SUSTAINABILITY IN EGD
Arrowstreet prides itself on its commitment to the environment, prioritizing building performance and sustainability as key components of every architectural project. Although small in comparison, signage, wayfinding, and environmental graphic design (EGD) also have an impact on our carbon emissions, but information and guidance for this niche industry is scarce. While there are several white papers on the topic, they were published over ten years ago. In our search for more current information, the* Graphic Design Studio surveyed fellow Boston-area designers to see what, if any, resources they use and how they approach the subject of sustainability in their practice. We interviewed fabricators to learn how they incorporated environmental practices in their shops and took classes to learn more about the use of healthy materials. While there are still no quick and easy answers, we do know the first step is asking questions and sharing information. Our hope is by sharing our findings, we will be able to create a network of interested people to continue the conversation.
Our first step was to reach out to Boston-area EGD designers with a survey to find out how others approach the subject of sustainability in their work and what, if any, resources they are regularly using. From this survey, we learned we are not alone in our search for guidance on sustainable EGD practices. All respondents agree there are not enough resources available. One respondent summed up the feelings of the majority by saying, “There just doesn’t seem to be enough information out there.”
According to the survey, designers regularly consider sustainability issues at home and in their day-to-day work activities. However, that attention to the environment does not translate to their projects and designs. This could be attributed to the lack of information and environmentally-friendly materials available.
To see the full results of our designer survey, click through the images above.
In addition to the designer survey, we interviewed fabricators and vendors to find out how they approach sustainability. The fabricators we spoke to agreed there is not much of a focus on sustainable products and methods. This is due to the relatively small footprint of signage and EGD components compared to the tons of material used in the construction and maintenance of a building. While this is true, we feel every effort helps the environment, and even small actions can make a difference. It is important that designers have the ability to make thoughtful decisions when designing and specifying materials so we can limit our impact on the environment whenever possible.
The fabricators we spoke with agreed the industry does not offer many alternatives—they do not see a demand from clients and designers; therefore, there is no need to provide or manufacture more sustainable products. Our survey results clearly show designers are interested, but unfortunately, that message is not getting to the fabricators and manufacturers. It is up to us as designers and advocates for our clients to make this demand known.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
While the information we found was limited, there are some steps we can take to create more sustainable designs today and build a better knowledge base for the future. Below are a few suggestions of steps you can take on your next project. Do not get discouraged. Not every project can achieve every goal, but taking small steps in each project will add up over time.
ASK FOR SUSTAINABILITY DOCUMENTATION
For any products you specify often or products that could be in direct contact with building occupants, ask what ingredients are used in production and what effects they may have on the indoor air quality. Knowing this information can help you make better choices and lets the manufacturer know that you are concerned with material health and are searching for better alternatives.
There are many material health and emissions declarations and certifications available that help to standardize this information. Aggregate sites such as Mindful Materials have searchable databases that list many sustainable certifications and information for common products. Some certifications to look for include:
Health Product Declaration (HPD) – full ingredient list of all chemicals and materials in a product
Declare Label – ingredient list including product origins, toxicity hazards, and end of life options
Cradle to Cradle (C2C) – material health declaration with a focus on creating a circular and socially fair economy
UL Greenguard Gold – VOC emissions test certification to improve indoor air quality
ONLY BUILD WHAT YOU NEED
While it may seem obvious, it is worth stating the least environmentally impactful materials are the ones that do not need to be created. This can be achieved by reducing the number of elements in your EGD package as well as minimizing the number of components in a sign. Less is more!
KEEP IT NATURAL
If possible, let the natural material show through, eliminating the need for chemically harsh paints and finishes. Let metals blacken and patina naturally over time. Artificially speeding up this process is extremely toxic to the environment and the manufacturer. Physically engrave materials rather than using harsh chemicals to etch them.
DESIGN FOR THE LIFE OF THE PROJECT
Specify materials that will last the lifetime of the sign. Less chemically harmful materials and finishes may not last as long as their traditional counterparts, meaning they need to be replaced more frequently and may not ultimately be the most sustainable choice. Alternatively, using the highest quality materials for a temporary sign is probably not the best solution either.
Think about how the sign may change over time—making panels or sections easily changeable can prevent the entire sign from being replaced when only a small update is needed.
CONSIDER ILLUMINATION METHODS
Illumination can arguably have the biggest sustainability impact on a sign over its lifetime. For example, traditional neon—a popular choice these days—uses considerably more energy than any other illumination method. Even when using energy-efficient LEDs, the size, shape, and thickness of a sign box will determine how many LEDs it takes to evenly illuminate the fixture. Talking with your fabricator early in the process can help you make better design decisions that have a low impact on the visual aesthetic but a potentially significant environmental impact.
THINK ABOUT HOW YOU ARE USING VINYL
Vinyl is one of an EGD designer’s most used products but can also create considerable waste. The negative space in cut vinyl is weeded out and discarded. It cannot be reused or recycled. When printing on vinyl, the inks can be toxic and usually require a laminate to protect the print, effectively doubling the amount of vinyl being used on every surface. Certain vinyl may also have trouble adhering to walls that have been recently painted with low VOC paints. Make sure you prepare surfaces according to the manufacturer’s directions and test a small piece before installing an entire wall.
PLAN FOR END OF LIFE
Planning for the inevitable removal of a sign can help make recycling easier and more likely. Using mechanical fasteners instead of construction adhesive can help make removal easier and recycling quicker. If a sign can be broken down into its component parts, it can potentially allow for partial replacement and reuse.
In general, metals are much easier to recycle than acrylics, and there is currently no way to recycle or reuse old LED modules.
As we learn more about sustainability issues in the field of environmental graphics, we will continue to share that information and practices with our industry partners. If you are interested in continuing the conversation with us, please let us know by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hopefully, by working together, we can create a healthier world.