February 27, 2022
TWC 521–Graduate White Paper Project

When people think about sustainability, their first thought is associated with recycling paper, reusing plastics, and reducing the amount of waste we all create. While all of this is true, there are unmentioned factors that are making a subtle negative impact on the environment, which comes as a surprise to many. We are all consumers living on the instant gratification achieved by digital products that can deliver what we want at the time we want it. The more efficient we think we are making digital devices, networks, applications, and websites, the faster we are adding carbon emissions to the environment. Websites and applications are hosted on data servers that need electricity to run at their best, meanwhile, a cooling system is utilized to prevent overheating of these machines. The electricity or energy provided to these data centers comes from fossil fuels, coal, and other sources of energy that are not clean or renewable (Mightybytes). Designers today more than ever have the power to change the never-ending need for energy consumed by our demand for digital services. Implementing the following four design principles to our digital designs—mainly on websites—might seem like a small tweak but will eventually have a large positive impact on our environment.

The negative environmental impact design causes

Studies have found that the energy used by all the data servers in the world, is the same amount of energy used by the United Kingdom itself (Marcacci). If that idea is difficult to grasp, think about how if the world’s internet use was to be collected and measured, it would be the size of Germany–making it the seventh-highest polluting country releasing emissions (Sustainable Web Manifesto). The internet makes up two percent of the carbon emissions being released into the environment, which equals 3,335 diesel cars off the road (Griffiths).

In 2019 it was believed there were over 4.3 billion active internet users in the world (Schäferhoff), this number is expected to grow more and more in the coming years.

The measurement to figure out how the web has an impact on our environment comes from measuring data transfers and the carbon intensity of electricity. The more data transfer—the weight of a webpage—the more energy used by data centers, networks, and devices (Greenwood Ch.2).

Source The digital process of energy https://www.wholegraindigital.com/blog/website-energy-efficiency/

What does sustainability in design mean?  

Just because it is not on paper doesn’t mean it is sustainable. Sustainability in design means being aware of the choices we make in our everyday work. Our processes should encourage reducing negative impacts on the environment without compromising the overall user experience (Sustainable Design). Consider small tradeoffs in optimizing your designs, don’t be afraid to question and challenge the idea of finding a sustainable option. This will bring up the need for certain elements and how they affect the user end experience, question if an image is necessary to support the content or vice versa. Sometimes we get carried away with offering more than we should to impress our users or satisfy their ridiculous wants.

Minimalist design is sustainable

Websites are meant to be clean, clear, and accessible. Planning an accessible user journey will increase the user experience and make content easy to locate. Consider getting rid of unnecessary elements and use a static webpage that will load much faster and help with SEO rankings. Search engines are looking for quicker loading times, optimized pages, and clean designs including the high value of content. Applying the four principles discussed can help achieve your website earn a higher search engine ranking (Just Creative). This doesn’t mean that your website designs have to be bare, it is simply asking to justify every element and detail designed that is part of the website (Greenwood Ch.3). Be consistent in design and in testing your site, keep asking if users are finding the right content, and if the site is meeting their expectations.

Limit the fonts being used

New designers are guilty of creating the flashiest websites, using fancy fonts, high-resolution images, and extravagant layouts. I can say this from experience. Designers are always going after the best, unique, and trendy website design and functionality without considering accessibility or the end-user. One design element that can be altered for a more sustainable website is the use of fonts. In 2011, all internet browsers adopted custom fonts, allowing endless possibilities for creatives (Stopper). You might contemplate this statement and ask why this is even a problem. If every customizable font has different weights and each weight carries 200kb, this will significantly increase the webpage loading time and the use of energy.

