Building up to our PSFK SEATTLE event on May 10th, we’re interviewing the creators and thought leaders who will be sharing their latest ideas with us. Jennifer Stewart and Gage Mitchell are the creative minds behind renowned design studio Modern Species, a boutique branding and design studio based out of Seattle. The company specializes in sustainable design solutions for the organic food, beverage, and personal care products industries. Their creative prowess is only matched by their deep-rooted desire to help make the world a better place through the power of design.
How does Modern Species use design to promote sustainable companies?
Jen: In terms of promotion, sustainable design isn’t any different from regular branding – we make them look good in a way that appeals to their audience and communicates their brand’s personality.
Gage: Yeah. We don’t see sustainability as a gimmick to promote a company. So a sustainable company has similar needs to any other. They need to appeal to their audience. That’s our job.
Jen: The extra value that sustainable design brings to the table is that we help companies reduce waste, improve recyclability and recycling rates, save money, and therefore do more good in the world. For instance, just reducing production waste can cut down on the amount of materials that a company has to buy, and that obviously saves money as well as resources. It’s not rocket surgery, it just takes dedicated research and someone who cares enough to consider the whole lifecycle of a piece.
Do you believe that good design can influence people to live a more sustainable life? If so, how?
Gage: Absolutely. Beyond just making sustainable products more appealing, good design can also help guide consumers and make the sustainable option easier. Recycling rates can increase simply by putting “Please Clean and Recycle” on a glass jar of peanut butter. Why? Because if they don’t clean the jar, the recycling facility will send that jar to the landfill. Recyclers don’t have time to do the public’s dishes. So with just a little extra work, you can give consumers the power to make a big difference.
Jen: Every designer can have a hand in making sustainability easy, if not effortless. App designers can control how often their app requires a server check-in to save energy. Product designers can make products repairable by making replacement parts and also increase recycling by making it easier for recyclers to take remove reusable materials. Print designers can specify glues and paper treatments that work well in the de-inking process. Package designers can avoid unrecyclable materials like styrofoam and reduce the packaging to product ratio so that people aren’t forced to buy trash just because they want a product. All of this allows consumers to live more sustainably with virtually no change to their habits. It just requires better design.
Can you name a particular project or experience that helped define your core values as a company focused on designing for socially responsible brands?
Jen: I’ve visited a handful of countries that don’t manage pollution and waste. I remember blowing my nose after a day of walking around Bangkok and all this thick black sludge coming out of me. And walking by a kid doing his weekly trash burning chore in Siem Reap and wondering how much standing over burning soda cans and potato chip bags was going to shorten his life. I saw places where people might have wanted to prevent pollution, but had little other choice. I have a choice, an opportunity to do something good. I’m not trying to save the earth, the earth is going to be fine, I’m trying to take care of the water I drink, the soil that grows my food, the air I breath. I want to make sustainable choices so I can just live well.
Gage: Mine was both a project and an experience in one. It too, was about trash. Unfortunately that trash happened to be a beautiful brochure and custom converted envelope I designed that had gold metallic inks (before I knew metallic ink was toxic), registered embossing, and fancy textured paper. I was at the launch event for this high-end residential community the studio I worked at had branded. While gorging on all the decadent food and walking through multi-million dollar homes I started seeing my fancy brochures in trash cans, or left behind on counter tops. Unwanted. Unneeded trash that I had worked my ass off creating. That was the first professional experience I had that made me realize something wasn’t right. I didn’t pull an about face after that, but it certainly started me thinking about what I do for a living and how much power for change I hold in my hands.
Is there an overarching design philosophy that governs how you approach a project at Modern Species?
Gage: Don’t design blind. I think a lot of designers go through the design process thinking solely about how they want something to look, or if you’re lucky, how it should function. They’re not thinking about the invisible, the intangible pieces that touch their project. They don’t think about the forest the paper came from, which server farm the website runs on, or what effect their day-glo inks are going to have on an entire batch of recycled paper pulp. When you ignore all of that, you have a sadly narrow view of design. If you take off the blinders and really see the whole lifecycle of your design, it opens a giant can of sustainable worms.
Jen: And never stop learning. The world is rapidly changing. You don’t know what the best solution is unless you stay up to date.
When bursting into spontaneous dance (as your website says you are both prone to do) what is your go-to move?
Jen: Anything that happens in the last ten seconds of a good Harlem Shake video.
Gage: I usually lean on my Irish heritage and bust out an awesomely silly jig. It probably looks like I’m making fun of river dance, but really it’s just happiness in motion.
Thanks Jennifer and Gage!
Meet them May 10th at PSFK SEATTLE.
Visit PSFK SEATTLE to see who else is speaking and click below to buy tickets.