Q&A with Fiona O’Reilly, Creative Designer & On The Dot Design Founder – Design for Sustainability and Circular Economies Certificate (DfSCE) alumni.
Meet up with Fiona O’Reilly, Founder of On The Dot Design, a graduate of Design Skillnet’s Certificate in Design for Sustainability and Circular Economies. In this interview, Fiona talks about her business, her final project case study and her aspirations to design for a more sustainable future.
- Tell us a little bit more about yourself and the work that you do as a creative designer.
I am a graphic designer, owner and partner in the Donegal-based creative design studio – On The Dot, where alongside my husband Lar, we connect with ambitious clients to create meaningful brands and deliver purpose-led design. In our work, we seek purpose and authenticity and we partner best with clients who share this ethos.
I have extensive and diverse international experience, having worked in New York, Sydney and Dublin in the early stages of my career.
“Professionally, my creativity helps people to tell their business story in a visual way.”
“Personally, I’ve been curious about creation in terms of making, learning and – people’s unique stories – since childhood.”
As a creative designer, I’m continuously adapting to the changing world around us – reflecting the culture visually in meaningful ways both with clients and in my own consumption and creation.
- How did your interest in sustainability and circular design come about?
I have always been interested in nature. Coming from a beautiful landscape such as Donegal, I had been brought up to respect the land and appreciate the scenery surrounding our family home, be mindful of waste, assume personal responsibility for it and play a part in making sure the local environment remains unspoiled.
Discovering the ways other cultures created sustainable practices and functional design (in places such as Australia and New York) in the early days of my career, opened my eyes to the opportunities for good, well-considered design practice.
Having recently discovered zero waste concepts and how some small retail units maximise their space with minimal waste – I began to dig deeper with a hopeful desire to incorporate them into my work practice and personal life – while increasing awareness of what can be done collectively.
My passion for Branding and Packaging Design led me to investigate what role a Graphic Designer could play around wasteful packaging, the Circular Economy, Generative practices and Sustainability. I also wanted to ensure I was not enabling or promoting Green Washing.
So the (DfSCE) course really came along at an opportune time for me – I knew the best way to get informed was to jump in and learn from experts and my peers, and as such began a new journey of discovery.
- You founded On the Dot in 2011, could you tell us more about your motivation, the business and how your work is contributing to achieving a more sustainable practice?
In our design practice, we love to help authentic brands visualise their brand vision and story. Working from our Donegal-based Wild Atlantic Way studio – we’re endlessly inspired by the rugged, natural beauty this offers – we concentrate on inspired design solutions to suit the wonderful clients that we encounter; supporting their commercial success, reflecting their culture, mirroring their mission and reaching their brand goals. I am continually motivated by the people we collaborate with and energised by being their creative partner on their journey.
“We are really at the beginning of our journey to become a more sustainable practice.”
As a designer, I believe in aligning myself with brands and agencies that share my intrinsic values. In our practice, we are fortunate to work with a variety of sustainably motivated companies from the NTA Smarter Travel initiatives, Renewable Energy providers such as Plan Energy, to local artisan producers and makers among others.
- You recently graduated from our Certificate in Design for Sustainability and Circular Economies Certificate (DfSCE) 2022*. What does it mean for you and your business to have a qualification in sustainability?
“To have a qualification that reflects our values and our aim to lean into the circular economy and develop sustainable skills both for ourselves and our current and potential future clients is incredibly important to us.”
This is an achievement we can take genuine pride in as part of our lifelong learning journey and that aligns with On The Dot’s mission to make a meaningful difference to the community of clients we find ourselves within as well as our personal community. This qualification will form part of our ongoing goal to learn how to live and work as sustainably as possible and to incorporate this into our academic research and client projects.
“The qualification has given me confidence and the motivation to learn and do – more in this space.”
- What did you learn from the array of lead designers – who apply sustainable and circular design principles into their practice, featured in the course?
I learned a wealth of new information from the diverse panel of expert designers and their roles in circular design and how complex, yet important, it is to apply the principles into design practice in all industries.
Ellen Mc Arthurs 17 Sustainable Development Goals’ number 12 ‘Responsible Consumption and Waste‘ inspired me to work on an awareness campaign for my personal project.
