(Re)Framing Recycling

Gloria Lee
Associate Professor, Design Division
Department of Art and Art History
College of Fine Arts


A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.
— Herbert Simon

In my work with community and public education groups, I constantly struggle with how to effectively reach people, and, eventually, how to engage new people. This question of engagement, whether for marketing or educational reasons, confronts everyone. This challenge is further complicated by the information coming toward us at all times through multiple channels and media. How do people make choices about the information to which they will pay attention?

Theories on how people make their selective choices have relied heavily on cognitive consistency theories that began in 1957,1 and generally indicate that people will seek out information that confirms their preexisting views and assumptions. Contemporary social communication research indicates that is still consistent in today’s information-rich, web-based world.2 So, the question of engagement expands to become: how do you reach those who may not agree with you or those who might be described as “the non-converted”?

In a 2011 spring undergraduate course entitled “Design and Persuasion,” I introduced students to the problem of persuading the campus student population to increase their recycling participation. While I designed the full scope of the project to address design communication in both visual and physical forms (such as compost bins) this paper focuses upon the portion involving the analysis and development of language to approach two different student audiences: the converted and the non-converted. More specifically, by going through outlined exercises, students examined the language and values of recycling and composting and then developed language that they believe would be accessible to the converted and the non-converted. In doing this, I believe we created a compelling design method for generating fresh and effective communication.

Theoretical Background for Designers


Table 1

The Strict Father The Nurturing Parent

Protect the family in the dangerous world.

Support the family in the difficult world.

Teach his children to discern right from wrong.

Thus, what is required from children is obedience, since the father has the moral authority and knows right from wrong, and thus can use punishment.

Links morality with prosperity.

Links discipline with pursuing self-interest and becoming prosperous and self-reliant.

Belief in some version of Adam Smith’s in-visible hand: “if everyone pursues her own self-interest, then by the invisible hand, by nature, the self-interest of all will be maximized…a do-gooder is someone who is trying to help someone else rather than herself and is getting in the way of those who are pursuing their self-interests. Do-gooders screw up the system.” (Lakoff:8)

Empathy and Responsibility: empathy for the child’s cry, and responsibility to take of someone (and yourself, since you must take care of the child).

Provide protection.

Wish child to be fulfilled in life, to be a happy person: therefore it becomes your moral responsibility to be fulfilled yourself.

Freedom to be fulfilled.

Opportunity and prosperity are needed for freedom.

Open, two-way communication, honest communication.

Community building, service the community and cooperation in a community.

Trust—honesty and open two-way communication.

Close study by designers of the elements of communication is important not only for generating new visual forms, but also for a deeper understanding of the cognitive basis for effective communication. Influential design researchers have delved into the important role rhetoric plays in design, mostly notably, Richard Buchanan3 and Sharon Poggenpohl.4 Designer educators also have made case studies working explicitly with visual rhetoric,5 where designers’ ideation processes were influenced by thinking specifically of metaphors or similes, and thus guided subsequent formal (image, color, typeface) choices.

Metaphors are also extremely powerful in that they can be used as a method to bridge difference—as linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson succinctly state, “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”6 They also argue, in their now-classic book Metaphors We Live By, that conceptual metaphors both shape our understanding of our present and structure our expectations. As an example, the metaphor “argument is struggle” reveals how the everyday phrases “losing an argument,” “your claims are indefensible,” and “I attacked his arguments” structure our cognitive attitude and expectation of winners and losers in conversations. This distinction is in contrast to the “argument is reasoning” approach, where the expectation might lead toward a more collaborative and rational atmosphere of uncovering things together. We also often use metaphor to highlight our expectations of our audience’s mindset and values. For example, if we imagine saying “We need new alternative sources of energy” to a listener who is more like a “hawk” than a “dove,” we might expect that she might not first think of renewable sources like the sun, but might first consider support for military action that protects access to foreign supplies.

