Settle in for a chat with Brian Byrne, graphic designer and owner of Lands Studio, which specialises in visual identity and publication design. Brian is also a graduate of Design Skillnet’s Level 9 Certificate in Design for Sustainability and Circular Economies (DfSCE).
Brian talks about his sustainable journey from creating his own environmentally and socially conscious design practice, pitching sustainable solutions to clients, upskilling with the DfSCE, winning an IDI Award and helping set up Design Declares Ireland.
- Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, I’ve been a graphic designer for over 20 years now. I live and work in rural Wexford. My studio is called Lands and I’ve been working under that moniker since I moved to the countryside in 2016. It was the move that inspired the name and the concept behind the studio. I’ve always loved nature and the environment, but when I moved out here, I certainly felt a deeper connection to it. It’s a beautiful part of the country and I think living here heightened my interest in sustainability and environmental protection. My work is predominantly strategy, visual identity and publication design for environmental and social projects.
- What are the challenges of working away from the capital?
I don’t look at it as a challenge, certainly not now. Maybe 20 + years ago, when I started my career, it might have been. Digital communication wasn’t what it is now, and there was no social media, so it was much harder to promote yourself. But now you can pretty much work from wherever you want. And one of the positives that came from the pandemic is that remote working is the norm rather than the exception.
- Does digital sustainability and circularity play a significant role in day-to-day work as a designer?
I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as a digital designer, but I do some design for the web and there are methods to lower the environmental impacts of that work. Earlier this year, I commissioned a series of articles for the 100 Archive called Sustainability by Design, and Kevin Horan wrote an excellent piece called The Weight of the Web — I learned a lot from that. The ultimate goal is to reduce the energy it takes to host, load and use a website — less energy used means less carbon emissions released into the atmosphere. So many things can be done: choosing a certified green hosting supplier, ensuring the site is easily found and easy to navigate, ensuring the code isn’t bloated, reducing image sizes and using correct image formats, and, dare I say it — limiting video use!
In terms of circularity, that’s a more difficult concept to introduce into a graphic design practice—so, at the moment, it’s not something that plays a significant role yet. Circularity is about keeping our materials in use for longer, rather than the traditional linear mode of take/make use and dispose. Collaboration is the key to circularity—someone’s waste is another’s raw material — so finding and building those relationships is critical. I’m still learning and exploring opportunities.
- How challenging is it to pitch sustainability to clients?
For the most part, I don’t have to pitch sustainability — I’ve worked hard to position Lands as an environmentally conscious design practice. If a potential client visits my website or comes to me from a referral, it’s obvious that sustainability is important to me. So, clients usually know what they’re getting into. In saying that, I was recently contacted about a project where the client wanted to create a display of pull-up banners. The PVC graphic is impossible to recycle, and these usually end up in landfills, so I suggested I would research a more sustainable method of displaying the project. I contacted The Factory — a sustainable printer and sign maker outside Birr in County Offaly, and they proposed a modular wooden display system. It consisted of individual timber frames that could be easily assembled with graphics printed onto corrugated cardboard slotted into the frames. The system is reusable, and the cardboard inserts can be recycled, so it was a really clever and sustainable solution. Aesthetically, I thought it was a beautiful solution, but it didn’t sit quite right with the client—they wanted “a cleaner look” for the project. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sell them the idea, which was a shame. However, it does pose an interesting question about sustainable design and people’s reactions to alternative solutions.
- You recently won the Design for Good Awards at the IDI Awards for Fair Seas. How did you approach the project from a sustainable perspective?
Winning the award was a great experience, and to do it with Fair Seas was all the more special. I’ve been working with them since they launched and they do incredible work. They are campaigning to increase Ireland’s marine protected areas to 30% by 2030 and turn Ireland into a world leader in ocean protection. There’s obviously a massive issue with plastics in our oceans now, and if we continue the way we’re going, it’s estimated there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, which is an incredibly sad prospect. My work with them involves producing lots of communication pieces, including printed reports, so as an organisation, we obviously don’t want to add to the plastics problem. So, I proposed that we wouldn’t use any plastics in our printed materials that would end up in landfills. I only specify recycled paper for Fair Seas materials. We use no laminates, coatings, or varnishes — which are basically plastic coatings that make the paper very difficult to recycle. More often than not this type of coated paper ends up in landfills — the plastic breaks down, leaches into the soil, finds its way into our groundwater system and flows into the ocean. And we certainly don’t want to add to that problem.
- You’re a 2022 graduate of our Certificate in Design for Sustainability and Circular Economies Certificate (DfSCE). What does it mean for you and your business to have a qualification in sustainability?
Having the qualification is excellent — it’s another nice addition to the CV. But for me, doing the course was more about the opportunity to learn, gather knowledge, and bring that into my practice. I understood if I wanted to position myself as a designer committed to sustainability, I’d have to upskill at some point. The DfSCE course was the perfect opportunity to do that. I’d highly recommend it to anyone in the design industry looking for a comprehensive introduction to sustainable design and the circular economy.
- The project you worked on as part of the Certificate in Design for Sustainability and Circular Economies (DfSCE) was to align sustainability with brand strategy. What were the key takeaways for you from this project?
I had been thinking about integrating sustainability into my brand strategy process before I took the course. The DfSCE program gave me the time, space and knowledge to develop those ideas. The goal was to expand my existing process and build sustainability into a brand from the outset — uncovering the purpose, creating a vision for the future and defining a set of values that will guide actions, behaviours and communication. We develop this further and pose different questions to the client and ourselves—how does sustainability/circularity fit into your story? How can we differentiate you because of it and use it to your advantage? The key is to take an open and collaborative approach and give clients the opportunity to discuss what they care about in terms of their business and sustainability, whether that’s their product or service, staff, culture, or their social & environmental responsibility. And crucially, we’ll discuss what’s realistically achievable for them, depending on their scale and budget.
- Since graduating, you’ve joined Design Declares Ireland. What have you changed in your design practice to ensure the work you produce is sustainable?
Since doing the course, there’s been a complete mindset change. As a practice, we’ve started to adapt to the reality of climate change — designing greener solutions, reducing environmental impacts and trying to work with organisations that benefit people and the planet. I question myself a lot more now—about everything. Now, I look at a project in terms of what we are producing and what its environmental impact might be. Where are materials sourced — can they be reused, recycled, or composted? Can we source locally? How do we transport? Do we even need to design this product? The DfSCE course was a game-changer for me in that respect.
- What are the first steps designers can take to start to help the design industry become more sustainable and contribute to a more circular economy?
I think a significant first step would be to sign up for Design Declares Ireland. This is an initiative I’m involved with, and we launched it in November. I’m part of the steering group, and two other DfSCE graduates are part of that, too — Fiona O’Reilly and Stephen Ledwidge. Our goal is to help designers lower the environmental impacts of their work, promote sustainable, circular and regenerative design within the industry and help bring clients with us on that journey. For any designers interested, the first step is to declare a climate emergency on the Design Declares Ireland website. This is an essential first step as you publicly acknowledge the climate and biodiversity crisis. Once this is done, your name or company appears on the website, and you’re given access to our toolkit—a repository of resources that will help you instigate change in your practice through practical advice, actions, tools and insights.
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