Joanna Herman 
Designer & Developer

Sustainable websites – better websites?

Everything we create has an impact. Web design – like all design – has social, ecological, and environmental consequences.

On the environmental side, we don’t often think about the energy consumption and carbon emissions of the Internet. Websites use electricity in data centres, telecom networks and end-user devices. On a global scale, this energy consumption is in fact huge and continues to grow as we consume more and more internet data in our daily lives. The internet currently produces produces approximately 3.8% of global carbon emissions, which are rising in line with our hunger to consume more data. As phones and computers become more powerful every year, websites are becoming increasingly bloated – according to httparchive.org, the average website on desktop is about 4 times as large as in 2010.  

You might say, right, but looking at the big picture of global electricity use it’s not that much.

You might say, yes but dwelling on the cost of visiting every website and sending every email we will make us go crazy. 

Just to be clear, I am not here to make you paranoid about these things, encourage you to boycott the internet, or make your website look like it’s from 1995 in order not to contribute to the problem.

But what I want to say is that approaching web design with sustainability in mind will help us not just to minimise the impact of our web projects in contributing to climate change, but will simply lead to websites that serve their purpose more effectively – both for users and business. 

Why? Because the more data that has to be transferred to load a website the higher the cost to its visitors – both in money and their time.  Bad user experience will not only put people off, it is also one of the factors that hurt your website’s search engine rankings. And this is something we can avoid at the design stage – many websites are much “dirtier” than they could be due to poor design and suboptimal development practices. 

Designing to fulfill the purpose

Your website is there to serve a purpose – to give you visibility online and to enable you to sell your services. So if you decide to invest in one in the first place, it makes sense that it fulfills this purpose effectively.

Inefficient, high energy-consuming websites load slowly leading to a bad user experience. Research by Kinsta shows that 74% of people would leave a website if it doesn’t load within 5 seconds. 

If things are not working smoothly or if the visitor is feeling confused or overwhelmed, 

they are likely to leave and have a bad impression of your service.

And from June ’21 a fast website will matter even more for SEO. Google is in the process of updating the algorithm which determines search engine rankings. User experience on the website will have a far greater impact on the website’s rankings than before.

Specifically, Google uses a set of user-centric metrics called Core Web Vitals to quantify key aspects of the user experience in the real world. These measure how long a page takes to load, how long it takes until the user is able to interact with your page e.g. click on a button or fill in a form, and last but not least the visual stability of the page – we want all content to load at the same time because any elements that take too long to load can cause users to click on something they didn’t mean to and cause a bad user experience (does feeling annoyed at content jumping on the screen after you started reading it as photos and ads load sound familiar? :). 

So optimising for sustainability is optimising for good user experience and SEO.

Now, what can we do about it in practice?

What we can do to make a website greener is not fundamentally difficult, it simply requires careful thought and attention to detail in every aspect of the design process – from content creation, through design to development. 

It’s about spending a bit more time on creating an intentional and thoughtful design and choosing the right tools. A lot of it is asking good questions, reflecting, and being mindful of our choices. Ultimately, these thought experiments won’t be a waste of time because we will end up with a better website - lighter hence faster, and friendly to navigate. Thought-through, and intentional, therefore powerful at communicating the message and working effectively for our business. 

Creating more with less. 

Every page and media file we put on a website is a data transfer. The more images we use and the larger those image files, the more data needs to be transferred and the more energy is used. We can implement optimisations by compressing and resizing them before the upload, however, these won’t help much if we aren’t thinking about the use of costly content in the first place.

Taking some time to get clarity and understanding over what we want to communicate, will help us decide what is essential and what is not needed. 

Does it genuinely add value to the user? Does it communicate useful information? Is there a more minimalist way to express the personality and mood of the brand?

Conveying our message with fewer words and images takes some reflection and creativity but I believe it’s worth it. It’s an exercise that will connect us with our purpose and vision on a deeper level, and speaking to our online audience from this place of self-awareness is both empowering and effective.

So create more with less. We can replace a high-resolution image with an expressive typeface. Or use a vector graphic or perhaps experiment with borders, shadows, gradients, and geometric shapes defined with code. We can play around with typography in many different ways borrowing inspiration from graphic design. Or just choose fewer photos but well-curated ones. 

Finally, consider how we can use space to create a design – space is free and it too can be expressive.

Shorter user journeys

Websites and apps are, fundamentally, tools to help us in life and not detract from it. We want people to be able to find what they are looking for as quickly and easily as possible. To waste less physical and human energy navigating pages that don’t serve the correct purpose. 

Designing in a way that responds to the true needs of people encourages us to make the website fast to load, well organised and easy to navigate. And we reduce their time spent online which is a good thing :) 

Summing up ...

Approaching the web design process from a sustainability perspective will give us not only a greener website but one that fulfills the purpose it was created for in the first place. One that is fast, user-friendly, and has a good SEO. For many businesses an online space is essential. So why not invest some extra thought and make it high-performance?