Tom Greenwood: Why we should all be excited by sustainable web design

Published on December 5, 2022 by Alex Eade

Sustainability is just as important in the online world as it is offline.

Tom Greenwood, his wife Vineeta, and their sustainable WordPress agency in London work tirelessly to make the internet more sustainable, and spread the word about digital sustainability. In 2020, Tom’s book ‘Sustainable Web Design’ was published. We sat down with Tom to ask him about the book, and about the relationship between the internet and sustainability. 

What inspired you to write the book?

Wholegrain, since the beginning, has always been an agency focused on sustainability, in terms of how we run the business and the types of clients that we work with. Environmental and social issues are something that Vineeta and I have always been quite passionate about, but considering that we run a digital agency, when we started it we had no idea that there was an environmental impact of digital technology and it was only something that we learned about around 5 or 6 years ago. 

When we did learn about this, we found that almost nobody else in the industry had ever heard of it, there was almost no information about it at all. It became a big focus for our team to learn about it, to try and help spread the message within the industry about the problem, and the potential solutions, and I got to a point where I felt like for something to be taken seriously as a topic within the digital sector, there needs to be a book on it. There’s a book on everything under the sun, all different aspects of marketing, but there was nothing really on the environmental issues. There was one book by Tim Frick that was written around that time, called ‘Designing for Sustainability’, which is worth mentioning. 

A Book Apart which is my favourite publisher in the web design world and has a really amazing collection of books on progressive topics, had never covered anything to do with the environment and I felt like if they could publish a book on this that would really help move the lever and get it on people’s agendas. So that’s what I did! I wrote a book, and I convinced them that it was a good idea for them to publish it! 

Who needs to read this book?

Anybody who works in digital, particularly in web design or digital design projects so that includes Marketing Managers, Project Managers or Product Owners, as well as Designers and Developers.

Really anybody who is involved in digital projects should read it.

It’s written from the perspective that it’s not overly technical so it is accessible to pretty much anybody, and I think it’s really worth having that introduction to the topic, even if you skip a chapter – let’s say you’re a Marketing Manager and think you don’t need to read a chapter on development, that’s cool!

I think it would still be worth reading the introduction and the first couple of chapters just to get a sense of the issues and ideas that you can bring to the table. 

What are some of the differences between traditional, and sustainable, web design?

The key difference is using the environment as a lens to look at design in a different way and with greater attention to detail. The single biggest thing that it shifts is a focus on efficiency, not just technical efficiency, but design efficiency. 

Questioning everything. Does this need to exist? Why does it need to exist? Could we do things in a more efficient way?

Although web performance is a similar topic, when you look at it through an environmental lens, you see things that you don’t see from a pure performance perspective. 

People also tend to come at it with more passion than from a traditional web performance perspective, so you tend to go further! 

Standard web design has also become really, really inefficient. Computers are getting faster, networks are getting faster, so we just keep throwing in more and more stuff without thinking. We’re becoming more and more mindless in the way that we design and develop, and actually we need to be becoming more and more mindful in the way we design and develop. So, that’s the key difference really.

What are some of the most important messages within the book?

Firstly, digital technology isn’t virtual. It’s a real thing that has a real impact and we need to be aware of that and try to mitigate it as far as we can.

Secondly, efficiency in everything we do should be a high priority.

Thirdly, making sure that we’re using green energy wherever possible, particularly for web hosting it should just be standard. 

Lastly, contrary to what a lot of people assume at the beginning, there are not many downsides to this! It’s mostly beneficial to other things that you might care about such as search engine listings, conversion rates, user experience and so on. 

Which ideas might a reader be surprised by in the book?

I think there are a lot of aspects within web design that people might not realise you can optimise. Developers generally have a decent understanding of what can be optimised, whereas in design there’s not necessarily as much awareness of how things can be done differently.

For example, vector graphics are far more efficient than photographs, but you can also optimise them in a way that you don’t just export them from illustrator and stick them on a website, you can reduce file sizes by 95% if you know how. 

Colours are an aspect of design that I think a lot of people aren’t aware of. On modern devices the screens use a lot more energy to show bright colours than dark colours – black pixels are basically just switched off so they don’t use anything. That affects not just the design, but also somebody’s brand. If you’re redesigning the brand, it can actually be a factor and something we do with our clients is try to get them thinking about that.

Another thing to think about is bots. If you think about how many people are coming to your website and the energy that consumes, generally somewhere between 30-50% of visitors to your website are robots and there are relatively simple steps you or your developer can take to block those bots and tell them to go away! 

What do you want people to take away from reading this book? 

I’d like readers to take away an enthusiasm for doing things better, and a belief that you can have a win-win. You can make things better for the environment, whilst also making things better for people that use websites, and for whoever owns the website. There’s a win for everybody and that’s something to be excited about. 

Lastly, what is your favourite part of the book?

I think my favourite chapter is the one that nobody really talks about! It’s about how climate change affects the internet. It’s not just that we’re building digital services that have an impact on the environment, it’s also that the environment has an impact on the internet. As the planet heats up, data centres have more cooling demand. We’re going to have more coastal flooding and a lot of the infrastructure around the networks of the internet are run up and down big coastal areas. A lot of data centres are in big flood zones; London Docklands is a key hub in the UK and it’s barely above sea level, in fact it would flood if it wasn’t for the Thames Barrier. We need to be aware of the risks to the internet itself as the climate crisis gets worse. We need to think about being more resilient, not just avoiding the problem but building a more resilient system because we’re very much dependent on digital technology now so we need to protect that. 

If you’d like to pick up your own copy of ‘Sustainable Web Design’ today, you can find it here or head over to Footprint Digital’s Linkedin between 5-9th December 2022 to enter a competition to WIN a copy of Tom’s book, alongside 4 of our other favourite books.