Strategy, Change, and Collaboration with Alexie Sommer.
5 mins read
This week, we connected with Alexie Sommer to discuss sustainable shifts and changes in the creative industry from a strategy perspective. Sommer is a multidisciplinary expert with experience in design, communication, and strategy.
Hello Alexie, it’s such a pleasure to have you, let’s start with an introduction about you and your background in design.
Hello, I'm Alexie Sommer, a graphic communication designer by training. After my Master’s at the Royal College of Art, and a stint designing for clients such as Philips Electronics, Saatchi & Saatchi Design, Fosters, Anita Roddick, Rich Mix, Sleazenation & Jockeyslut magazines I set up my own freelance design practice creating identities, collateral, and events for the Arts and Culture sector.
In 2008 I took a year out in Brazil and visited the Amazon rainforest. On returning to London I worked as design director for Guardian Creative at The Guardian and Observer newspapers, a powerful experience working for a brand holding a strong ethical voice. I went on to be creative director and lead the design team at Thomas Matthews, a sustainable communication design practice set up by Sophie Thomas and Kristine Matthews.
Sophie is still a fellow collaborator and in 2019, we established URGE Collective out of a need to bring together our experience in the sustainable design space to work with organisations, individuals, and institutions to respond to the climate crisis. At URGE, we enact industry change through transformation, education, innovation, and communication to enable a paradigm shift. We work with clients to guide behaviour change and introduce practices that include re-imagining sustainable design narratives.
In parallel, I’m part of the Groups of Humans global collective and with my UK business, I work regularly in the built environment sector with engineers and architects. I'm currently working with Oliver Broadbent at Constructivist to develop the Regenerative Design Lab - a 6-month accelerator programme for leaders in engineering, architecture, and construction to learn how to apply regenerative principles in practice.
What role does strategy play in relation to sustainable design?
Having worked as a crafting designer my focus is now on design, communication, and environmental impact strategy - to connect the what, and the how with, most importantly, the why. To have a real impact, environmental and social values need to be embedded in the governance structure of a business rather than at the point of commissioning design or creating products. Positive impact needs to be integrated into the whole system. That's where you get the most fundamental change.
Looking 10-20 years back, what was the state of sustainable digital design, and what was the center of the conversation compared to now?
About 20 years ago, sustainable design was on the periphery. It was often only discussed in small circles amongst those who truly cared, and those who could see the errors and potential consequences of the consumption model. Sustainable design was by no means mainstream, and there was no sense of urgency. If anything it was marginalised and rarely celebrated by the industry. Now, everyone is finally talking about the climate, and ‘sustainability’ is much more mainstream.
So, do you think it is an advantage that sustainable design is becoming mainstream?
Yes, 100%. Although I wonder if clients understand what being ‘sustainable’ really means and do designers have the agency or knowledge to design ‘sustainably’. Your Sustainable Digital Design Initiative is interesting because it sheds light on the tools available for designers to understand for themselves.
But there is a real danger with ‘sustainability’ being mainstream that a huge amount of greenwashing is happening and it’s something we need to look out for. So we need to avoid the ‘s’ word, and use more specific language about the impact we’d like to create. Personally, I want to design stuff that ‘hacks’ the consumption model for positive impact and helps others to start to think differently about the systems we design and live within.
What is a crucial sustainability intervention in the creative industry at this moment?
The design community needs to come together and share values, tools, and success stories that have a positive impact
This is why we created Design Declares because it's sounding the alarm. One of the interventions we need more of is education around the active shifts required in practice.
Design can influence public opinion and have a positive impact on society. As designers, we respond with creativity, skills, knowledge, and the ability to make something look and function better, so it’s important we use these skills for the right reasons and support businesses trying to make a difference and create positive behaviour change.
In a perfect world, all design agencies would be able to decline to work with ‘bad clients’ who are fuelling blind consumption, extracting fossil fuels, or depleting nature for profit. These businesses would then struggle to create attractive design-led campaigns, products, and services, and would need to change their approach. Even if our intention is positive, whoever's funding our work, it's about their intention, so we need to know who we’re working with and for, and why.
What is the most rewarding thing about your journey with all of the collectives and initiatives you've been working with?
The design-led interactions help people move and change. Some of the most rewarding work is seeing change come to life through the application of design, thinking, positioning, placement, and mentoring. It’s also exciting to work within organisations and institutions and help create change from the inside.
From your perspective, what does it take to create an impact-driven creative agency?
Great creative skills, knowledge, and collaboration to build a position of leadership and agency combined with a healthy amount of self-reflection and collective questioning. It is essential we enable open dialogue and build bridges of trust between teams and clients. We need to use the right tools and methodologies for each project, track our impact and be accountable for what we find out. And we need to build socially dynamic and diverse teams that reflect the world we live in and enable everyone to come on the journey with us, with their own special purpose.
Change is only possible if designers from various backgrounds, industries, and levels come together and take a stance towards producing work with a positive impact on the planet. We support the Design Declares initiative which is open to individuals and institutions working in industrial, digital, graphic, communication and service design. To declare here, you must be a company with an office in the UK employing at least one full-time designer.