ByAlister Wynn
07/06/2012
4 min read

Sustainable Web Design and the Yoke Approach

‘Sustainable web design? Eh?’ I’ve had a few puzzled looks at the mention of it. It’s often more obvious how products can be designed to be more sustainable but what about websites?

Sustainability is a word that’s being kicked around a lot lately and is often mistakenly thought of as synonymous with ‘green’ or environmentally friendly. Although ecological sustainability is important, that is not the be all and end all. For a product, service, or anything else to be truly sustainable it must consider social and economic implications as well as ecological ones.

The most widely accepted definition of sustainability outlines that for something to be classed as sustainable, it needs to be able to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs.” (The Bruntland Report, 1987)

If we think of this in terms of web design, a sustainable website is one that serves its purpose effectively and can be managed and continued into the future without negative impacts to the environment, website users or the owner.

In order to achieve this, we feel the following areas are core to sustainable website design.

efficiency

Efficiency

The starting place for sustainable web design is creating websites that first and foremost fulfill their function effectively – are engaging, user friendly and informative. Creating a website that works for the client will mean that it becomes long lived (making it economically sustainable). Designing a website with change in mind is important – By designing website templates that allow the owner to make simple design changes themselves in the future (eg. changing images and content), ensures it can be kept up to date without regularly having to hire a designer.

The second point with respect to efficiency is perhaps one with which we’re more acquainted with – energy efficiency. As digital designers, our ‘products’ unavoidably consume power, however there are things that web designers can do to minimise the energy requirements of websites, of which we’ve highlighted a few below.

Use less images and CSS. The lighter the page, the faster it will load. Any images and CSS you do use should be optimised fully.

Use high contrast. This will allow website users to enjoy using the website whilst using low brightness monitors.

Use dark colours. It is estimated that if Google were a black page, rather than white, it would save 750 Megawatt hours of energy a year. At the time of writing, the black alternative to Google, Blackle, shows that it has so far saved 3,102,859.703 Watt hours (compared to Google).

Green hosting. Switch your hosting to a server that runs on renewable energy, and recommend the same to your clients. Yoke’s website is powered by the California sunshine.

openness

Openness

It is important to keep websites open and accessible to all users, regardless of computer operating system, browser or internet connection speed. Likewise, websites should be visible without having to download special software. This makes individuals able to access the information they may be looking for without limitation, and in this way we are ‘meeting the needs of the present’ in a way which can only benefit future generations.

At the core of sustainability is sharing and fairness. Through openly sharing information that people can learn from and improve upon, along with free distribution, Open Source software is key to sustainable digital design practices.

Society at large benefits from open source ventures…the more knowledge we have access to, the richer we are!

Worldchanging: A user’s guide for the 21st century

Collaboratively pooling the wealth of experience from a wide community in this way provides a continually improving and evolving software solution, which doesn’t cost the earth. Open source content management systems such as WordPress make websites more economically sustainable for owners on a low budget.

design-long-pencil

Designing for good

In addition to making websites more sustainable in their running, here at Yoke we feel that it is equally, if not more important to create websites that are sustainable in their end goal – that promote good causes. For instance, there’s no sense in being a sustainable web design agency if you then go and create websites to sell cheap air flights!

Through creating engaging and effective websites for ecological, social and economic positive change projects, we can potentially have a huge influence on encouraging widespread sustainable practices.

Back in the day, when Jay and Alister were at design school, the only thing lecturers really mentioned about sustainable design was the First Things First 1964 manifesto. This called upon designers to put their creative talents to use in worthwhile causes rather than selling stuff to people that they don’t need. That was almost 50 years ago and it’s still as pertinent as ever today – it’s sums up our mission here at Yoke. Here’s an excerpt from the revisited and republished, First Things First 2000: A design manifesto:

Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design. The profession's time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best...

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. Many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programs, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help.

First Things First 2000: A design manifesto

Summary

Although we like to embrace sustainable practices here at Yoke, we by no means adopt all of the practices outlined in this article. Although using dark colours, high contrast or fewer images on websites may make them more energy efficiency, as designers we feel that there must sometimes be a compromise between energy efficiency and enhanced user experience. We are committed to providing websites for positive change projects and so ensuring these websites reach and engage their audience and fulfill their function is our key priority.

Sustainability is often described as the capacity to endure but here at Yoke we feel that that’s not enough. We think it’s important to leave a place better than you found it. By creating websites that promote positive change projects that are designed for a widespread, positive impact, we hope to improve the economic, ecological and social systems that impact all of our lives.

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