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

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.

coffee from Costa Rica

journey of coffee to my cup

Here’s a quick sketch done on the map of a pre-printed coffee cup: Shows the journey of the coffee beans from origin to consumption.

Small text reads (from top): Consumption, Minneapolis, MN; Processing, Texas; Production, Costa Rica.

T shirt tells its own life cycle.

Tshirt printed with it\'s own life cycleLife cycle of a T-shirt: Droog Design

This t-shirt tells its own back story: the t-shirt tags are cut from the inside and stitched into the screenprint graphic of an imagined life of the product. The shirt was put into production in 2006 by Droog Design.

This is a more illustrative, conceptual version of a background story – less data based. The graphic is customized based on available information at the time (this includes where the cotton comes from, and where the t-shirt is sold). More quantitative figures on distance and carbon footprint could be input with the right data available.

CNN BackStory

CNN BackStory screengrab

CNN has launched a new application to show how a story has developed over time. This is basically a collection of all CNN-posted stories associated with a particular event. The example they give is the Anthrax case.

This allows readers to easily dig into the recent history of a story. The impact of a news service that offered such a view into history -AND incorporated stories from other key news media (CNN, BBC, and New York Times for example)- could be extremely powerful piece of online media to showcase varying perspectives. It will be interesting to see if partnerships emerge in this area – also incorporate other online media (video in addition to text-based stories).