I, Pencil – A Sustainability Story From 1958

I, Pencil by Leonard Read, is an essay on the life cycle of a pencil. Written in a way that references all the strings attached and people involved in the back-story of this simple, everyday object; this story is an excellent text to tie products to global social and environmental concerns. And it was written in 1958.

“Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.”

I, Pencil is referenced in this TED talk by Matt Ridley about the collective effort that leads to innovation,

Chipotle Veggs Out Locally

Food retailer Chipotle has an online animated map showing the locality and seasonality of produce used in their menu items.

Though buried at the bottom of the page (click ‘integrity’, then scroll down), the graphic is a good educational tool: teaching about seasonality in produce.

From the perspective of informational design, it would be great to see it containing more specific data (rather than just being a visual description): I’d like to see what % of the onion used in Midwestern stores is local in the winter.

Regardless, it’s a good place to start communicating sustainability to consumers.

Seasonal Local Vegetables


Serving Carbon With Your Crackers

Carbon foot-printing has made its way onto the plates of people living in Sweden.
Read more

Tracing A Box’s Life

Colombia Sportswear is asking you to ‘Consider the box’ with their project: A Box Life. A Box Life brings awareness to an often-overlooked part of mail-order products’ life-cycles: the packaging.

Box life transparently tracks the back-stories of where boxes have traveled.

Box life transparently tracks the back-stories of where boxes have traveled.

Not only is it a clever way to encourage people to reuse packing materials, but telling the stories behind the travels of things also acts as a tool for transparency, and reminds consumers of how individual actions impact sustainability.

read more: Springwise

Sourcemap for product ingredients

Sourcemap, developed by an MIT-based team, uses Google Earth to map the origins of materials in products. A view inside the open-source application also showcases each ingredient’s carbon footprint – which I hope is an indication that it is only a matter of time until tools like this will expand to highlight other Life-Cycle Analysis data.

Computer components as mapped by a Sourcemap user.

Computer components as mapped by a Sourcemap user.

This tool does a great job communicating that ‘ingredients’ in our products are connected to the world around us. As a next step, it would be great to show the carbon impacts in terms that are relevant to consumers – ‘showing’ what the quantity means rather than just stating the number. And to tell more of a story to help consumers frame these big-picture ideas within their everyday experience.

Mapping the Mississippi: Through Time

In a beautiful example of layered visual information, Harold Fisk mapped a portion of the Mississippi River in 1944. The series of plates show the changes in the path of the river through time. I’m drawn to the simple and clear detail, effective color palette and the amount of information communicated through this simple technique.

Fisk Map of the Mississippi through the ages

A portion of Fisk’s visually-stunning map of the Mississippi

The full map is available at the US Army Corp of Engineers.

Toaster, from Scratch

The Toaster Project: A design student’s fascinating project to make a toaster – starting with finding and processing small quantities of raw materials.The project took him all over the UK searching for raw minerals, and developing methods to process them at home.

His whole process was about re-creating the background story. I’d love to see a graphic outlining all of his steps.

the final toaster (photo Daniel Alexander)

the final toaster (photo Daniel Alexander)

The project is featured on we-make-money-not-art.com

Turning over a New Leaf (paper)

The New Leaf paper eco-audit is a well-thought out tool that communicates transparency, and -in a beautiful way- helps the end consumer understand the sustainability-positive impact of using a specific paper.

The eco-audit provides a place for data on resources that have been saved throughout the life-cycle of New Leaf’s paper (as compared to the industry standard). The eco-audit profiles the quantity of ‘saved’ trees, water, energy, solid waste and greenhouse gases. And an online portal allows companies to customize the quantities for their own print-jobs.

New Leaf labels on printed projects

New Leaf labels on printed projects

Customizable background stories supported by sustainability statistics- what isn’t to love? A bit more visual reference could be incorporated into the eco-audit label, or the concept could have some accompanying publicity or other materials that really bring this idea to (visual) life. This may include developing an application to show comparisons online, or supplementing the numbers with visual representation.  I -for one- would like to see what an expanse of 118-saved trees actually looks like. Or a comparison to how many swimming pools 50,178 gallons would fill.

Car eco-label only inches forward despite potential

Environmental label for CA cars

Environmental label for CA cars

Effective since January 1st, California has launched a clean air label required on every new car produced and sold in California. The label rates ‘Smog’ and ‘Global Warming’ on a scale of 1-10 (5 being the average car, 10 being the cleanest). Though there has been a smog index label since 1998, this marks the first time such information has been available to the consumer at point-of-sale – though it seems you’ll have to pop the hood to find the label.

The best part is that the implementation of the label signifies a step toward transparency and ultimately sustainability: a system is now in place to transfer information from car producers, 3rd party reviewers, auto dealers and to communicate that to consumer.

However, the visual representation of the label leaves a lot to be desired. Very little actual information is communicated in these graphics – despite the seemingly substantial space allocated. A simple line makes up the ranking, but portrays very little detail about what the vague titles are all about. I’d like to see this label make use of the technique of layering: to call out the most basic important information (what’s already shown), while incorporating another level of supporting information to further educate viewers.

The ‘global warming’ score actually includes some interesting elements to touch on the larger life-cycle of the system – a stance not often acknowledged in products. But although this label touches on some issues related to sustainability, it leaves many questions in the viewer’s mind. For many audiences that already have a basic understanding of the principles of sustainability, the infographic neglects to transparently inform what the ‘smog’ and ‘global warming’ rankings actually include. [smog-producing emissions from use of the car for the former, and greenhouse gas emissions from fuel production, vehicle operation, and the car’s A/C system for the latter.] It’s also unclear whether average car score will adjust as cars are built cleaner in the coming years.

An online website clears up some of the vagueness: Consumers can also see the top 10-rated cars and check another vehicle’s rating  on the DriveClean website. But as information design, it certainly would be nice if the visual representation took the opportunity to communicate more substantive information to potential buyers, educate them on the potential environmental outcome of their purchases, or even motivate them toward sustainability.

Detail of the DriveClean site

Detail of the DriveClean site

Stuff has a Story

Story of Stuff Life CycleStuff goes into a factory

‘The story of stuff’ is an animation/video that strolls through the ‘big picture’ of the production/consumption life cycle.

Story of Stuff exposes the connections behind products (and really behind our whole economic system). It paints a relatively dreary outlook, and thereby inspires action. It has been out for a while, and fortunately they’ve recently added an update to the website now allows the start of an outlet for ideas on what a consumer can do about the situation. (An earlier version of the animation left out the last step “Another Way,” lacking details on what the everyday consumer can do about the situation.)

The visualization of the system is impeccable: Black & white sketched and stylized drawings with simple animation leave enough room for the viewer to get their own ideas and apply the concept to their own situation. When people can see the possibilities, they can more easily understand how their own everyday decisions impact the big picture. Story of Stuff does a great job at establishing that connection.