Creating future books to communicate today’s changing environment

Master of Design Thesis — Ideation+Design Phase

Thesis Introduction

The Anthropocene is our current epoch in which the Earth’s environment and residents are heavily impacted by human influence. While many people recognize the possible future effects of Anthropogenic change, such as rising water levels, loss of biodiversity, and severe temperatures, it can be difficult to imagine how the world might actually alter.

Narratives allow us to weave diverse ideas together to relate to the experiences of others and grasp abstract information. Design can also act as a storyteller — speculative designers bring attention to present societal issues while designing artifacts for the future.

What artifact could be better to tell stories than the book?

Books have been a notable part of human histories, from stone tablets to the printed page. The book’s form often reflects the current point of our world, so what forms will it take in the future?

As designers, we have to consider how the creation of artifacts effects the environment around us. As these Anthropogenic projections come to fruition, how we design today may not be a possibility. How can design adhere to these future challenges, while designing more sustainably today?

Through a series of book iterations addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene, this thesis will use design as a storytelling tool to communicate to readers how their future, as well as the book’s, will need to adapt to our changing world.

2020 MDes Poster Show showing thesis research. Read more about the research process here.

Research Process

My research in the autumn included several processes: I explored secondary research to better grasp the meaning we impose on designed objects, present and future Anthropogenic impacts, historical implications for the book, and how to design with future societies in mind. I conducted expert interviews with a climate researcher, a human-centered designer, a small publisher, a special collections curator, and a graphic designer focused in sustainable methods. I practiced rapid design sketching, using two science fiction films to design books that could exist in their worlds. A survey was administered to infer how people personally view present and future Anthropogenic change and how they learn about it. Finally, I organized a bookmaking activity with a small group to better grasp the broad definition of a book and how others may define it.

My Design Question:

How might the book’s form effectively communicate the future impacts of the Anthropocene to a present-day audience?

Ideation

Throughout ideation, I knew that I would eventually design three books that focused on separate Anthropogenic projections. Which impacts I would settle on were initially unclear.

Combining physical and digital ideation spaces in Figma.

With a combination of a digital workspace and paper sheets, I laid out five possible impacts that I felt had the most potential to explore: change in land use, natural disasters, dangerous air quality, biodiversity loss, and extensive waste. I took time to explore what these possible futures would look like — what problems would arise? Where would people live? What would their daily lives look like? What kind of books would they use?

Mood boards for the three books.

Initially, I looked at these futures broadly and began to design books that adhered to the general challenges. However, this lack of specificity made it difficult to consider how a particular user would interact with a book. After some time, I considered a new pathway to the ideation process and began to delve into more specific research and write from the perspective of the user.

Doing this allowed me to become much more detailed in the ideation process. For example, when diving deeper into the possibilities of biodiversity loss, I learned that insects (including pollinators) could become extinct in the next 100 years. This research helped with deciding that I would move forward with a cookbook, as it could show the progression of disappearing foods through the adaptation of recipes. As I found pieces of detailed research, I was able to take these projections and apply them to future scenarios in which these books would exist.

Animated book sketches on a grainy image of a lake and clouds.
Initial sketches for a book with seed storage and a book with loose pages to be continuously built.

Design Direction

I decided to move forward with three books: a cookbook to emphasize biodiversity loss and the great effect pollinators have on the foods we eat; a nature poetry anthology to juxtapose the lifestyles of those living on artificial islands due to mass amounts of waste; and a field guide to show a community depending on dense, forested areas to survive in a world with dangerous levels of carbon dioxide.

A brussels sprout recipe placed on top of an image of orange flowers.

Future 1: Biodiversity Loss

2133
Jonesboro, Arkansas

Insects have been completely eradicated from the environment. No longer are people bombarded with flying pests, but produce like apples, blackberries, tomatoes, broccoli, and sunflowers have disappeared due to the extinction of pollinators like honey and native bees, butterflies, and moths. Even other pollinators like birds and bats are quickly declining now that their main food source has gone missing.

As produce becomes less accessible, humans have to depend more heavily on starches like wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes that do not need to rely on pollinators to bear fruit or produce seeds.

