Are sustainable web design principles applicable to designers at large software companies?

A couple of years ago I went to an event in London about design for sustainability — my two career passions. The opening talk was well meaning but ultimately seemed ridiculous.

The speaker’s focus was on how web design choices contribute to energy usage. The suggestion was that designers should prioritise creating interfaces that reduced energy consumption by, for example, making photos greyscale, using very few and predominately dark colours, and system fonts.

I sat next to an old colleague and we chuckled in disbelief. I have been working in creative industries all my career — design now and advertising before it. The priority has always been to do the best work for the goals of the project, and the ideas being shared seemed complete non starters. What he was saying wasn’t wrong — saving energy matters and these were ways that designers could take ownership of that — but they were completely unrealistic. No brand would choose to not use colour images on sustainability grounds, in our view. That tension, between idealism, ambition, and pragmatism around design for sustainability is of real interest to me. I reference this in my previous article where I talk about reduction of harmful activities versus replacement with better alternatives. I’ll return to this theme throughout my sustainability leadership journey, as I feel it’s a crucial part of the jigsaw — stopping people doing things they’ve become accustomed to (driving, buying clothes, eating meat, flying, using different colours) in the name of sustainability is always likely to meet resistance. How can we have our cake and sustainably eat it?

Reflecting on this event, a little older and possibly a little wiser, I wanted to revisit its ideas through a less derisory lens. Now that I work as a designer in a large software company with leverage, what is my view on how realistic it would be for people like me to push forward these principles? How can the cogs influence the machine? How might my approach to work change? There are parallels — designers blend accessibility thinking into our work ever more; could the same apply to sustainability? I remember the speaker referencing a book, Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick, so I explored and found the hugely impressive site Sustainable Web Design, also by Tim, where some of these principles are laid out. In the section Design Strategies are some recommended strategies to improve sustainability of the web from a design perspective.

Here I run through those strategies with my opinion on the applicability of them to me and other designers in large digital organisations, where the role is different to when you have complete control of a site. In big companies, designers tend to be providing functionality with the best possible user experience (UX). That’s what we do. We often have style kits where the approach to visual design has largely been established; the task is to use this to provide usable experiences. With that backdrop, here are my thoughts on how / if these Sustainable UX strategies can be applied by me in my role as a designer at a large software company, or those in similar roles to me:

Sustainable web design strategies

Does the design provide an ‘invisible’ experience without barriers?

‘This includes removing pop-up banners, avoiding ‘dark patterns’ that intentionally trick people.’

This is at the heart of UX and is a sensible principle for all design. I don’t feel this would prompt a specific change in my approach to design.

Does the product or service incorporate carbon-aware design?

‘Carbon-aware design helps users of digital services understand the carbon intensity of electricity at the time that they use a service.’

This feels less applicable to designers of small parts of large software applications, unless it’s a specifically carbon focused feature. I design the ability to translate stores and wouldn’t feel there is an appropriate opportunity to incorporate this.

Is the admin experience as easy and intuitive as the front-end experience?

I work on the admin experience, as do most designers at Shopify. Making admin experiences easy and intuitive is another fundamental tenet of good UX, that I don’t feel would change my approach.

Has the design used the minimum number of custom fonts?

For designers in large software products, the styling is often — arguably usually — not in their hands. At Shopify the style kit sets the fonts. I can’t see choosing fonts for sustainable reasons being a realistic consideration for designers — function and visual appeal will continue to come first.

Has the colour palette prioritised colours that used less energy on OLED screens?

Similar to fonts, style kits tend to set this. However since I attended this event we have seen ‘dark mode’ emerge, which is perhaps more attributable to efforts to save eye strain and battery charge, but has the same effect. Shopify makes some limited use of dark mode, but those decisions are driven out of the central style kit design teams.

Does the experience respect user privacy and provide clear guidelines for maintaining it?

This is another facet of responsible web design, and an implicit part of the role of a designer, but I do not see this as a specific method by which to contribute to sustainability as a designer.

Have user journeys been planned to help the user achieve their goals efficiently?

This is the fundamental of user experience design, and not a strategy I think highlighting as a sustainability focused one would change the way in which design happens.

Does the design process incorporate Justice, Equity, Diversity and inclusion (JEDI) practices?

This is something I believe designers can take more ownership of, and deep empathy to different people is the mark of great design.

Are video and animation used only when they add genuine value to the user?

The work I do makes little use of video and animation, but I believe a designer will put the communication or brand equity desired first and cannot see sustainability being a factor in choices made here by designers of large software platforms.

Has the design used imagery efficiently?

Much as video and animation — the driver here in my view is likely to be communication and performance over sustainability.

Has the design team set a page weight budget?

‘A page weight budget is … the size of files transferred over the internet when a web page is loaded.’

Our engineers aim to have as performant pages as possible, but this would not be a specific concern of designers.

Does the product or service design process account for human and non-human stakeholders?

I’m not clear who non-human stakeholders are — search crawlers perhaps?

Is the experience optimised to work across devices and platforms?

This is a key fundamental of web design and software engineering, that I would not see as a change to the approach I take.

Reflections

Looking back on these answers: whilst I remarked that a lot might not change the way my role is performed, there is a clear theme that what’s good for users is good for sustainability. Performant pages that are easy to use should be the goals of all digital products. As styling in big companies is often driven out of a single team focused on it, I believe these teams would be the best teams to target these sustainable design principles at, but I would argue many are (happily) already being driven as by-products of usability and performance goals. Individual designers on other teams making stylistic choices driven by sustainability I continue to find an unlikely intervention, but the emergence of battery conserving design approaches like dark mode will also have a positive effect on overall energy usage, so getting behind this trend is sensible for the sustainability minded designer.

Design at Shopify. P/T Master’s student at Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership. I’m the kind of guy who supervised the guy who invented the wheel.