Communication design for sustainability in principle and in practice

November 2021

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Designing with an understanding of the environmental impact has been one of the principal foundations of the TM studio since 1997 when it was founded. The creativity and thought put into the communication of such tricky subjects like carbon footprinting or sustainable design can be traced – like a thread – through our approach to problem solving. The following selection of projects showcase this how thinking has developed over the years.


In 2005 we self-published the ‘Ten Ways Design Can Fight Climate Change’ book. It was a step-by-step and ‘by example’, guide to sustainable Communication Design, written in the seventh year of the studio’s existence. The book set out ten points where a bit of thought could change the way you designed. Each point had one of our projects as a case study. We clearly stated ‘Thomas.Matthews believes in two things: good design and sustainability. When we say that we design sustainably, the response is often a slightly quizzical look. We think the best way to define it is by example. So, what can design do to combat climate change? Here is our starter list:

  1. re-thinking
  2. re-using
  3. using friendly materials
  4. saving energy
  5. sharing new ideas
  6. designing to last
  7. staying local, buying ethical
  8. inspiring, having fun
  9. saving money

Even the way the book was made was a case in point. By using the unprinted side of the printer’s waste make-ready sheets for the pages we cut the carbon. The French-folding and dust-jacket reveals the make-ready over-printed effect. Printed on recycled, ‘waste’ paper with vegetable-based inks.


Four years later we worked with the New Economics Foundation (NEF) to create ‘Ration Me Up’ – a workable carbon ration book that challenged participants to have a go at reducing their impact from the UK per capita average of 8 tonnes to the target annual global per capita emission allowance of 1.15tonnes of CO2e. NEF calculated all the carbon impact for household activity and this was then translated into the number of coupons and monthly allowance. The book was created for The Ministry of Trying to Do Something About It which launched at NEF’s ‘The Bigger Picture Festival of Independence’, and then made its way to Copenhagen for the Climate Summit (which also held COP15).

The Ration Me Up book works like a wartime ration book, containing perforated coupons for daily activities and carbon use. The user takes out coupons that relate to things they have done or used (e.g. ½ hour of daily TV watching = one coupon) and sticks them on the grid of 40 squares. Once you have lit your house, kept your fridge on, washed your clothes and flushed the toilet (21x in a week = 1 coupon) there was little room for eating, showering and traveling to work. This powerful little communication piece quickly brought home the fact that everything we do in our lives has a carbon impact.


This year, the TM studio collaborated with architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios on an installation in their London studio which is aimed at de-bunking the mystery of what ‘Net Zero Carbon’ actually means. The colourful installation takes the audience through the journey of understanding; from why the planet is heating up, what we are aiming towards, and how collectively we can reduce our impact on the planet. A 3D light installation draws the passer-by in, made up of hundreds of suspended laser-cut icons which represent the delicate balancing act of reducing what we emit and removing what greenhouse gasses are already in the atmosphere.

The entire installation has been created using only offcuts and waste remnants from the FCB Studios model making workshop and all waste was reused and deployed in the window displays. The icons are cut from left-over panels of acrylic and timber and the remaining cut sheet ‘waste’ has been used alongside panels (also remnants) with etched information. The left-over acrylic waste boards – with their negative ‘holes’ in the forms of cars, factories and food waste etc – are layered up, creating shadows and reflections across the window, taking the audience on a narrative journey of understanding and action, but also hinting at the things we need to cut out and demonstrating the size and complexity of Net Zero Carbon, which many just find too overwhelming to begin to tackle.

At TM we are proud of our two decades-worth of projects that have challenged us and our audiences. They show that every project we create can communicate, activate, and change the normal as with every action we take as citizens can shift our world for the better.