the most sustainable choice, the lack of decoration as a ‘triumph over elitism’, and the dismissal of beauty as the embodiment of a humble, somehow more participatory notion of taste. Without meaningful counterarguments, designers tend to comply.  Plenty of courses in sustainable design exist that use as a central selling point the idea that sustainability is first and foremost a matter of going “beyond aesthetics”. “We often frame nature and culture as binary conditions rather than as a spectrum of subtle gradations linking human and nonhuman life”, argues Hosey. It is almost too good to be true that we happen to live within an economic system—capitalism—that seems just right for the job, having everything to gain from keeping production to the highest possible degree of standardisation, and free from the burden of intangible needs. But if we grappled successfully with sustainable aspirations, intended as the goal of balanced and generative co-existence, we wouldn’t still be debating whether cultural considerations matter or not; we wouldn’t still be debating whether empathy need be a central feature of our relational efforts, or whether emotion should guide our considerations in design, architecture, or public policy.

* * *

My client and I met again to discuss the design of the business card. We revised our options, did research and decided to print the card they liked the most, the version with the red background, using a waterless printing technology with no chemicals and producing no waste. So for colour lovers, there is good news. The printing industry is catching up, developing solutions like vegetable-based ink and bacteria-died fabric, and more will come. Digital screens are evolving beyond the realm of the sRGB spectrum, expanding colour possibilities.

But for my client, arriving to a third option better than either of those we had at the beginning was only due to the awareness of the implications of our choices. No technology can resolve ideology, as it is the values we attribute to aesthetic diversity that need to evolve first—which technology will in turn follow. “Technological sustainability is quantitative and relies on doing the same things more efficiently; ecological sustainability is qualitative and requires a fundamentally new way of doing things”, writes Hosey citing environmental educator David Orr. For colour, this means bearing front and centre the determination to go beyond established notions of ‘good’.

This text on colour and sustainability was originally published on the platform Saturated Space, with the support of architect Adam Nathaniel Furman.

Further reading
The Shape of Green: Aesthetic Imperatives, by Lance Hosey, on Places Journal
Why Do People Still Think That Classical Sculptures Were Meant to Be White?, by Kim Hart, on
A for Anything, by Benedetta Crippa, on Depatriarchise Design
What Is “Visual Sustainability,” and How Can Designers Challenge Power Through Form?, interview by Meg Miller with Benedetta Crippa, on AIGA Eye on Design
The ‘Pink vs Blue’ gender myth, by Claudia Hammond, on BBC
The Twosides non profit initiative explains myths and facts on printing and paper production

Thank you to Adam Nathaniel Furman for original publishing and editing. Thank you to graphic designer Johanna Lewengard, curator Svante Helmbaek Tirén, and Richard Owers of Pureprint (London) who contributed with feedback. Images are used for educational purposes only and belong to their respective owners.

About the author
Benedetta Crippa runs her own graphic design practice in Stockholm, Sweden. She is also former Graphic Design Lead at the Stockholm Environment Institute, one of the most respected research institutes on sustainability globally. Her interest in sustainability stems from the need of bringing standards for equity as integrated approach to design practice. Starting 2019 she is guest teacher at Konstfack University as director of the first course of its kind on visual sustainability.

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