Bee Population Declines, University of Vermont

Main Research Points:

  • Projections show all insects — including pollinators — could
    possibly vanish within 100 years (Sánchez-Bayo)
  • Many foods would struggle to survive without pollinators, like apples,
    strawberries, lemons, onions, kidney beans, and cucumbers (National Pollinator Week)
  • Habitat loss from intensive agriculture is the main driver of
    the pollinator decline, along with climate change, pesticides, and invasive species (Sánchez-Bayo + Wyckhuys)
  • Central United States is seeing some of the most drastic
    declines in wild bees along with Germany, the United Kingdom,
    and Australia (University of Vermont; Woodward)

Future 2: Extensive Waste

2105
Artificial Island, New York

As more human-made objects were produced to be disposable, it became difficult to keep up with safely destroying waste and finding enough space to dump incombustible materials. Areas with high population density on islands, like Tokyo and New York City, have had the most trouble with handling a surplus of waste with limited land.

To address the problem, people have relied on artificial islands. These areas are made of compounded, incinerated, and shredded trash built in the ocean. While these landfills are finite solutions (each filling up every 50–100 years), groups of small trash islands help reign in waste from these dense communities while providing more living and recreational areas.

To avoid having to constantly send resources and materials to the island, residents are encouraged to be as self-sufficient as possible — reusing what they can find to serve a new purpose.

Umi no Mori, Japan Times

Main Research Points:

  • If current trends hold, Anthropogenic mass will grow to three
    times the world’s biomass by 2040 (Elhacham et al.)
  • Umi no Mori is an island made of trash in Japan right off of
    Tokyo that started around 1986 (Japan Times)
  • In 2016, the average American produced 286 pounds of plastic
    waste, the highest rate per capita of any country on Earth (Law et al.)
  • Around 1992, Congress voted to ban the dumping of waste into the
    ocean. New York City was the last to integrate this policy—the day of the deadline (New York Times)

Future 3: High Carbon Levels

2251
Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Carbon dioxide levels have grown substantially — not just affecting humans, but plants as well. As levels rose, plants began to grow faster and denser due to increased photosynthesis. While some areas of the United States developed hot and dry conditions, others experienced heavy rainfall that supplemented this green growth.

Communities began to move into these rainy forests, which provide shelter from hotter temperatures and act as bubbles of breathable oxygen for humans. While the trees and other plants protect these communities, they also shroud them in darkness — with such dense growth and leaves, little sun is able to shine through to the forest floor.

Risk levels reflect climate impacts from today to 2040, New York Times

Main Research Points:

  • Plant leaves thicken when atmospheric carbon rises, causing changes in activities like photosynthesis and sugar storage (University of Washington)
  • In the last 60 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased about 100 times faster than in previous fluctuations (Climate.gov)
  • Climate change will vary by area. While some locations in the United States will experience extreme heat, places like the Olympic Peninsula will see an increase in heavy rainfall between 2020–2040 (New York Times)
  • Higher rates of photosynthesis cause plants to contribute less to evaporative cooling and cloud formation through the process of transpiration, resulting in higher temperatures connected to carbon dioxide (NASA)

Process

While writing and compiling the content for the three books (~15,000 words overall!), I began planning the pages. This page map started generally at first, including the world overview, user journal entry, specific content like recipes, poetry, and guide facts, as well as ephemeral pieces like newspaper clippings, photographs, notes, and advertisements slipped between the pages. As I made decisions about the contents and forms of the three books, I planned more intricate maps. These are always adjusting, but they provide solid foundations for content organization.

While most form and material decisions have been made, I am still in the process of laying out the content, typesetting, editing images, and producing the books overall. Over the past few months, I spent a lot of time ideating, collecting and compiling content, and finalizing design decisions prior to application and production.

Below, I include visual keywords and value tensions — words mean quite a lot to me, and the ones provided are guides to how I consider both the visuals and future stories conceptually.

Foundational page map for cookbook.

Book 1: Handed-Down Cookbook

I felt that a cookbook would best communicate how much the foods we eat could be affected by the loss of pollinators. I wanted to explore what happens to the books that are handed down through generations — not just establishing how brand new books could be created during these impacted futures, but how we adapt the ones we cherish throughout the years.

I looked at my own family recipes and began to research what foods would eventually become unavailable as pollinators disappear. While the recipes often changed drastically, there was always another option to ensure that these loved meals could continue in some way.

I also visited Seattle Recreative (great for sustainable reuse!) to find a collection of old family photos. Because this book is a passed-down artifact with longstanding recipes, I wanted to intersperse these images within the pages. The photos will provide context to these foods and how they connect to the user’s family.

This book will also act as a library of seeds. The considered users have collected seeds from foods within their recipes as they became harder to find. This was in hopes that the meals could one day be made the way they were originally intended to once again. In this book, the seeds will be integrated alongside the recipes, showing a preservation of not just family traditions, but of biodiversity as well.

