Design is the focal point of sustainability – and that includes coders, too

On common question regarding sustainability is why designers need to be involved. To date, most issues concerning a ‘green’ Internet have concerned the energy efficiency and energy sourcing for big hosting and IT groups on the Internet – for example, Facebook data centers. Isn’t Google on this? Isn’t this a problem for the engineers?

They seem to be the ones thinking about this, though typically not in sustainability terms. Here’s one of the rare articles treating optimization at the design level for Yahoo!:

Well, one of the things I took away from Nathan Shedroff’s book “Design is the Problem” is that engineering only gets us part way. The problem in physical design (and by extension, in virtual design) is this:

  1. A website is judged not eco-friendly, due to its plethora of HTTP requests, big graphics, module-laden, ‘one size fits all JavaScript’ or CMS code, and rich media like audio and video.
  1. A site engineer looks at the site, and fixes a few things on the server (e.g. expires headers in HTTP requests) to speed things up. They also recommend fusing some of the external JavaScript and CSS files into a longer document.
  1. After this is done, the site has a smaller carbon footprint.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, this website is like a monster SUV or Hummer H2. The engineer went back and made things as efficient as they could.

But – IT IS STILL A HUMMER. That was a design, not engineering decision.

The place where the most dramatic changes in bandwidth, HTTP requests, carbon footprint, or however you measure sustainability of a web page is in the design. The designer didn’t do anything. If they even knew about the optimization, they didn’t change their design based on optimization concerns. The is especially true of the web artist creating logos and brand identity.

Hey wait! Isn’t it the responsibility of the front-end developer?


Though over 80% of potential optimization will happen on the client, rather than server-side, the front-end developer is still hamstrung. They can combine their JavaScript libraries, make sure external files load in the correct order, and validate that they don’t have a lot of bogus <DIV> tags using a facility like DOMMonster

However, IT IS STILL A HUMMER.If the front-end Ui designer and developer are the same person – combined in a “hybrid” designer/developer, then it is their problem. Otherwise, they are just trying to streamline a hippo for flight. If the designer, (and their enabler, the project manager or executive overseeing the project) make something like

We can’t optimize worth squat.

The designer (this also includes a UX person who does wireframes for interaction design) IS the problem. Most likely, the designer has created a complex page with a lot of messages pulling in different directions, adapted for big-screen desktop. In the worst case, they did everything in Photoshop, Illustrator, or (gasp) InDesign because they don’t know any HTML or CSS. Decoupled from the web as a medium, they created something that looked cool on their screen but is a big, slow, and clumsy when implemented in the real web.

Sustainable frameworks universally celebrate “hybrid” development. Each member of a design team has to understand some of what the other does. The design should move forward in a series of iterations, with each team member putting in their two cents. Then, the design should be evaluated as a whole.

At this point, the developer, IT, or infrastructure people need to speak up. We’re used to art directors and web designers tell this group what to do, and they do it. However, in a sustainable design process, they will also tell the designers what they need to do.

The only way this will happen is if the designers understand some of the code and infrastructure level, enough to communicate. But even more important, the developers need to understand design.

Designers from the ‘classical’ world of fixed-width documents and Adobe CSx often take some programming classes so they can iterate. It’s time the programmers were required to learn some design. I think this is supremely important. If they stay at the engineer level, they’ll always treat the art people as kids playing in their software sandbox. The art people will have their snob factor enabled, and make their design too artistically precious. You’ll get a fight, instead of a design iteration.

Not only is design the focus of the sustainable web, it should leak downwards onto programmers, and upwards onto UX and business model people. They’ve all got to understand, since sustainability is a global framework mapping local decisions to global consequences. They can’t silo in their individual jobs and be sustainable.

Design is the problem – get everyone doing it.

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