Sustainability in web design & development


Following Extinction Rebellion’s recent protests across the country (Bristol included) got us thinking - what does working in our industry mean for the planet?

Of all the unsustainable examples that come to mind, web design & development isn’t usually the first.

We often think of plastic waste and pollution as unsustainable practices and, in itself, the internet is rarely considered part of the problem. In fact, in many ways it (rightly) seen as part of the solution.

Isn’t it thanks to the internet that a lot of businesses are shifting from physical, energy-hungry, dirty products, to paperless software and web services? 

Less material waste = a happier environment, right?

The shorter answer is ‘Yes’.

But, as explained in much more detail in this article, the longer answer is not as straight forward. Though we may be shifting from a world of physical objects to an increasingly virtual one, this world is accessible to us through pixels, and those pixels are real, they require a big, high-tech network, using lots of electricity and ‘always-on' technology to operate.

The fact that the internet can be unsustainable does not exclude the possibility of sustainable practices being put in place, and finding what these are will become increasingly more vital as our economy dematerialises from atoms to electrons. Web design will increasingly become ‘the ground zero of society-wide sustainability’.

So, what can we as designers & developers be doing?

Outside of typical things like reducing energy usage at our physical studio through energy-efficient devices and appliances, greener energy suppliers, reducing waste and plastic and becoming a paperless office, there are many best practices that we can really focus on within our approach to design and development.

Many of these best practices should be happening anyway, but looking at them in the context of sustainability give them a whole new meaning - we’re talking about things like:

  • Scaling up, not down. Increased mobile usage has been a clear and obvious trend over the last decade, but taking a genuine mobile-first design & development strategy will ensure that websites remain sustainable and future-proof by continuing to actively shift the focus from power-hungry desktops to smaller, more efficient mobile devices.

  • Implementing killer UX (User Experience) strategies. A website with high awesome UX will have a smaller per-user internet footprint as it will help the site visitor complete their tasks and take the required action(s) more efficiently.

  • Maximising on-site SEO. Optimising a website to ensure that it is easily indexed by search engines in and of itself (i.e. outside of external search marketing activities) quite literally cuts down on the power needed by Google to index a website.

  • Developing an efficient codebase. Developing a website with a super-speedy codebase not only means that we can have all of the engaging interactions or jazzy ‘bells & whistles’, but also reduces the load on browsers and overall efficiency.

  • Build efficient teams & partnerships. Agile collaboration between agency partners and internal teams where designers and coders work closely together throughout a given project (i.e. from initial strategy through to deployment) will maximise efficiency and overall sustainability.

Of course, there remains a lot that can be done, and we are always on the lookout for better ways of doing things, but being conscious framing things into the bigger picture is the first step towards building a more sustainable future.