So, which are the most sustainable fonts that you can use? Arial, Times New Roman, Courier New, Georgia, Verdana, and Helvetica are amongst the few others that fall under this category. Fonts that are user-friendly and use less energy are already installed in online systems, local computers, and on our devices. Accessibility to these fonts improves a website’s loading time, decreases energy, and reduces storage space. Constraining a designer to use limited options, presents a challenge for the designer to create distinct and unique designs. Keep in mind we are designing for the user and studies have shown that people don’t actually read articles but skim through them instead. This means that the font chosen in the end is not all-important—unless it’s a brand strategy—as the user is there for the content and spends more time above the fold.

Optimizing Images

Using smaller images on websites reduces the weight of a webpage, therefore, doesn’t use much energy and doesn’t impact the environment as much. There are processes that designers can incorporate in their designs without losing the enhancement of the message. Choose images that support the content instead of enlarging images to make an impact on the user. Images with fewer gradients, bevels, and other effects can be replaced with “flat” images preferably with PNG or SVG file extensions. This not only helps reduce the amount of loading time but also helps with facilitating responsive design (Frick). Finally, optimize the image, compress it by converting it to a different extension that captures less color, making an image black and white is also an option to be considered.

Design with intention

Let’s design for humanity. Products and services are designed based on the end-user and user experience. Designers have power over choosing eco-friendly design strategies and implementing them to impact our lifestyles beneficially. Try to stay away from a novelty website that most users don’t know how to navigate, this will only frustrate the user and will devalue the entire website. If designers adopt these principles, we will be decreasing the negative impact and increasing the inclusive user experiences.

Talking about it can make a difference

We all need to take responsibility for our design choices, the effort can start individually and end up being a collaborative change. Hosting servers are aware of the internet’s carbon emission release and are switching to be powered on by renewable energy only and implement sustainable practices. Each hosting server service will list its eco-friendly initiatives along with its prices. Tom Greenwood, author of one of the first books that cover this topic, and his team created a tool that measures the carbon emission that your website releases. Anyone can visit The Website Carbon Calculator at https://www.websitecarbon.com/, insert the website’s URL and get your results. This is an encouragement to apply these principles mentioned that can change carbon emission release. The digital community has created a sustainable web manifesto (https://www.sustainablewebmanifesto.com/) pledging your commitment to applying best sustainable practices to your designs. It does not only bring awareness to the problem but it also uncovers solutions that everyone can apply to our design work.


[The digital process of energy]. (n.d.). https://www.wholegraindigital.com/blog/website-energy-efficiency/

Frick, T. (2016). Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services (1st ed.) [E-book]. O’Reilly Media.

Greenwood, T., He, R., & Safari, O. ’. R. M. C. (2021). Sustainable Web Design [E-book]. A Book Apart.

Griffiths, S. (n.d.). Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think. BBC Future. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200305-why-your-internet-habits-are-not-as-clean-as-you-think

Ma, M. (2021, September 8). What is Sustainable Web design and why does it matter for UX designers. Monica Ma Portfolio. https://www.monicama.com/blogold/2021/6/9/what-is-sustainable-web-design-and-why-it-matters-for-ux-designers

Marcacci, S. (2020, March 17). How Much Energy Do Data Centers Really Use? Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology. https://energyinnovation.org/2020/03/17/how-much-energy-do-data-centers-really-use/

M. (2021, March 16). Web Fonts and Sustainability. Mightybytes. https://www.mightybytes.com/blog/sustainability-web-fonts/

Schäferhoff, N. (2021, April 1). 6 Ways to Create a More Eco-Friendly Website (Design, Hosting & More). Torque. https://torquemag.io/2019/09/eco-friendly-website-design/

Sustainable Design. (n.d.). GSA. https://www.gsa.gov/real-estate/design-construction/design-excellence/sustainability/sustainable-design

Sustainable Web Design: How To Get Started. (n.d.). JUSTTM Creative. https://justcreative.com/sustainable-web-design/

Sustainable Web Manifesto. (n.d.). The Sustainable Web Manifesto. https://www.sustainablewebmanifesto.com/

Written by Annette Fuentes