In 2004, based on the metaphor of “nation as family,” Lakoff published a popular analysis of contemporary U.S. politics the two opposing metaphors: strict authoritarian father versus the nurturing parent (I have summarized these values and priorities of these two metaphorical actors in Table 1).7 While most people have some mixture of these values, political speech tends to evoke one set or the other for the purpose of engaging audiences.

Persuasion through framing

“Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and then go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us.”8

Issues of persuasion enter the picture when one understands and deploys the idea of metaphors plus values when developing a framework. One needs to meet the target audience’s values to begin understand their ideas of truth. From that understanding, one can then begin to frame the debate, for “framing is about getting language that fits your world view.”9

An important reference for framing and values is Frank Luntz, the wordsmithing consultant who promoted powerful phrases such “tax relief ” (versus tax cuts) “exploring for energy” (instead of drilling for oil) and “climate change” (instead of global warming. To effectively frame the debate, Luntz believes one must appeal to the emotions and values of the audience. He espouses: “If your principles match their values, then the details won’t matter.”10 Further, he insists that emotions are of primary importance:

In this business of language, you have to have a heart, and you have to have emotion, and you have to be willing to become what you are studying, no matter what it puts you through…words with emotion can change destiny, can change life as we know it. We know it has changed history; we know it has changed behavior; we know that it can start a war or stop it. We know that words and emotion together are the most powerful force known to mankind.11

Lakoff provides an excellent analysis of the emotions that structure one of Luntz’s frames, “relief” when applied to taxes. Relief indicates that there is an affliction, which means there is both a victim and a hero who rescues the victim.12 Thus the frame evokes emotions that influence the debate so that those who support ‘tax relief’ are heroes, while those who do not are enemies who support the affliction. The orientational metaphor of good/bad has an undeniably strong emotional pull.

Table 2

RULE 1 Use small words
RULE 2 Brevity — use short sentences
RULE 3 Credibility is as important as philosophy
RULE 4 Consistency matters
RULE 5 Novelty — offer something new
RULE 6 Sound and texture matter
RULE 7 Speak aspirationally (language of hope)
RULE 8 Visualize
RULE 9 Ask a question
RULE 10 Provide context and explain relevance
WINNING VALUES Family, Freedom, Opportunity, Responsibility, Community, Sacrifice; No limit to growth;no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder

In Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, Luntz lists ten rules for communication and highlights values that are winning and important (Table 2). In brief, Luntz believes that optimism is aspirational, and in his description, the winning strategy in the political arena, and thus important (emotional) aspect of framing one’s message.

Based on both Lakoff and Luntz’s work, it should be possible to develop framing that evokes the emotions and values for specific audiences. With careful study, exploration and awareness of audience’s values, you may be able create frames and language that effectively reaches the most difficult to engage audiences: those who may not already believe as you do. In other words, framing can also be about finding language that better communicates your world view to those who may not initially agree with you.

The Problem Setting

I charged my class of junior-level design students to select two different on-campus sites that could use help with a recycling/composting campaign. After extensive on-site research, observation and documentation, the students determined that both the Jester dormitory dining area, which currently has recycling and composting, as well as the LEED-certified Student Activity Center, which does not, would be to good candidates for their design research and end-designs.


Step 1. Linguistic analysis of language around topic as it applies to the topic in general, i.e.: Analyze current language around composting and recycling by analyzing spatial and structural metaphors.

We began the process with an overview of Lakoff and Johnson’s general concepts regarding orientational metaphors, the latter which includes: in/out; deep/shallow, on/off, central/peripheral, up/down, front/back. Together as a class, we listed additional orientational metaphors—big/small; light/dark; linear (progress)/cycle; new/old—and began to look at these in relationship to the classic “reduce/reuse/recycle.” Which one of the paired orientational metaphors mapped as “good” to us? Which were mapped as not desirable? The general consensus was that while “cycle” could be good, overall “linear,” when viewed as “progress,” was more highly desirable. They also decided that the contemporary terms of “upcycle,” “precycle,” and “post- consumer waste,” were, at best, neutral in terms of desirability, having too many negative aspects in terms of orientational metaphors.

