Interview 5th July 2019
Ed Harrison: Illustrator, conservationalist and co-founder of Under The Skin
"...that’s one of the biggest things you can do as a designer; to make great things that last.”
Ed Harrison; illustrator, conservationist and co-founder of Under The Skin on design and sustainability, environmental politics and protesting in 2019.
The ASOOO team sat down to speak to Ed, currently based in Cardiff, over Skype on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. We’d unintentionally arranged to speak a couple of days after the UN Global assessment Report on biodiversity was released. “It’s pretty terrifying” stated Ed, “In the next few years up to a million species could be extinct. It’s way worse than we could have ever imagined. My head’s a little rattled...Our interview’s going to have a very different feeling than if we’d have spoken a couple of weeks’ ago.”
A Studio Of Our Own (ASOOO): For those who don't know, can you tell us what Under The Skin is and why you started the series?
Ed Harrison: Under The Skin is and always has been an awareness campaign; we create prints to raise awareness of animal species that are becoming extinct because of our human impact. Our visual look is a literal metaphor for our ethos as a creative venture – showing biodiversity in a light way but with a deeper underlying message. Our prints are also a celebration of biodiversity and what we have left. We’ve always said that we want this project to be a celebration of these animals, rather than a collection of what’s been destroyed.
"Our prints are also a celebration of biodiversity and what we have left...we want this project to be a celebration of these animals, rather than a collection of what’s been destroyed."
ASOOO: What advice would you give to people who want to live a more sustainable lifestyle?
Ed Harrison: For us there are two sides to living sustainably that are completely intertwined; sustainable practices in design and sustainable practices in everyday life. We try and do everything that we can in our design and print lives to be sustainable - the obvious being our use of fedrigoni paper, which is carbon neutral and created in partnership with the World Land Trust. It can be quite a minefield; recycled paper not recycled paper, plastic no plastic - there’s always going to be a challenge between quality and sustainability. With Under The Skin our ultimate aim is to create something that’s going to last for generations. We want to make beautiful things that are passed down and seen for years and years, with a hope and belief that future generations will see these animals still alive, rather than a skeleton in a museum cabinet, a piece of art on the wall or in a David Attenborough documentary. I think that’s one of the biggest things you can do as a designer, to make great things that last.
In your everyday life there’s things that you can do that will make an impact, like switching to a plant-based diet or using public transport. Even if you’re not completely plant-based you can do things like cutting out red meat and dairy, or, instead of telling someone to go vegan, cook them a tasty vegan meal instead – these small things can have a big impact. It’s important to do whatever you can.
And then there’s transport. You see Greta Thunberg, who’s a big inspiration of ours, travelling long distances by train. I feel like that’s something more people need to take on board and be more conscious of, too.
As for plastics – that’s a lot more loaded. There are bulk buy shops popping up everywhere now though; that’s a great way of cutting down on your plastic intake. You can get all sorts of foods as well as detergents and cleaning products. It’s really exciting and it feels like we’re going forwards into times that have passed. It’s really important to be transparent about the fact that it can be hard, but there are small steps all of us can take to make a change.What is important to remember is, that whilst the spotlight on plastic now shines brighter than ever, and of course we must do all we can, unfortunately plastic pollution it is just the tip of the iceberg. Climate change and the collapse of the biosphere is happening at an alarming rate, and it threatens not only plants and animals across the globe but also human civilisation as we know it. Essentially, the biggest thing we can do collectively is to switch to a simplified, sustainable, low impact lifestyle. This means consuming less and owning less.
Other things; join Extinction Rebellion. Get political. Sign government petitions. Donate to the Rewilding Movement. Keep up to date with the Guardian environment news. Ride a bike. Buy second hand clothes. Buy local, organic veg. I’m aware we’re not all able to do all of these things all of the time, but it’s important to be as aware as possible of what’s going on in the world, and to be conscious of what our footprint is.
"I think that’s one of the biggest things you can do as a designer, to make great things that last."
