Following up on our April blog post on planning green exhibits and spaces, Quatrefoil’s Senior Graphic Designer Auburn Leigh and Design Assistant Elva Dong have assembled a list of considerations for environmental graphic applications with sustainability in mind.

Designing for sustainability begins long before the graphics have been created, starting with a circular approach. Follow the steps of the recycling motto: reduce, then reuse, and finally, recycle!

Reduce: Where can you limit the amount of waste generated? Perhaps you can forgo printing altogether in some places, and design environmental graphics that can be stenciled or painted directly on the wall.

Reuse: What do you already have that can be reused? Furniture, modular walls, and display cases can be reused for a long time and create cohesion across multiple locations. In addition, look for substrates that can be reused, such as a panel with a removable adhesive wrap.

Recycled: Finally, where did the graphic come from, and where will it go? Some plastic or composite boards are made of recycled plastics or can be recycled into new boards at the end of their life.

The goal is to minimize the consumption of raw materials and limit what ends up at the landfill.

Picking a Substrate

As noted in our April blog post, exhibition and experience design often relies on durable plastic substrates, like expanded closed-cell PVC sheets (Komatex, Sintra or Celtec) or polystyrene and vinyl, to print graphic panels.

Although plentiful, affordable, and durable, substrates made from PVC are incredibly damaging to both human health and the environment. The production of PVC involves chlorine and dioxin—a compound that the EPA considers to be unsafe at all levels of exposure.

Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when looking at sustainable substrates:


How long will the graphic remain up? Who will be touching or handling the graphic? Graphics that are outdoors in high-traffic and touch-heavy areas will require different materials than indoor, low-touch graphics.

For temporary exhibits or low-touch indoor signage, rigid paper boards are great options. Available for large-format printing, they are lightweight and fully recyclable.

Wood and metal are still great go-to options. We love the look of direct printing to plywood, like Birch or Bamboo (each has a softer environmental impact). Choose plywood that is manufactured with low VOC glues (stands for “Volatile Organic Compounds”) and no formaldehyde. Wood can have an afterlife as well—sand to refinish the surface and use it again!

Plastic may be inevitable in cases where weight and moisture levels matter. In that case, keep an eye out for recycled or recyclable durable plastics. For example, HDPE boards are recyclable and durable plastic signs that can be used for permanent outdoor signage.

Solid panels on wheels in a museum that show colorful textile patterns.

For the Textile Museum Learning Center, Textiles 101, we printed images onto a magnetic material, so educators can easily swap out the ones that relate to specific programming. These printed magnetic sheets are recyclable at the end of their life.

End of Life

What happens after the exhibit or experience ends? Many materials can be easily recycled or repurposed so that the end of the exhibit does not mean the end of an item’s lifespan.

Aluminum Composite Panels (ACPs) like Dibond are fully recyclable, making them a good choice for thin, durable signage that can go on to become another product.

We’ve also been interested in Stormboard, a recycled plastic board suitable for outdoor signage that can be recycled at the end of its life as well. One version of Stormboard is treated to be resistant to solvents and graffiti.


How can the look of the substrate contribute to the experience? Some sustainable substrates don’t have the same clean uniformity as their counterparts. Consider how that can be involved in the creation of the experience.

In the instance of one substrate, Falconboard, we were initially wary of the very distinct honeycomb patterning around the outside. However, given the right exhibit, the visible edge may add to a feeling of industry or craft. Of course, the edge can also be hidden with edge-banding, for more touch-heavy or long-term exhibits.

Flexible Graphic Materials

A sample of colorful, patterned wallpapers on a wooden table

These are just a few of the substrates that Quatrefoil has been exploring. These include fabric made from 100% post-consumer yarn, as well as 100% post-consumer recycled paper, and PVC-free wallpaper and fabric adhesives.

  • Paper: If looking for printing collateral, such as brochures, look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which certifies wood products that meet the “gold standard” of harvesting from responsibly managed forests. 
  • Wallpaper: There are lots of alternatives to wallpapers and adhesives that are low impact. Look for wallpapers made of alternate plastics or even pulp. We’re interested in Digiscape’s wallpaper, which is FSC certified and reinforced with synthetic fibers for strength and durability, making it appropriate for high-traffic areas.
  • Vinyl: Vinyl is commonly constructed out of PVC, but alternative plastic vinyl exists. Polypropylene vinyl is classified as low to moderate in terms of its impact, as it’s 100% recyclable. Other PVC-free vinyls use their own blend of materials, such as Carnegie’s Xorel, or Modulex.

Printing and Ink

When the graphic is ready-to-print, look for printers that are local and commit to being green. Printing locally is not always achievable but helps with transportation costs and supports local and regional communities. In addition to looking for local printers, check if printers use environmentally friendly substrates, inks, and printing processes. 

Vegetable inks are suitable for collateral and marketing materials and can emit zero VOCs.

When it comes to large-format graphics, Latex, and UV inks are more eco-friendly than solvent ink, which involves VOCs throughout the entire printing process. Latex inks, for example, lay on top of the substrate, which is better for recyclability. It also means that you can print on flexible surfaces like fabric!

Certain printing processes emit less VOCs than others. HP’s Indigo printer contains no heavy chemicals or air-polluting substances. The press emits a fraction of the VOCs used in conventional printing. 

There is much, much more to explore on this topic. What is YOUR institution doing to make the world a little greener?

Tell us how you’re going green! Reach out to us on social media @Quatrefoil_design on Instagram or on Facebook.