Table 3

Libraries: borrow/return
Rentals: cars, carts, DVD
Exchange: mail, gift, trade
Swapping: potlucks, potlatch
Donate: tithing, dues

We also brainstormed existing models of cyclic exchanges that are generally positively valued behaviors (Table 3.) However, we drew the overall conclusion that currently the notion of a cycle needed more positive connotations and practices before it could win over “linear/progress.”

Step 2. Determine the stakeholder(s) you are attempting to persuade (aka audience):

- Research and then summarize your knowledge about the audience
- Determine the most effective persuasive areas that interests or concerns them
- Study the frameworks around various audiences and determine metaphors that may resonate with those personas

Students then learned of Lakoff’s metaphorical framing concepts, as well as Luntz’s emphasis on “winning” emotions and values, and applied these concepts to two general audiences for recycling and composting. They agreed that the metaphors of “the strict father” and the “nurturing parent” were good archetypes for the two audiences engaged in issues of sustainability, equating those who believed in human-caused global warming and in recycling as people who were both “converted” as well as falling into to “the nurturing parent” camp, while those who did not would most likely respond to values and language of “the strict father.” They then began to conjure up types of students who might also fall within those two categories, and based on their personal experiences, began to determine the values and priorities they could anticipate with those groups.

Step 3. Solve the hypocognition problem for two audiences: 1) the converted, and 2) the non-converted

In the final step of the analysis, students formed two different groups and set about brainstorming ideas, language and visuals that would appeal to one of the two audiences. The added challenge was to solve the problem of hypocognition, or what Lakoff says is “the lack of a relatively simple frame that can be evoked by a word or two”13 and is needed for effective framing. The phrases such as “death tax” and “Contract for America” are successful solutions to that problem; similarly architect William McDonough’s simple but powerful equation “Waste = Food” is another example.


The student group that focused upon the converted, “nurturing parent” audience perhaps had the easiest time regarding the issue of framing, in that sustainability is deeply grounded in that set of values. Their solution to the problem of hypocognition was “Feed the Earth,” which they imagined would involve a secondary line when used in a larger persuasive campaign: “Feed the Earth: It feeds you first.” This statement evokes nurturing, protection and care. (Consequently, they spent much of their time working on physical manifestation of persuasion: redesigning the trash/ compost/recycling bins for a dormitory dining hall.)

For the challenge of persuading the non-converted, the students evolved the phrase “Release the Potential,” which they intended to allude to positive things such as potential money, energy or materials which currently lie dormant in our “trash”—all optimistic values (freedom, potential).

When this new slogan is applied with to the standard recycling symbol, the meaning is augmented to apply to the act of recycling itself.


This process of analyzing metaphors, as well as thinking about values and frames, can be helpful in devising fresh ways of communicating and generating design solutions. While rhetorical analysis is not a typical way for designers to begin—students generally leap straight into visual sketching—these students reported that the struggle was worth it.

Furthermore, I believe supporters of sustainability and other “nurturing parent” values would benefit from reviewing their own frames and metaphors. The pressing issue for sustainability is how to build a larger audience of supporters and believers. To do this, we need to understand the values and orientational metaphors that are embedded in our current spoken and visual languages. For example, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” has been adapted by many specific industries, ranging from a sanitation district— Reduce/Reuse/Recycle/Rot—to business guide for development— Reduction/Reuse/Recycle/Recovery— to a craft shop on Etsy—Recycle/ Repurpose/Redo/Renew. [Table 4]. If one reflects a moment upon some of the choice of words, they don’t express “winning optimism” or even the more desirable aspects of metaphorical pairs (reduce versus growth, rot versus fresh).