There are so many designers doing amazing work but someone who has greatly inspired me and is leading the charge in terms of Designing for sustainability and circular economy in recent years is Bruce Mau. As a designer, I have really benefited from his books, in particular, “Mau: MC24, Bruce Mau’s 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in Your Life and Work.” I often come back to this and find it inspiring as a 21st Century designer.
I also learnt a lot from working with other creatives on design sprints each week. This process really highlighted how complex striving to design and create circular designs actually is.
“Overall, the course has given me valuable information with a new understanding of Life Cycle Thinking, Circular Economy Principles and Regenerative Design Practices.”
- What sustainable and circular design project did you work on as part of the Certificate in Design for Sustainability and Circular Economies (DfSCE)?
The main objective was to drive behavioural change around Sustainable Consumption with a targeted and informative awareness campaign. This was my first project with circularity as its core objective, as opposed to applying sustainability principles to some aspects of a project (e.g. a zero-waste approach to print or materials).
‘I wanted to apply my newfound knowledge on circular and sustainable design principles in my design process’.
I believed that collaborating with a sustainable local brand such as the eco-store Wholegreen to encourage a behavioural change in consumer habits, would enable me to apply circular principles in my design process while aligning with my own personal motivation to create awareness around the benefits of using a Zero Waste Shop and support local suppliers and businesses. It was a real opportunity for the creation of an organic hub and place of reference to meet like-minded people, allowing natural exchanges of information on sustainability and social issues.
UX Design approach
I decided to take a Design-Led User Experience approach to the project. I felt understanding what existing and potential customers’ needs are would shine a light on opportunities to communicate and engage more effectively with a specific audience.
Research phase – identifying customers’ challenges and needs
During the course of the project, I visited the shop and collaborated with the staff to gather data through observations, interviews, and questionnaires. We gained insights into how to communicate more effectively with existing and new customers. We observed and recorded a number of challenges faced by customers as they begin to understand and learn new ways of shopping in refill stores.
Testing phase – educating the customer
Our main objective was to educate the market on how to use the zero-waste grocery aspect of the store – as the concept is still relatively new to some.
The tone of voice of the communications had to be non-preachy, informative and friendly. It needed to inform the customer through the various touchpoints of their shopping experience with the support of both physical and digital aids.
Exploring design for sustainability & material waste.
I created a number of Low Fi prototypes using sustainable and upcycled materials locally sourced where possible, to begin to test what would help provide awareness about the Shop and how to use it.
The look and feel of the design style aligned with the brand values of the overall business creating a consistent look and feel, internally, externally and virtually.
We used a minimal simple design style to make the information as accessible and legible as possible. This approach also allowed for asset optimisation, with the option to repurpose many of the graphic files for other media platforms from the Brand Toolkit, making the process of updating and editing the assets for social media and in-store communications easier for the staff.
One of my first steps was to design an infographic poster visualising Wholegreen’s Circular Principles. I felt this was an important visual tool to educate and help customers understand more about the Circular Economy and the owner’s business in a practical way. We also created an infographic instructional Poster on how to use the Refill Shop. We wanted to be as inclusive as not all customers have the ability to access digital information.
We also created branded step-by-step guides to remove doubt/confusion about zero-waste living and consumption in order to increase sales. This contribution in terms of design required synergy between consistent branding, relevant information and practical visual representation.
We worked together to create a QR code, giving the customers access to simplified information on how to use the shop.
Informative awareness Social media campaign
The QR code drove customers to the shop’s social media platforms, communicating the benefits of positive consumption by answering the most commonly asked questions from conscientious customers, gathered during the research phase.
To generate curiosity and interest in conscientious shoppers about Wholegreen and its Zero Waste Refill Shop offer, we created a Starter Pack to help new customers take the first step in zero waste shopping. It included reusable branded containers, a cotton sustainable bag, free samples, shop product list, with space to write a shopping list plan.
The UX research unveiled the need for a product list in the absence of packaging on the products. Its creation was simple and its usability proved effective in conveying clear information to the customers, freeing staff’s time, plus it generated an editable Excel sheet for internal use too.
To reach a wider/new audience, we repurposed the campaign’s graphics to create a motion graphics piece to engage and inform customers on how to use the shop and instigate curiosity. The video could be uploaded to several digital platforms, edited and resampled to create a variety of short animations.
“I was proud to learn that customers actively engaged with the work that was produced and therefore a practical and efficient solution was created.”