ASOOO: Environmental issues have become a trending social and political subject recently - something we think is really important but long overdue. We saw that you attended and supported the Extinction Rebellion in Cardiff - how important do you think marches and protests are when it comes down to sparking change in 2019?
Ed Harrison: Many see protests as a waste of time, arguing that the spirit and energy of them could be better channeled towards positive action such as planting trees or cleaning beaches. In many cases there’s a truth to this. In a new book by George Monbiot, my favourite Guardian columnist, he talks about the two rules of effective campaigning: “identify exactly what you are trying to achieve, and ensure that every step you take towards that objective leads to the next step.” In a nutshell, Extinction Rebellion is calling on the government to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 and establish a Citizens’ Assembly to devise an emergency plan of action similar to that seen during the second world war.
Recently we’ve seen people from Extinction Rebellion meet with politicians, and the whole movement is being taken more seriously. They’re obviously a great force to be reckoned with and we clearly need that right now.
ASOOO: If you could sit down with one person and chat to them about environment and sustainability, who would it be and why?
Ed Harrison: I’d probably first think about with whether I wanted a light-hearted evening or a heavy one. If I wanted a heavy evening I would sit down with George Monbiot or David Attenborough. I would choose Monbiot because he has a very direct, no bullshit approach to global issues and the state of the world. He’s also very ahead of the curve in terms of where we need to go politically and environmentally. Attenborough is the same. Up until this point his shows have all been very positive, but that’s taken a turn in his latest Netflix series. It’s hard to watch but it’s evidence for everyone that climate change is very real and very scary. His new series is confrontational and accessible – it’s in the living rooms of everyone in the world. That’s always been the argument with Attenborough; he always said that people would criticise him for not bringing environmental issues to light, but he was always adamant on his personal brand being positive. Then suddenly he highlighted one issue, which was ocean plastics, and the impact was massive. It wouldn’t have had the same impact if it had come from someone else. Attenborough talking about it really made people sit up and listen.
I’d also love to speak to Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. He’s a pioneer in mountaineering and has built one of the most ethical and innovative outdoor brands in the world. I think we’d definitely be on the same page when talking about politics and the environment. I’d also love to learn more about his angle on business and design, but it would mainly be great to just share stories about adventures and shared passion for the outdoors.
ASOOO: When we work with our clients, our three aims are to get them to communicate in a way that's nice, brave and honest: they’re the tenets of our agency. How do you think being nice, honest and brave has helped you get to where you are today?
Ed Harrison: I love this question. I think that being nice is really important, and what comes around goes around. Going out of your way to help people and to use your skills for good is always a rewarding thing. Its a catalyst for collaborations, conversations and opportunities you might have been blinded to within your won bubble.
As for honesty - when we volunteered on a Sea Shepherd vessel in Mexico the campaign coordinator told us that one of the reasons they let us onto the ship is because we’re brothers. What we’re learning is that there’s something about our relationship as brothers and creative coordinators that seems to bring this honesty and transparency to things. It seems to show that we’re really doing this for the right reasons - maybe it’s because we wouldn’t be able to work together if it was all about money. The fact that we love what we do means that we transform this from being a side project into a life venture, and when things get tough we can go back to our overriding mission and purpose - supporting charities working on the front line to help prevent thesespecies falling into extinction – that always keeps us on track. Ultimately we don’t want to do anything else, and we know that there’s no greater cause for us.
New, adventurous, ‘scary’ projects are usually the ones that are worth pursuing. Generally, if they scare you that means they haven’t been done before. I think there’s a nice parallel between being uncomfortable and acting brave. When you’re a paying client you might not want to be e investing in new processes or trying new things that haven’t been tried and tested. You might not want to try a new medium that’s a bit risky or unusual, but usually those risks pay off. Even if they fail you take something from it, you learn something about yourself, you move forwards and you keep going. Trying and failing is always better than plodding along by creating things that aren’t meaningful, innovative, and in harmony with the environment.
Visit Ed at Under The Skin and say Hey! From the ASOOO team:
Under The Skin Instagram: @_undertheskin
Ed Harrison Instagram: @edharrison
Under The Skin Facebook: /undertheskinofanimals