Experience Design Is Making Waves. And Making Waste

4 ways to build in sustainability thinking early on

When it comes to authentic engagement, experience design is the most potent space in modern marketing. It's also the most ripe for an eco-makeover. 

Every big-name brand is going all-in on live activations, and pop-up retail is all the rage. The problem arises in the reality that temporary environmental activations require physical space, infrastructure and all manner of tangible stuff—signage, display cases, sets, installations, kiosks and more. 

So while each brand activation is an opportunity to build a fantastical world of immersive storytelling, the creative challenge is how to transform space and create an impactful experience without fabricating a slew of one-off builds and props destined for landfill. That's why it's imperative to build sustainability thinking into the creative concept phase rather than treating it as an afterthought. 

Rethink physical builds as virtual experiences.

While ideating about the narrative journey, there are lots of ways to reimagine physical builds as digital, mixed media or multisensory activations that are equally interactive and immersive. 

On a number of recent projects, my team transformed initial ideas that required fabrication into AR, projection or VR installations that invited guests to play in a mixed media space with an option to capture the imagery through in-camera setups that make the visual content shareable on social. In this way, it's possible to convert the now ubiquitous photo booth backdrop into a virtual experience that's still easily amplified online. 

Consider both materials and processes.

As for environmental assets like wall pieces or wayfinding, solutions like projection mapping and AR can cut back on excessive printed materials. Or for something even simpler, consider old-fashioned hospitality and opt for a human touchpoint to share information at various stages along the journey. 

When printed assets are required, water-based ink, recyclable materials and compostable board are the way to go. Likewise, when a build is necessary, lots of fabricators have materials from other projects that can be repurposed. At a minimum, the build planning should include a conversation about how materials will be treated, recycled or repurposed post-activation. 

In one recent instance, my team worked with a local florist to make a botanical installation using day-old blooms no longer fit for sale in the shop. This sort of approach leads to unconventional creative solutions that are often more interesting and bring an eco-awareness story to the installation that clients appreciate sharing with their audience. 

Use alternative power innovations to fuel creative solutions.

Eco-innovation doesn't stop with physical builds. When you know you're going to need power onsite, consider whether a solar generator can do the job. Researching alternative energy sources will uncover all kinds of cool innovations that can be integrated into creative solutions, like using the footstep-generated energy tiles from Pavegen to power speakers or a light show, or using pedal power from a company like Rock the Bike. These sorts of solutions will naturally lead your creative storytelling in unexpected directions, and often produce serendipitous outcomes.

There's no polite way to say this. Eff branded swag.

Lastly, and most importantly, today's brands need to break their addiction to logo printed swag in the form of T-shirts, badges, mugs and more. While water bottles and canvas bags can help cut down on single-use plastics, lots of them still end up being discarded because—newsflash—most people don't actually want corporate branded logo gear. 

That's why we should be aiming to design experiences where dumping and shredding isn't the de facto outcome. If you have leftover shirts, for example, donate them to animal shelters constantly in need of soft bedding. Or better yet, consider digital souvenirs like drone footage of the experience, crowd curated playlists, or other items that can be planted, consumed or otherwise used up, like a soy candle in a reusable ceramic vessel. If name tags or disposable plates are a must, choose the compostable variety and make sure your state's recycling centers can process the compostable option. 

The climate crisis is something we all have to address, and those of us lucky enough to spend our time designing brand experiences need to build eco-consciousness into our blueprints. 

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Jamie Shaw
Jamie Shaw is a creative director at global brand experience agency Cogs & Marvel.

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