Sustainable Web Design Deliverables #1: Design Briefs

The first deliverable we are going to consider is often the starting point for design project in graphic and web design, a “Design Brief” or “Creative Brief.” While these vary quite a bit, they have the following general structure (leaving out budgeting):

  1. Introductory Paragraph
  2. About the Company Providing the Service
  3. Client Features and Client Goals
  4. Target Audience
  5. Current Site (if present)
  6. Website Goals
  7. Competition
  8. Competitive Edge
  9. Design Concept (visual and interaction design)
  10. Promotion/SEO
  11. Technical Implementation


A sustainability objective applies directly to client, and indirectly to the company providing the service. In creating the website, the client usually wants to match the classic definition of sustainability, paraphrased for the web as:

Sustainable web design meets the current needs of its users, without compromising the ability of those needs to be met in the future.

Adding Sustainability as a Client Goal

Since sustainability is a high-level goal, it is one that belongs in the Design Brief. In particular, client and designer/developer goals can both incorporate sustainability principles

The original definition of sustainable development for the “real world,” promoted by the United Nations, listed, among others, the following features of sustainable practice:

    • Changing the Quality of Growth
    • Meeting Essential Human Needs
    • Conserving and Enhancing the Resource Base
    • Reorienting Technology
    • Merging Environment and Economics


A re-working for the Web and other virtual networked environments might include the following, adapted from the list developed by Nathan Shredoff in his book, Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable:

General Sustainability Principle Sustainable Web Design Goals
Make meaningful products Make websites that are have real value, not fashion or tech-tricks
Easy design rollback Iterative or Agile design workflow
Source Renewable Materials  Switch to a “Green” webhost
Design products to work in the future  Implement classic design strategies
Design with the user in mind  Create effective User Experience (UX)
Ensure democratic access  Build accessible, responsive websites
Interchangable Parts Apply standards-based design
Minimize energy and resource consumption Web Performance Optimization (WPO)
Don’t corrupt the virtual system  Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Adding Sustainability to the Introduction

A commitment to sustainable design should appear in the introductory paragraph, detailing the intent to apply sustainable design thinking to the project, and citing sources as necessary. The key is the phrase from the original UN declaration, “changing the quality of growth.” So, the project should be presented as satisfying client needs in a better way, a way that improves sustainability of the virtual ecosystem.

In this section, examining the mission statements of green hosting and design companies is quite valuable. Here are some recent mission statements with the site one might use in the Introduction of a Brief:


Applying Individual Sustainability Goals

We have two options for incorporating these high-level goals. First, we might just add our sustainability goals to the existing design brief, possibly as a special callout drawing attention to our efforts. A sample mapping of sustainable goals into a Design Brief might look like the following:

  • Sustainability Goals – Company
    • Implement agile design workflows
    • Implement a green office
    • Describe and define sustainability goals with client
  • Sustainablity Goals – Audience
    • Design with the User in mind
    • Design for maximal access
  • Sustainablity Goals – Design Concept
    • Site is meaningful to its audience and the larger social system
    • Responsive Design, Progressive Enhancement ensures democratic access
    • Site encourages more sustainable behavior via its interface
  • Sustainability Goals – Promotion
    • SEO promoting a consistent place in the Internet ecosystem
    • SEO ensures democratic access for relevant audience
  • Sustainability Goals – Technical
    • Standards-Based Programming to “future friendliness”
    • Minimize energy and resource consumption
      • Web Performance Optimization
      • Green hosting

Adding a Separate Sustainability Section

One problem with this kind of organization is that there are other areas of the Design Brief that might benefit from sustainable language, but aren’t listed, e.g. the Competitive Analysis section. So, it may be better to add a Sustainability section to the Design Brief. A possible organization might include:

Project Sustainability

Meaningful Products

  1. How the site improves on an existing service
  2. How the site improves the current process (so it is more sustainable)
  3. Easy Rollback

Source Renewables

  1. Use of Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) to improve efficiency

Future Friendly

  1. Standards-based design

Design with the User in Mind

  1. User Experience and User Definition techniques
  2. User Testing strategy
  3. Implement technology supporting “edge” users
    • Old technology
    • Different access (e.g. voice-only)

Democratic Access

  1. Progressive Enhancement
  2. Adaptative and Responsive Design
  3. Appropriate SEO
  4. Support for people with disabilities (e.g. ARIA)
  5. Internationalization

Reduce Energy and Resource Consumption

  1. Green Office
  2. Green Hosting
  3. Web Performance Optimization

Support for the Internet Ecosystem

  1.  White-hat SEO
  2. Social Network integration

In my opinion, the second approach is better, since it clearly defines sustainability as a high-level goal, then specifically expands on it. The other approach is easier to add to existing Design Briefs, but, since many sustainability goals are already part of web design and development, the addition may not be obvious.

Adding Sustainabiliy to a Competitive Strategy

In addition to this listing, it makes sense to expand the Competitive Strategy in both cases. If the average website is 2megabytes in page payload, it makes sense to define a smaller page as a competitive strategy giving the project an edge over others. So, one might have a section in the competitive strategy like the following:

Sustainability Metric Our Project
Competitor 1 Competitor 2 Competitor 3
 Page Size  1.1mb  2.1mb  1.8mb  1.6mb
 Page Standards  HTML5  HTML4 HTML  XHTML
 Democratic Access  ARIA, closed-captioned video  none  none  none
 SEO  Targeted at Audience  none  ” black” SEO  none
Green Hosting  Ultra-Green host  none  none  none

While it is useful to incorporate sustainability into a Design Brief, the place where it reallly belongs is a Business Model, which is already a sort of sustainability statement. More on that in the next installment!






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