How graphic design shaped the environmental movement

From the first Earth Day 50 years ago to today’s climate crisis, compelling images and strong visual communication has raised awareness and served as a powerful call to action for environmental causes. But some images have been more effective than others.

The inaugural Earth Day, celebrated on April 22, 1970, was the result of gripping images of an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., the year before. The disaster led to images of dead animals washed up on the shore and birds covered in oil. President Nixon said the spill had “touched the conscience of the American people.” It also inspired Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.) to start a day dedicated to the planet after he flew out of Los Angeles and saw the spill from his plane’s window, Earth Day coordinator Denis Hayes told Pacific Standard.

For its part, NASA has been credited for its Apollo missions and the moon landing, which also occurred in 1969. The missions’ remarkable photos of the Earth showed the planet as an “isolated ecosystem floating in space,” influencing attitudes about protecting it, according to the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration.

The view of the earth from the Apollo 11 spacecraft on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA

No matter the catalyst, 1970 marked the beginning of the modern era of environmentalism. It was the year the Environmental Protection Agency was created, as well as the recycling logo, which was designed by Gary Anderson, a 23-year-old engineering student at the University of Southern California.

Anderson made the now iconic three-arrow design as part of a competition by the Container Corporation of America to create a symbol to be used on recycled products.

Anderson told the Financial Times the idea came to him because of a presentation he had recently done on recycling water waste that showed the flow of water from reservoirs to consumption.

“I already had arrows and arcs and angles in my mind,” he said.

Anderson won about $2,000 for his design, which is now in the public domain and one of the best-known logos in the world.

Anti-littering campaigns and “greenwashing”

Much of the environmental emphasis in the mid-20th century was about littering, a focus that was intentional.

A conglomerate of packaging and consumer companies, including Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company, formed a group in 1953 called Keep America Beautiful that created ad campaigns that put the onus for a cleaner planet on consumers as opposed to companies. It shifted the discussion away from regulating production and packaging.

In 1971, Keep America Beautiful released their most well-known ad, which showed a man dressed in traditional Native American clothing. The ad became known as “The Crying Indian” commercial because of the single tear that rolled down the man’s face after he encountered pollution and garbage.

Keep America Beautiful’s 1971 ad

The tagline “Don’t Mess with Texas” was also the result of an anti-littering campaign. Created by the Austin-based ad agency GSD&M for the Texas Department of Transportation, it debuted in 1986 in an ad starring Stevie Ray Vaughan that aired during the Cotton Bowl.

The campaign targeted males ages 16 to 24 and resulted in a dramatic reduction of roadside litter. It brought in $143,000 in royalties for the state from 2004 to 2016, according to Dallas News.

Credit: Don’t Mess with Texas/Facebook

Environmental visual communication has since shifted from recycling and litter to climate change at large, and companies have adopted messaging to present themselves as environmentally conscious, even if it’s not accurate. It’s a practice known as “greenwashing.”


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“So much of environmental communications is trying to make a company look better than they actually are,” Ellen McMahon, a professor in the School of Art at the University of Arizona, told Yello in an interview.

Sometimes, “green” corporate branding has backfired, like in 2010 when Greenpeace held a competition to redesign BP’s green and yellow “helios” mark following their Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Mock BP logos

Modern design challenges

Designers today face new challenges. “Classic” climate change images, for example, — such as smokestacks, deforestation, and polar bears on melting ice — prompted cynicism and fatigue when shown in discussion groups for the online image library Climate Visuals. They also found that images of staged photo-ops were viewed as gimmicky or manipulative.

A 2010 ad for the World Wildlife Fund that put a new twist on the traditional notion of environmental PSAs with polar bears, by the ad agency Ogilvy.

Visual communication that works shows real people, tells new and emotional stories, conveys local impact, and offers solutions, according to the group’s 7 Climate Visuals principles. They also found that images of protests can prompt cynicism and that most people don’t identify with climate change protestors.

Images from the Climate Visuals library: Firefighters fight a wildfire in Hidden Valley, Calif., in 2013. Credit: AP Photo, Los Angeles Times, Mel Melcon / Flooding in a neighborhood in Minot, N.D. in 2011. Credit: Senior Airman Jesse Lopez, 5th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

Designers also face a problem with partisanship. Though Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon previously championed conservation and the environment, conservatives today are less likely to believe in climate change than liberals, and that difference can carry over to visual messaging.

A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2019 found that depending on party affiliation, the way data was emphasized influenced whether respondents were more likely to sign a climate change petition or donate to an environmental organization. The study showed respondents a chart of global temperature changes over more than a century, and some saw a chart with the steep increase in temperature since 1950 highlighted in red.

The authors suggested that drawing attention to climate evidence that supported people’s preexisting political beliefs increased action, and that different approaches are needed to communicate to people depending on their politics.

Designing for climate change

Like in 1970, gripping images of environmental disasters travel fast and far, but rather than TV footage of oil-covered birds, we see an image of a turtle with a plastic straw in its nose online. Today, designers also take different approaches to how they visualize environmental issues.

The group Extinction Rebellion, for example, portrays a sense of urgency with skulls and a stylized hourglass logo to represent time running out.

Credit: Extinction Rebellion

Others emphasize the role consumerism plays in the environment, like the animated video “The Story of Stuff” narrated by environmentalist Annie Leonard, about production and consumption. The video has been viewed more than 6.4 million times.

Another approach is to turn data into something more artistic or abstract. Ed Hawkins, a professor at Reading University in the United Kingdom, created a site that displays the average temperature year after year in various countries, with cooler temperatures in blues and warmer temperatures in reds.

Here’s the graphic for the U.S., from 1895 to 2018:

Credit: Show Your Stripes

For McMahon, the U of A professor, design can help fight climate change by being hopeful and by giving viewers something actionable they can do in their own lives.

“I think people can look at visual communication and go, ‘Wow that is really a beautiful poster,’ and then that will get attention in the design community and that will win awards, but there’s no evidence it changes any behavior,” she said. “There has to be a call to action that’s practical that somebody can actually do.”