Interview

Designing Sustainable Digital Products with Rachel He.

In our mission to advocate for sustainability in design and the digital space, there are many questions we aspire to answer and ideas we aim to deconstruct.

Indeed, digital is still good, yet it has the potential to better align with critical issues concerning sustainability, within the creative industry. To that effect, we’ve created Sustainable Digital Design to engage in and circulate conversations with diverse creative experts who are already exploring the concept, and who want to share the messaging and learnings further. This time, we are speaking with Brooklyn-based designer Rachel He about digital products, design, sustainability initiatives, and industry involvement. 

Hi, Rachel, good to have you with us today, let’s start by getting to know a bit about you and your practice.

My name is Rachel He, I am a digital product designer. I work on apps and websites, and any type of digital interface or digital experience that you might interact with or find yourself embedded in. I currently work at a company called Carbon Direct. We focus on corporate carbon management, including emissions reductions and carbon removals, essentially helping and enabling big corporations to reduce their climate impact. I am a heavy advocate for any exploration of greening the web, which is just the exploration of how we can minimise our digital impact on the internet.

Awesome, and as a designer, what do you do to bring sustainability into your day-to-day practices? 

There are three avenues that you can take this on:

First, ask what you actually build. This is the digital version of a life cycle assessment, thinking about how light it is, and the footprint that it has. A lot of the approaches to greening the web touch on this. While it's interesting and thoughtful from an academic perspective, I think in practice and scale, it is a tough one to take on. Many products we have today are high-tech for a reason. Mostly, because consumer appetite drives digital product design in that direction. 

Second, is how you encourage the people who use your product to practice climate consciousness. This one is more practically feasible and arguably more effective in the grand scheme of things if you have 10,000, 10 million, or a billion users. It scales to something that is of a larger impact than just your product itself. So, when encouraging thoughtful user behaviour, we want to think about encouraging people to download things that they would repeatedly use, and perhaps stream the things that they only want to see once- that is a small example. 

Third, what your product does. Is it focused on climate solutions? Decarbonising? or in some way, shape, or form thinking about regenerative practices? The way I see it is that a company/ product is either climate positive or climate negative, which means that this product is either focused on having a positive impact or not. There is a debate on what is more effective, joining a climate-negative company and trying to make it more neutral or joining a climate-positive company and negating how much negativity there is in the world. I have seen arguments in both directions, and both are extraordinarily necessary. 

Thinking about sustainability with design, digital, and creative practices in mind, what do you think the practitioners and the industry need to be able to start making more sustainable digital choices and normalising them?

People just need to start tinkering with things. I think the industry needs us to just start making steps in general, rather than deliberating on how big those steps are. Incremental iterative improvement is way more effective than squabbling over, at this point, any movement in a positive direction is going to help us in the long run.

Do you think enough is being done in the digital creative industries to address sustainability issues? 

At the end of the day, enough means that we have solved the problem, which is not going to come for a while. Perhaps, this answers the previous question as well, one thing that I do not see enough of is thinking a little less about profit. A lot of climate problems that need to be solved are not profitable. That's why we have things like the IPCC, UNFCCC, and countless NGOs that are focused on climate issues. This work is not intrinsically something that can be solved through for-profit companies.

But, maybe it can! As long as those for-profit companies consider balancing their profitable work with a little bit of philanthropy. For every $10 you make, lose a dollar working on something meaningful. I would love to see this practice done in time and effort as well. Enabling and empowering employees to spend 1%, 10%, or 20% of their time working on something that might benefit the planet. It does not always need to be unprofitable. In a lot of cases, it benefits a business to think about sustainability.

Digital creatives are enablers, we are catalysts for work that is done. I think we could always be better collaborators. We could always reach out to people who need our talents and our abilities. There is a communication channel that is missing between professionals working on climate issues and digital creatives, the onus is on creative industries to reach out and lend their services more publicly.

Is there anything interesting in this space you are working on, thinking about, or reading somewhere that you would like to share with SDD readers? 

There is someone in upstate New York, who has been bringing together creatives working on these topics into a residency. I think that work is really exciting, enabling more out-of-the-box ideas that might not necessarily happen outside of an academic context. And I'm curious to see what happens from there.

I think there's a lot of interesting stuff in the materials department. A lot of people are thinking about powering their practices completely on renewables and making sure that the materials are compostable. News like this makes me excited that entire practices can start from a climate-neutral space or that someone can start a business and from the get-go, this is something they are thinking about.

To build toward substantial positive change, we first need to practice small steps toward climate consciousness and lead by example. Design sustainability is a mindset that includes the organisation as one entity but also counts on creatives, designers, developers, managers, and strategists to drive initiatives within their workplaces. We aim to create opportunities within the creative industry to conduct business while taking responsibility for climate action. If you are with us on the mission to advance sustainability in the world of digital design, share your views, questions and learnings at hello@sustainabledigitaldesign.com





    Written by Wonderland team

    24 August 2022