Table 4. Alternatives to the Three Rs

Reduction/Reuse/Recycle/Recovery15 Business and Sustainable Development Guide, International Institute for Sustainable Development
Reduce/Reuse/Recycle/Renew16 Sustainability consultants, who provide: program evaluation; material management and recycling; design for electronics, environment; regulatory compliance, planning and implementation.
Recycle/Repurpose/Redo/Renew17 The4Rs, a Craft shop on etsy.com
Reduce/Reuse/Recycle/Rot18 Castro Valley Sanitary District
Refuse/Reduce/Reuse/Recycle19 Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global nonprofit associated with the Earth Island Institute

Similarly, the “décroissance” (degrowth) movement, whose intention is to challenge the idea of continued “growth-based” (upwardly linear) economics, still endorses the same orientational metaphor—a linear one—but in the negative direction. This movement is unlikely to reach any of the unconverted: while it embraces the same orientational metaphor, it has selected the less desirable, “optimistic” direction to move in—downward.

More importantly, by examining our metaphors and frames for their embedded values, we might begin to understand how to reach the ears of those who do not agree with us—or, by being aware how our language itself might be an obstacle toward possible conversation. At this point in time, it appears we need to be able to get people to listen to open their ears to different voice, before we can even begin to find a common starting point for the conversation. For once you constructively engage disagreeing people, you might then begin to reason together.


  1. Leon Festinger. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957); and Elliot Aronson, “The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: A Current Perspective,” in Leonard Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 4. (London: Elsevier Academic Press, 1969. 2–32).
  2. Shanto Iyengar and Kyu S. Hahn,“Red Media, Blue Media: Evidence of Ideological Selectivity in Media Use.” Journal of Communication, 59 (2009), 19–39.
  3. Richard Buchanan, “Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice,” Design Issues, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1985), 4–22; and Richard Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking,” Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring, 1992), pp. 5–21.
  4. Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl, Visual Rhetoric: An Introduction,” Visible Language, v32 n3, (Oct 1998), 197–199; and Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl, “Doubly Damned: Rhetorical and Visual,” Visible Language, v32 n3, (Oct 1998), 200–33.
  5. Hanno H. J. Ehses, “Representing Macbeth: A Case Study in Visual Rhetoric,” Design Issues Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1984), 53–63.
  6. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors we live by (Chicago, Ill., London: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 5.
  7. George Lakoff, Don’t think of an elephant: Know your values and frame the debate (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004), 7–34.
  8. Ibid., 17.
  9. Ibid., 4.
  10. Frank Luntz, Words that work: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear (New York: Hyperion, 2007), 207.
  11. Frontline: Interview with Frank Luntz, (December 15, 2004).
  12. George Lakoff, Don’t think of an elephant: Know your values and frame the debate (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004), 3
  13. Ibid, 24.
  14. While the students were not aware of it, their manipulation of the recycling symbol for their own purpose is consistent with its history. The symbol, which is in the public domain, has been used in many ways, and may indicate anything from recycled content, to the generally recyclable-nature of the object, to general support for the cause of recycling. In addition, the Society of Plastic Industries-developed an international resin identification coding system, meant to help identify materials so that they might be recycled. However, this does not mean that all materials have commonly available recycling processes, and when an end-user/consumer views the symbol, may improperly interpret it as not only theoretically recyclable but actually recyclable within their current institutional or governmental system:
  15. International Institute for Sustainable Development, “Business and Sustainable Development Guide.” Accessed July 12, 2011. http://www.iisd.org/business/tools/bt_4r.aspx.
  16. 4|R Sustainability. Accessed July 12, 2011. www.4rsustainability.com/content/The4Rs/tabid/64/Default.aspx.
  17. The4Rs. Accessed July 12, 2011. www.etsy.com/shop/The4Rs.
  18. Castro Valley Sanitary District, “The 4Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, & Rot.” Accessed July 12, 2011. www.cvsan.org/content/4rs-reduce-reuse-recycle-rot.
  19. Plastic Pollution Coalition. Accessed July 12, 2011. “Take the Pledge” http://plasticpollutioncoalition.org/donate-2/pledge/.