Mek’s Mirella Arapian on the graphic design industry’s role in the fight against climate change
Between March 2021 and April 2022, in collaboration with Two°Creative, we invited designers to redesign the confusing Green Dot symbol to better represent its original meaning. Continuing on from this open brief, The Change We Need is an interview series exploring the design industry’s role in the fight against climate change. To kick off the series, we spoke to Mirella Arapian, the founder and creative director of purpose-driven Australian studio Mek.
EM Can you tell us about your role at Mek?
MA I’m Mek’s founder and creative director. I determine the creative vision of our projects and brands, and oversee all aspects from ideation to implementation. I’m responsible for managing resources and assembling the right people for a project, ensuring their skills and talents complement the project’s objectives, while being mentally and creatively challenged as much as possible.
I’m also Mek’s brand director, which involves building brand awareness, learning about the workings, nuances, and innovations of the industries we want to work with, conveying the right messaging across all relevant channels and media, and building personal relationships with leaders and founders who have similar values and a shared vision for the future. We have a very focused vision and are very particular about who we work with, so I’m responsible for ensuring we adhere to that at all times.
Climate change is communicated as a political, scientific, or corporate governance issue.
EM Do you think you have a role in the fight against climate change, and if so, what is that role?
MA Absolutely. My role is to educate myself on the latest science and news surrounding climate change and use that information to raise awareness, reduce my impact, and care for the planet as much as I can with the resources I have. But because climate change is communicated as a political, scientific, or corporate governance issue, it’s become psychologically distant – a term meaning it’s happening at some point in the future, it’s happening somewhere else, and it’s happening to someone else. As a business owner who uses their brand as a form of activism, my role in that context is to communicate in terms that are relevant to people’s lives, to make climate change issues tangible and relevant by breaking down abstract concepts, and create design that not only makes climate change easier to take action on, but helps minimise that psychological distance.
EM How do you incorporate environmental considerations into your design process?
MA Every aspect of Mek has as much environmental consideration as possible. Mek is located in solar-powered premises created with the assistance of the Sustainable Melbourne Fund. We are a paperless studio and our materials are plastic-free, cruelty-free, and not tested on animals. We conduct all our meetings online or over the phone, but if we absolutely must meet clients in person, we take public transport. We strongly discourage print materials in projects wherever possible but when it’s needed (i.e. packaging) we only recommend sustainable solutions, partnering with trusted suppliers educated on the latest technologies and innovations for reducing waste and environmental impact. Recently we learned about digital carbon footprints so we’ve been trying to reduce our CO2 emissions by deleting emails, desktop files, unused files and applications, and where we can, minimising the steps we take in our design and archiving processes. Obviously, we’re not perfect, but we’re doing our best.
We’re not perfect, but we’re doing our best.
EM Can you give us an example from your practice in which climate considerations impacted or changed a project?
MA We were working with a vegan cheese company on their new packaging, and while everything else about the brand was sustainable, its packaging was anything but. We sourced biodegradable plastic made from plant starch that was designed to keep oil-based foods (such as the client’s cheese products) stable at various temperatures and conditions. The material was only available in Thailand at the time, so we had to weigh up the environmental impact of carbon emissions from importing the material, and the client using their existing plastic packaging until the material was available in Australia (they ended up going with the latter due to cost).
EM When did you first start being environmentally conscious in relation to your work?
MA It was around the time I became vegan in 2014 and started learning about where my food came from. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, which is the second leading cause of climate change after fossil fuels. Through my animal rights activism and living a vegan lifestyle I’ve seen just how inextricably and obscenely animal agriculture is connected to the environment, government, poverty, slavery, economy, and climate change. I cannot morally and in good conscience support those industries through my work or business, no matter how prolific or lucrative.
EM What could the design industry do more of or be better at in the fight against climate change?
MA As an industry of persuaders it’s up to us to make the choices that minimise the impacts of climate change more desirable and easier for people to buy into. The current visual landscape of climate change heavily relies on clichés and specialised, inconsistent visuals (such as icons) to convey complex messaging that people find too overwhelming to process – this leads to unimaginative approaches that people don’t engage with. Along with the ad industry, our industry is responsible for the marketing, messaging, branding, and campaigns driven by buzzwords such as free-range, organic, local, grass-fed, ethical, sustainable, humane, biodegradable, etc (words that are used to sell products that are almost always anything but those things), to make people feel good or better about what they buy, thus driving demand and revenue for companies that encourage endless consumption. Designers excel at problem-solving through innate curiosity and critical thought, and this urgently needs to extend beyond our design capabilities to questioning the practices and ethics of the clients and companies we work with. To fight against climate change we must stop engaging in projects that involve single-use plastics, destruction of habitat, promotion of animal agriculture, and an adverse impact on people or the planet. We also must take individual responsibility for our own choices and how we live, work, and consume. We can use our platforms to raise awareness, educate people, share ideas, promote initiatives, donate money, call out greenwashing, and join movements. Creativity is needed to convince people to be part of the bigger, harder things the world needs to do in the fight against climate change, and as designers, we are uniquely positioned to achieve that because design has the power to change the world.
EM What is the thinking behind your submission to our brief to redesign The Green Dot symbol?
MA Our redesign of The Green Dot symbol incorporates a green circle representing the Earth and a white circle mapping Europe, where the symbol is used. The green circle is also a literal green dot which lacks ambiguity, making recognition and legibility quick and easy as a shorthand icon, from OOH advertising to small scale packaging. After a couple of iterations that lost meaning and definition at smaller sizes (green halftone circle, 3D sphere), we landed on a solution that was more simple. This was integral to our design thinking because the outcome needed to have the same impact as other related symbols people are already familiar with.
EM Prior to tackling the brief, how aware were you of the meaning of the symbol?
MA We live in Australia so we weren’t aware of it at all! I’d seen the symbol once or twice on an imported grocery item but assumed it meant the packaging was recyclable. We’re so pleased to be involved in this project and hope it leads to positive change through awareness, education, and hopefully The Green Dot rebranding its design misnomer that’s deceptive to consumers who want to do the right thing.