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Designing for Death

Seattle design practice Civilization worked with Recompose—Washington’s human-composting burial alternative—to create a visual identity for a company that deals in death.

By Rachel Gallaher

Seattle-based Recompose (a company that turns human remains into usable soil as an alternative to the traditional burial or cremation process) hired local design firm Civilziaiton for its branding and visual identity. The above collage is composed of found objects in nature. Image by Amanda Ringstad.

How do you go about designing a logo—one that is modern, affirming, and not morbid—for a company whose services revolve around death? In a move that might sound counterintuitive at first, Seattle-based design practice Civilization—a firm that has helped create brand identities for companies, organizations, and institutions around the globe, from The Nature Conservancy to the Frye Art Museum, and more—started out by thinking about life.

Civilization was hired by Recompose—a locally based company founded by Katrina Spade that offers natural organic reduction (a process that gently converts human remains into soil)—to design a visual identity and branding (website, logos, color schemes, informational brochures, etc.) for the company. Working closely with Spade, Civilization started with Recompose’s existing identity which leans on references to family trees and root systems as the underlying connections and relationships that serve as the foundation for our communities. The idea of root systems and natural networks signify relationships between humans, as well as the human-environment connection, which, through the Recompose process, quite literally continues after we die. The symbolism runs deep.

Recompose’s identity is a reference to family trees and root systems, the underlying connections and relationships that serve as the foundation for our communities. Animation courtesy of Civilization.

"When one thinks of the funeral industry, certain feelings and visuals are conjured: somber, traditional, conservative—all of which we wanted to avoid while still being respectful and empathetic,” Civilization writes. “We’re very proud of the direction we took in developing Recompose—every element is informed by nature, intentional, and joyful. For example, Recompose’s color story, used throughout the site as you pass through different sections, is composed of a series of soft gradients that fade into one another, similar to the quiet passing of the seasons."

Civilization also cites British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy as an inspiration, particularly his series of natural collages incorporating branches. The pieces look like giant nests or webs created from sticks and are often built in forests, bodies of water, or other remote areas. Recompose’s logo—a circular assemblage of brown branches—taps into this idea of natural materials coming together to form a whole. The company’s website embraces the gradient colors mentioned above. As you scroll down, the background transitions from soft pink to a purplish gray, then from leafy green to a soft sage. Crisp photographs of pinecones, lichen, leaves, and other flora in various stages of their life cycles show the ways in which the soil produced by the natural organic reduction process can then go on to nurture another form of life. It's a peaceful tableau that radiates a sense of calm.

A video showing Civilization's branding work for the Recompose website. Courtesy of Civilization. Photographs on the website are by Amanda Ringstad.

"Recompose is truly one of the most innovative and revolutionary advancements in sustainability and death care in our lifetime,” Civilization writes about the company, which helped push the legalization of human composting in Washington State. The law went into effect there in May 2020. “For every person who chooses Recompose over conventional burial or cremation, one metric ton of carbon dioxide is prevented from entering the atmosphere. That said, death is one of the most taboo and difficult topics to discuss. And the concept of turning our bodies into soil when we die is a radical shift in how we’ve viewed the end of life for centuries. The biggest hurdle was creating a space that drew people in, allowed them to see past any preconceived notions they may have about funerary practices, and simply learn more."

Recompose, which GRAY wrote about in 2016 (at the time it was a nonprofit known as the Urban Death Project—read the article here), currently operates out of a 4,000-square-foot warehouse in Kent. The space holds 10 “vessels,” each of which acts as a holding space where a body is placed with a mix of organic material (wood chips, alfalfa, straw). In a few weeks, it becomes soil that friends or loved ones can take and use in gardens or other outdoor areas. It’s a complete game-changer for the death industry and an eco-friendly way to not only return to the earth after death but to continue to nourish it for decades to come.


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