Gallery: GREENING GRAPHIC DESIGN: A Step-by-Step guide


Green Graphic Design: Step 1, Your Printer and You

Printers and Graphic Designers have long lived in entwined chaos, each attempting to interpret the electronic wizards living within their individual computing systems. Logic suggests that adding environmental concerns to this equation will only serve to exasperate this already malfunctioning system. Fortunately for Green Graphic Designers (and printers), these days are long gone. Gone are the days we send our designs into the ether hoping to receive perfect pieces of printed matter on the other end (…right).

The green path of the future involves getting intimate with your favorite printer. This was the fundamental conclusion of o2-NYC’s recent event, ‘How to take your Green Graphics to Print.’ O2 invited two of their favorite green graphics gurus to lead an informative discussion to a sizable group of green-hopeful graphic designs and interested others. Eugene Lee, president of the Rolling Press print house, hosted and led the conversation, alongside the esteemed Don Carli, Senior Research Fellow for the Institute of Sustainable Communication and co-producer of last year’s highly successful AIGA Grow Conference.

In the uncharted wilderness that is green design, consider these men to be your guides.

While we wish it were as simple as specifying ‘recycled’ paper and soy inks, we were surprised and delighted to learn that the greenest printers and print technology innovators have moved beyond false promises of simple cure-alls. Instead, each link in the supply chain is coming forward with their own sustainable solutions, from Processless Printing Plates to eliminating the use of VOCs in inks and coatings.

Perhaps most exciting, companies are beginning to analyze this supply chain for sustainability requirements. Standards such as FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) and ISO 9000 and 14000 are taking us in the right direction, encouraging companies to investigate the chain of custody of the materials they select, and to apply principles of continuous improvement to their businesses, ensuring that next year will be greener than the last. However, there is still no single standard or criteria for us to follow, and some of the certifications that do exist are too expensive for small print houses to obtain.

Designers Beware! In a world where ‘Sustainable,’ ‘Green,’ and ‘Eco’ are buzz words, can we trust a printer or materials supply company when they tout their greenness? Of course not! We know better.

What we can do is ask questions and arm ourselves with a list of guidelines to follow. This does mean some personal commitment, not only to educating ourselves about what it means to be green (or what it means to us), but also becoming BFFs with our favorite printers.

Here are a few ideas and questions to get you started.

Guidelines for you: + Start the discussion early (before you lay one path on your virtual artboard). + Calibrate your equipment to facilitate print accuracy and enable the use of PDFs, rather than printed proofs. + Spend time on pre-press – check with your printer to trouble shoot your file set up, and get it right the first time (you’ll save resources as well as your sanity) + Limit your Color Palette (check with your printer what the maximum number of colors for a single run through their press is) + Consider where your materials come from and save energy (fuel consumption in transport): is your printer located close to the area of ultimate distribution of your printed matter? Does that special paper you “must” have, come from New Zealand? + Stick to standards: paper sizes, standard die-cutting options (your printer will love you for this one) + Specify the Greenest paper possible [totally chlorine free (TFC), post industrial recycled content, post consumer recycled content, FSC certified, recycled fabric content, tree-free paper (Kenaf, or Hemp)].

Questions for your printer: + Does your printer use Alternative Energy to power their equipment? + Do they outsource jobs or complete everything in house? Eliminate energy use in transport. + Are they (or their papers) FSC or ISO 14000 certified? + Investigate the chain of custody for materials they use (inks, paper, other). Does your printer keep Lifecycle Material Data Sheets for their products? + Do they use Process-less printing plates? (This cuts down on those nasty photo sensitive toxics, and replaces them with inert carbon and tap water.) + How do they chose their ‘green ink’ (non-toxic, non-metallic, vegetable based, soy based, linseed oil based, other?) + Do they choose Inks, Coatings, Press Wash, etc. with low VOC content? + Cleanliness of facilities: do they dispose of their ink excess and materials properly? Visit their facilities and see for yourself!

