How M21D is Designing our Website to Decrease Digital CO2 Emissions
Kiersten Thamm | May 4, 2021
Digital energy consumption levels are high, but they don’t need to be
People often offset the CO2 emissions of air travel, but what about our internet usage? The internet has a genuine environmental impact, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Electricity powers the internet. It’s used in data centers, telecommunications networks, and the devices we use to access the internet. In 2016, that amount of electricity used in data centers alone equaled 16.2 terawatt-hours of electricity — that’s more than the United Kingdom used in total that year. These data centers are what we like to refer to as “the cloud.” With a name like that, no wonder people forget that the internet is a physical system that requires a lot of energy. But they’re enormous warehouses filled with computers that are designed to store data and never stop running.
Communications technology could use 20% of all electricity and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2025, according to an update to a 2016 peer-reviewed study by Swedish researcher Anders Andrae. To give that number some context: If the internet were a country, it would be the fourth-highest polluter in the world.
Most of what M21D does is online. We choose to keep many of our museum activities digital to decrease the environmental impact of building a permanent structure and maintaining an object collection. That being said, we want to ensure our digital footprint is as small as possible. Here are a few changes we’ve made to our online presence to be as ecologically sound as possible — while keeping our virtual doors open.
Colors, images, and typefaces matter
At M21D, we use a pretty standard content management system (often called a CMS). Think Squarespace, Wix, and WordPress. That means we can’t address changes in our codebase or servers, but we can change our content and design.
1. Publish content that’s short and sweet — and optimized for search engines
The quickest way to clean up a website is to ensure that the text is concise and easy to find.
If you don’t need a paragraph, delete it! If someone else already said it, link it. Decluttering the internet decreases the energy generated when people run searches, download assets, and interact with media. If you’re adding something to the internet, make sure you have a good reason for doing so.
Search engine optimization (SEO) often has a bad reputation (and sometimes deserves it). But prioritizing SEO helps clean up the internet. It’s as simple as this: The fewer times people use a search engine, the less electricity is used to make data transfers. SEO doesn’t have to be a way of tricking the internet or writing for robots. If your site uses the language that your audience uses, you’ll help them find you quickly. That’s also SEO.
2. Choose low-emission colors and fonts
The way a website or app looks impacts how much battery power it requires of a device to run. The more demanding a site, the more often you’re recharging a battery consuming electricity.
An easy first step is to use dark colors. OLED screens (that’s what’s most likely on your smart phone) light up each pixel individually. Using white and bright colors drains a device’s battery quickly compared to black and dark colors. This is important because people access websites from their phones more often than any other device.
There’s quite a bit of research on the topic, and this is an excellent video if you’d like to learn more. We’re going to stop here, though (see point one 😉.)
Switching custom fonts for system fonts will also make a difference. When you use custom fonts, your end-users need to download the font file. That file could be as much as 250kb. (We call that a lot of “page weight,” which is how people often talk about the emission load of a site.) System fonts, such as Arial, don’t require a browser to download additional font files.
At M21D, we traded a primarily white, colorful website for a predominantly black one. We’re also sticking with system fonts as often as possible.
3. Only use images and videos when they’re really, seriously necessary
Images are typically the single most significant contributors to a website’s weight. Each image requires a transfer of data, and the larger the image, the larger the data file. Videos contribute the same problems as images — just with far larger files.
Before you add a photo or a video to a website, ask yourself if it’s beneficial to your visitors. If you can communicate the same ideas via a small amount of text, choose that instead. If you have photos, you could reduce the file size with tools such as TinyPNG or ShortPixel. That also helps reduce bandwidth and speed up page load times for people on mobile.
We removed a few photos off of M21D.org, and we’ll keep evaluating how we use them as the site grows. Because we’re a museum of design, we feel images are rather important. But you’ll never find duplicates.
Implement more efficient internal processes
Sometimes I forget that I’m using the internet when preparing an article like this for publication. I’m currently formatting it on software connected to the internet, and you’re probably reading it on the internet. (Although, who knows! A friend might have printed it out for you. But that’s a whole other topic.)
M21D also evaluated our internal working tools and processes, and here are a few of the practices we put in place to keep our work clean.
We don’t send newsletters too often. This keeps your inbox clean and our footprint lower.
Write offline whenever possible. Collaboration tools are great, but they run on those internet servers. We only use them when we need to.
Our email signatures rarely include images. (Signatures are often tacked onto every email, and those images add up fast!)
We delete emails whenever possible — no need to keep them on a server if they’re archived.
Keep devices in dark mode.
If you want to update your own digital presence, you can find more resources on The Green Pages.