Staff felt the existing Low Fi prototypes such as the Posters and QR codes, product lists and social media graphics supported them in their work and helped communicate what the shop offered as well as reduced the time spent on informing customers and assisting with queries.
- Eco-friendly packaging, labels and signage – I’m sure that using recycled and sustainable materials brings another level of complication to the visual branding process. Aesthetically pleasing vs sustainable materials – was it challenging to find a balance?
Certainly, it can be perceived as restrictive to have a limited suite of materials to pull from in order to use sustainable materials exclusively but – this challenge can be exciting and – conversely, I feel the stripped-back, simple nature of these materials can have a minimal look and feel that is usually on-brand in terms of the aesthetic most sustainably-minded brand owners (and customers) gravitate towards.
Sourcing the materials can be a challenge from the point of view of the supply chain. To be sustainably mindful, you’re trying to source materials locally where possible to help the local economy and reduce carbon footprint, and they’re not always readily available on a local level.
Ensuring on a practical level that the packaging, labels and signage can travel/withstand weather and are legible are also concerns but can be figured out.
But problem-solving is all part of the design process, after all.
- For your project, you did a lot of research on customer behaviour and how to educate the customer to become more eco-conscious. What are the quick wins brands can do to help them change their behaviour and embrace a more eco-friendly and sustainable way to shop?
“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
We are all visual learners and thinkers. I think the consumer could certainly make small habit-based changes – even simple things like checking whether their favourite products provide refill options if, in physical retail spaces, they have access to interactive information and a greater visual emphasis on eco-conscious habits. It would help embed this into consumers’ behaviour and culture.
“Do not patronise the customer – make it fun”
Sharing tips with peers on social media in a helpful and non-aggressive/non-patronising way – can help too to make it more socially acceptable and fun.
Make it part of the brand’s ethos
Brands can start by adapting their mission statement to incorporate their eco-conscious goals to stay accountable to and to communicate their values clearly to their customers.
Be authentic & transparent – ‘Stories tell, facts sell’
The consumer can sense inauthentic behaviour. Sharing incentives and facts about ‘why’ it’s important to support the movement – examples of initiatives, impact over time (stories tell, facts sell!) – at every touchpoint ensures clarity around the brand’s eco-mindset and ethos; versus appearing as a performative effort.
Make it simple and achievable
While working on this project, this new way of grocery shopping inspired me to rethink my own behaviour. I began to observe all my own food packaging and the confusing recyclable information. I also realised it was critical to figure out ways to shop differently but it needed to start with small steps to make an impactful change.
Remove all understanding barriers and confusion. Make sure the consumer knows clearly what is involved, and how to change their behaviour, one achievable step at a time, so it’s not overwhelming to get started.
- What changes would it take for the retail industry to be more sustainable and to contribute to a more circular economy?
“When it comes to consumers, it’s now clear that the majority prefer eco-friendly options when given the choice, and are willing to pay more for sustainable products.“
There is great awareness now regarding fast fashion and buying local campaigns. In a study commissioned by the Zendo Group. “65% of a global survey reported they want to buy from purpose-driven brands.” Today, brands are responding to these consumers’ needs. Many are sourcing innovative 100% biodegradable, home-compostable materials for their product packaging.
Room for improvement…
Many of the larger retail stores are putting sustainability strategies together and opening refill sections, but I would love to see more zero-waste versions of everyday essentials from popular brands. One initiative, I will be keeping an eye on is LOOP – at selected Tesco stores in the UK, you can visit the Loop Reuse Station and buy a wide selection of products from leading brands in zero-waste, refillable packaging.
As most consumers are now fully on board with QR codes, there is a golden opportunity for brands to embrace and integrate this technology into their packaging designs. Something to explore further for designers like me is scannable codes as an innovative area for change, as they simultaneously provide really useful information on products/services & an opportunity for less print, packaging and label waste long term.
- What tips would you give to a designer who is exploring sustainable practice for the first time?
Lao Tzu wisely said that “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
So start your journey with little steps, find like-minded people and clients, and become informed by listening to and following experts and designers working in the area already.
Explore and discover the small changes you can make in your life and design practice.
To dig deeper, check out the Ellen McArthur foundation. Their website is a fantastic resource; it has a wealth of information regarding groundbreaking innovations, relevant news and practical information on the Circular Economy and Sustainability.
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