Visual Keywords:
Scarce, Dwindle, Yearn, Incremental, Recollection, Preservation

Value Tension:
Cherish vs Neglect

Foundational page map for poetry anthology.

Book 2: Nature Poetry Anthology

To contrast living on an artificial island, I decided that having a book full of nature poems would be effective. The book itself will be made from collected and recycled materials (or made with sustainable alternative solutions, when necessary). With excessive waste, utilizing what is already available rather than producing more is crucial to the book’s form.

Since materials would be collected constantly on this island, it means that it would take longer to produce books. With this in mind, I designed a cardboard structure to encase the pages. This allows them to remain loose and unbound and to be easily added to as materials become available. This ensures that readers can begin connecting with their book while it is still in the process of being completed.

This book was the first where I started to experiment with layouts, typesetting, and overall production. I collected biodegradable transparency sheets (to act as a sustainable solution for recycled plastics), cardboard boxes and sheets, and rubber bands for the book structure. I also compiled coupon newspapers, cardboard packaging, wrappers, small plastics, receipts, tshirts, and other collected materials to make my own paper. I felt that making my own paper with recycled objects would best communicate how a book made on an artificial island would look and feel.

Found materials were shredded by hand, blended with water, molded, pressed, and dried to make paper.

Having to search for all materials, bookmakers would try to fit more on a page to utilize any available space. This would help in avoiding the use of more pages than necessary.

Typesetting experiments.

Visual Keywords:
Accumulation, Excess, Overindulgence, Unearth, Reshape, Disposable

Value Tension:
Meaningful vs Insubstantial

Foundational page map for field guide.

Book 3: Bioluminescent Field Guide

If communities take refuge from dangerous levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in dense forests, they would be forced to adapt alongside nature. Increased photosynthesis would provide a safe oxygen zone, but it would also cause plant growth to increase in both quantity and thickness in leaves. Those living in these forests would be safe from carbon dioxide, but they would also be shrouded in darkness with little sunlight.

This book explores working alongside our environments, rather than reshaping it to our desired effect. In order to read in a dark environment, bookmakers utilize bioluminescent technology based on the mushrooms found in the area. This would give pages the ability to glow—allowing the user to read even in the darkest corners of the forest.

Omphalotus olearius, New York Times.

In this future, reading would mostly be an indoor activity where light is easily accessible. Because of this, the book in this scenario would be necessary outside the user’s home. I decided that this consideration, along with the need to have a resource in a dark forest, made a field guide the right book to explore for this future.

Since bioluminescent technology like described above does not exist quite yet, I will be using a glow-in-the-dark ink to replicate the same effect. I found a water-based ink that glows in a greenish light, similar to the Jack-o-Lantern mushrooms found on the Olympic Peninsula.

Paper-based carbon dioxide sensor, Al Meldrum.

I also wanted the book to provide a warning when the user happened upon an area with high levels of carbon dioxide. In 2020, a paper-based sensor was developed to act as a litmus test for carbon dioxide in the air. The sensor changes the paper from blue to orange as more carbon dioxide is introduced. Although this technology isn’t available to public consumers at this point, it is one that I plan to visualize within the book’s pages.

To consider how difficult it can be to manage objects in the dark, I wanted to make the book as easy to navigate as possible. In field guides that I own, I always become frustrated when I have to flip to the front or back to find specific keywords and diagrams. For this book, I’ve added smaller spreads folded in between main ones, allowing this information to be right next to where the user would be reading content related to it. This will help the user better understand how to reference this material, especially when in a dark environment.

Binding shows these smaller, folded spreads between larger pages.

Visual Keywords:
Utility, Familiarize, Symmetry, Give-and-Take, Observant, Understanding

Value Tensions:
Compromise vs Hierarchy
Survival vs Flourishing

Continuing Design

Now that the content, form, and materials have all been decided for these books, the next step is to complete the layouts and production.

A couple goals I have throughout the design process:

  • Use sustainable materials and methods as often as possible. When I need alternative materials to replicate unavailable technologies or processes, I find more sustainable solutions like the water-based glow-in-the-dark ink and the biodegradable transparency sheets. Considering methods like Risograph printing with vegetable ink and post-consumer paper from mills like French Paper are other sustainable solutions that I plan to use. If we as designers need to consider how our artifacts will adapt to the future challenges of the Anthropocene, it’s best to start implementing those practices now.
  • Give myself time to experiment. There are so many possible directions with layouts, typesetting, and image manipulation. Although I only have a few months left of my thesis process, giving myself a few hours each week to explore visual possibilities will make a significant difference.

University of Washington Master of Design Student taylor-miles.com