A Picture of Sustainability
I met with a photographer, Alan Alabastro, a few months ago. He photographs cultural events and architecture. We had a nice discussion about our businesses and found we connected on a variety topics. At one point, I was discussing the plethora of green leaf logos, water drop icons and planet earth globes that are the typical arsenal for designers branding sustainability. These logos devalue the true nature of the businesses they represent. By using the green leaf icon they look like all the other “green” companies and programs out there. A great question he had for me is, what does an image (photo) of sustainability look like?
What a great question. How do you get to the basic principals of sustainability in a visual way? Alan’s own insight into this question was capturing the moment someone is putting their coffee cup into the right container whether that is recycled, compost or trash. This is the most direct and topical. It deals with where we are today and serves as an instruction guide to actions we can make to have an immediate impact on climate change. It gives guidance and informs people of what they do not know and what they could be doing. If everyone does their part, then we would make a tremendous impact on the problem. How this type of direct representation of imagery relates to individual organizations, movements, and companies is a case by case issue. A green product or company has its own direct action that needs instruction on why they are green or sustainable. That was at the center of our conversation; creating the right imagery for the businesses we work with.
I take it a step farther. Showing the object (in this case a coffee cup), and what to do with it, is a specific problem that relates to a moment in time. Each business has a cup and problem (what to do with it) and therefore a solution (recycle, compost, trash) that serves the interest of sustainability. This is what you can do today with the choices we have. But what about capturing the cup, the person holding it, the environment around them and how they all relate together? At first glance, this might seem like an insignificant variation on the original idea. The idea is to pull back our focus on the individual problem or object and capture the bigger picture. The image is showing the process that we can use to be more sustainable but the focus is no longer one action, but how does that one action relate to everything around it. If the background contains a hint of people walking by, a swath of blue sky, or cars rolling through traffic, we get this sense that there is more to the image than the cup and the decision of the person holding it. Part of this is direct in communication (the cup, person, container), and part of it has an emotional impact that we feel viscerally (the environment surrounding the action).
Whether it is the overall problem of climate change or an individual organization’s sustainable product or service, the imagery has to go beyond object oriented. It needs to tell the bigger picture or experience. Some organizations by their nature are dealing with huge concepts like 1% for the Planet. Their organization unites companies across all industries to make an impact together. On the flip side, most companies, whether they are green or have green initiatives, are promoting individual products. An architect designs a LEED Gold Building. How do you capture that building, so that it represents the true impact it makes? Create an image of the building with people using it and the environment it surrounds. The aesthetics are important. People are attracted to beautiful things. Combine the beautiful building with the meaning of the building and what it does. This creates the context for the product or service and gives an emotional impact.
Give people a vision. Let them have more to look at and they can have a better understanding of what the choices are. It is hard to fathom how a slew of individual objects (sustainable programs, products, buildings, etc…) within the narrow scope of their own settings, leads to sustainability for everyone. Images that capture these objects as well as their surrounding elements begin to form connection points of interest. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, people can visualize or feel how these bits and pieces start to fit together. The context is no longer individual, but holistic. It is no longer trapped in a single action of now, but how all these actions relate together towards a shared future vision. This is the marriage of the right brain and left brain. The analytical reasoning on a finite point of time matched with the emotional impact of seeing the forest beyond the trees.
Do we want to only create images that tell people what they must do and drag them down the path kicking and screaming? Or show them the bigger picture so they can make their own choices based on more information. Give context to sustainability and people will be drawn towards doing the right thing or at least buying or participating in it.