Sustainability Needs More Symbols

We heavily depend on words when we communicate sustainability.

It’s understandable. By using words we can accurately describe the challenges we face. We can define a sustainability strategy with little room for ambiguity. We can be confident that our audience will interpret the message in the same way.

But if words are like walking, then symbols are like leaping. A striking image or a clever visual metaphor can land an idea in a quarter of the time taken to read a paragraph. Let me give you some examples from our recent projects.

A symbol of urgency for plastic pollution

We were challenged by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and WWF International to develop a joint campaign that demonstrates universal support for passing a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution. As part of the campaign, we wanted to create a key visual that symbolised the problem and the urgency to take action.

We settled on the idea of an hour-glass (representing time running out), and we replaced the sand with plastic particles, smothering marine life. It’s not subtle, but it's simple and sends a clear message.

A symbol of a climate emergency

For the Conservative & Labour party conferences, WWF tasked us to create an event stand that would help them start a conversation with MPs about the climate emergency.

The idea was simple: we created an ambulance out of wicker and put it in the middle of their stand. We associate ambulances with emergencies and natural materials with the climate. It also created a brilliant photo opportunity. It won 'Best Stand' in both conferences, created hundreds of conversations and was even featured in The Sun.

A symbol of a changing climate

This is one of my favourite examples. As a little internal project to start a conversation about our increasingly changeable weather patterns thanks to climate change, we created a playful looping sunshine / rain GIF. This little symbol of changing weather patterns was shared over 10 million times, including by Fox News.

Symbols are effective because they act like shorthand. They stick in people’s minds. Humans are visual creatures, so it’s no wonder that a picture is (at least) a 1,000 words.

Yes, there’s more room for ambiguity, but we need more symbols to capture the imagination of our audience; to make them see the challenges we face in a different light, and likewise to help them imagine a different reality.

So before you next open a blank Word doc, sharpen a pencil and try sketching a symbol first.