A great visual summary of sustainability in web design from zellous.org

Last week, my scan for “sustainable web design” struck pay dirt. In contrast to the typical web design shop describing how they send “green messages”, the online information from Zellous.org, a New England design firm, considers sustainability in the design process. This is true Sustainable Virtual Design, as opposed to art-snob greenwash.

The thing that interested me about their mission statement was this visual, demonstrating how sustainability results from the integration of several areas, rather than simply page speed of green web hosting. With their permission, I’ve reproduced it below:

sustainable web design components by zellous.org, one of several elements of valuable websites

While sustainability is included as one facet of the graphic, in fact, all these elements could be considered as part of sustainable web design:

Desirable – Storage and use of a website burns carbon. A site that is visited by accident, or doesn’t offer the target audience what they need isn’t desirable. A site that doesn’t attract its audience, or make it less pleasant to complete tasks results in wasted time and effort, impacting sustainabiltiy.

Accessible – All sustainability frameworks emphasize making a resource available to the maximum number of users. In the case of the web, sites are less sustainable if they require specific computers, browsers, or video cards for effective use. Support for the “browser challenged” goes hand and hand with supporting individuals with disabilities (e.g. color blindness).

Credible – A large part of the web is a waste of time. So-called “news” on YouTube, which, according to recent studies, supplies a large percent of the Internet audience with their daily information, is actually poorly retold information from another source, or downright false or misrepresented. I hadn’t thought of this one in my original formulation of sustainable web design, but is a biggie. Think of all the bits wasted on bad news, or websites whose intent and content we don’t trust. Anything in a design that promotes trust and credibility indirectly makes the site more sustainable.

Searchable – Search Engine Optimization, as well as in-site searching, is essential for efficient use of the web. The links that people use to find sites are like virtual “game trails” through the Internet ecosystem. Anything that promotes effective navigation, and reduces links to lousy or irrelevant content increases the sustainability of the Internet as a whole.

Useable – Websites that are searchable and accessible provide a useable interface, and in turn create a good user experience, or UX. User experience is comparable to good industrial design, helping people complete tasks while wasting the minimum number of bits.

Sustainability fits into Zellous design as part of their larger design process, as described on this page:


If we look at this page, we see that Zellous defines sustainability as having the following elements:

  1. Cross-browser checks
  2. Loading time/page speed
  3. Scalability and stress-testing
  4. Site matches user scenarios from design document
  5. Support for user updates of websites, via open-source management and video tutorials
  6. Search Engine Optimization

On the “About” page, Zellous defines “green” design as considering the environmental impact of a web page. While this is addressed in their design process, it is strange that there is no mention of “green web hosting”. Ditto for usability and accessible sites. These points appear in their graphic, but it would be nice to see these topics addressed in the design process as well, since they broaden access, and satisfy a key requirement of sustainability. It would also be useful to include any “green office” practices in place at the firm, as is common in graphic design. Finally, it would be nice to see a few examples – a gallery of client work where specific principles of sustainable design were applied to improve the outcome.

So Zellous has gone a long way to defining Sustainable Virtual Design to their clients. It’s nice to see a few US companies doing this – until recently, it seemed that all the web sustainability action was in the U.K.

What about the future? I’ve said elsewhere that the long-term goal for Sustainable Virtual Design is developing an LCA analysis specific to web development. The general points of sustainability mentioned above can all be quantified for specific projects, ultimately allowing one to determine things like the carbon footprint of a page.  In an extended sustainability document, a developer might document all the cross-browser checks performed with a website. Use of specific “green ingredients” in site development (e.g. Sizzle instead of JQuery when appropriate) could also be documented, as I’ve described elsewhere in this blog. One might even develop a page for clients defining the difference beween “green design messages” and “sustainable web design”.

Cool stuff! Nice way to start the week, and here’s hoping other designers copy this idea and begin incorporating sustainability in their own work!

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