Working together: + What are the optimum sizes for you lay out your documents given the printer’s press size? Talk to your printer about which standard formats and sizes you can specify to cut down on paper waste. + Use of Work-Off ink (your printer may be able to mix special colors for you made from excess ink from their previous jobs). + Use of standard dies for die-cutting needs.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel. There’s one more added bonus – although your printer may not be eager to have you as his new best friend, he’ll love you for it in the end. What printer wouldn’t love to receive perfect documents that adhere to standards and don’t tax their equipment or necessitate the need for anything ‘custom’ or time consuming? And guess what: It will save you and your client’s money too!!!!

Join o2-NYC in upcoming design related events for those that are ready to learn the art and practice of green.



Rebecca is a freelance graphic, product, and eco-designer based in Brooklyn, New York. For the past few years she has divided her time between designing for a myriad of companies and organizing environmentally focused projects and events. Rebecca is the past chair and the current vice-chair of o2-NYC, the New York City chapter of the o2 global network of eco-designers. During her tenure, she co-organized many events including Design:Green, CitySol, and most recently HauteGREEN. Rebecca’s work, collaborations and events have appeared in publications such as Metropolis, Interior Design Magazine, Metropolitan Home, and most recently The London Observer. Rebecca received a BFA in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2003, receiving a special award from the school for her commitment to environmental issues.


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  1. gms November 17, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    It sounds like green production, what about design?

  2. egales201 November 18, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    like to start my own business

  3. susanmkt June 11, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Thank you very much for posting such valuable information. As i am associated with this Business, so i am very well aware of usefulness of this info..
    Thanks again….

    Commented By:

  4. LCasstle33 March 25, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    Good post!

    The questions laid out in this post are an excellent starting point for creating real ecologically responsible communications. I myself don’t believe you should just ask for recycled paper or vegetable inks and think that this constitutes as green printing. Most soy inks are touted as better than petro-inks when in actuality they could only have about 2% soy oil.

    I am a big believer also in doing business locally particularly when it comes to selecting materials and printers. So I have looked around to find green printers located in my state and also near where the finished product will be used ( If the client is in Boston, I look for the nearest printer there). I only use printers from other states IF the locals can not meet some specific need.

    It is understood that one cannot create 100% green communications all the time, so using as many sustainable principles as possible will forever be better than not choosing green options at all. So it is up to the green graphic designer to be the bridge between what the client needs and what the printer can accomplish as green as possible.

    If a specific request is determined not to be sustainable then more thorough examination can determine if the project could do without it and so allowing for the creation of a truly conscious product or communication.

    Luis Casstle
    Brilliant Design Elements

  5. Rob G April 30, 2007 at 8:08 am

    Great article with some terrific ideas. Thank you for sharing this.

    I find myself increasingly frustrated by the term “green design”, at least at it is widely being used in the graphic design industry. As I recently wrote in my own blog (, I fear that the term is fostering a mindset that places environmentally-conscious design in a separate category than plain ol’ good design. In doing so, it may be marginalizing the very issues that it seeks to address. I believe that good design is inherently “green”, in that it includes careful consideration of the environmental and socio-cultural impacts of the piece from the project’s beginning and is executed responsibly with those concerns in mind.

  6. Jac February 26, 2007 at 5:40 am

    Hi Richie, i’ve done printmaking. Work can be done on computer but i prefer to draw on paper, which i went through not more than 10 A3 layout paper sheets. To decide on the right material, i use a small piece of each material and printed an odd shape, testing how well it prints on and the effect. To visualise my work, i take a picture of my carved boards then shade the areas in photoshop for a clearer picture. It’s all about working smart really. Didn’t waste a lot of paper…totally enjoyed the entire process…except for the few cuts.

  7. Richie February 24, 2007 at 8:17 am

    Thorough and well done. An excellent presentation. Good information to follow up on. What about investigating ‘greening’ other graphic processes as well ? Such as Fine Art printmaking and Silk Screening ?

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