Graphic design education is missing a critical component. Students receive intensive training in many areas, such as foundation, design history, typography, and composition. But where does environmental sustainability fit on this list? At what point on our path as designers do we learn how to be better stewards of our environment?
The topic of sustainability in traditional design education is consistently an afterthought, if thought about at all. When sustainability is thought of, it usually takes the form of a single project set apart from real world expectations and limitations. These projects seem to be designed in a bubble as if students may only take environmental sustainability into consideration when it is specifically assigned.
There is a glimmer of hope as more design educators are changing their approach. Programs and degrees devoted to sustainable design are being offered at higher education institutions around the world. For example, Savannah College of Art and Design offers a master’s degree in Sustainable Graphic Design, Minneapolis College of Art and Design offers a Sustainable Design certificate online, and Kingston University in London offers an MA by Research in Sustainable Design.
These new programs are a giant step in the right direction, but they are still segregated from typical graphic design programs in higher education. Currently, a student must seek out sustainable design programs, rather than learning about sustainability as part of her every day curriculum. This makes sustainability a separate type of graphic design practice when it should be as vital as every other design element such as kerning or information hierarchy.
Until all institutions teach sustainable graphic design as the way to design, students will not develop the skills, ability, or knowledge to lessen their environmental footprint. Young graphic designers will only continue an untenable cycle of materials waste, disengagement from supply chain practices, and disavowal of their own human and environmental impacts once they enter the workforce unless taught how to incorporate sustainability as the foundation to design.
When I started teaching at the New England School of Art and Design (NESAD), the school did not incorporate sustainability into its design curriculum. In my endeavor to educate students that environmentally friendly design is much more diverse and important than a requirement in a single isolated project, I introduced my Sustainability & Ethics in Graphic Design course. The goal was to teach students to make sustainability the foundation of all their work. In this seminar, students learn to apply sustainability principles and pragmatic thinking, gaining new insight into the design process and the relationships between humans and nature. Sustainability & Ethics in Graphic Designprovides a context for the consideration of design beyond traditional models of practice.
This approach was successful, I believe, in laying the foundation of sustainable graphic design practice for students at NESAD. Lifecycle assessment, design planning and process, materials evaluation, and client education were covered with active discussions, individual and group projects, readings, written assignments, and guest speakers.
The first project required students to examine their own consumer behavior by conducting a self eco-audit. For three sets of three consecutive days, students studied their own environmental impact by collecting, noting, or photographing every piece of plastic, metal, and paper they consumed. This project enabled them to become familiar with their own consumption, use, and disposal before moving on to global issues. The students gained a heightened awareness of their individual environmental impact by paying attention to every item they purchased, used, or discarded.
Students also worked on creating greener solutions to every day design and communication problems, such as a campus-wide environmental awareness campaign and a re-design exercise. Using Re-nourish’s Project Calculator and Paper Finder, students analyzed a found design then transformed it into a greener piece.
Discussions on environmental terminology, certifications, and eco-labels allowed students to recognize truly greener products and organizations from those that greenwash.
Guest lecturers, such as Re-nourish’s own Jess Sand, shared important real-world knowledge about being an environmentally responsible designer today, running a responsible design studio, and talking to clients about sustainability. Jess’ lecture was helpful in linking theory to practice.
A visit to Red Sun Press printing company in Jamaica Plain allowed students to see the processes in greener printing coupled with responsible business practices. This trip provided a glimpse into the balance of meeting customer demand while nurturing employee and community development.
My goal is to evolve Sustainability & Ethics in Graphic Design into a studio course that meets twice per week, rather than a weekly seminar. Sustainable graphic design is a vast topic that is far too broad to cover in 14 short sessions. A studio course would allow deeper exploration into projects and solutions with more time for important discussions and collaboration.
Implementing sustainability principles into graphic design education takes forethought and careful preparation, beginning with the course format. It would be hypocritical to preach sustainability after handing out multiple page syllabi, project sheets, and single-sided photocopied articles. For that reason, I use online course management, collect written assignments by email, and send articles or handouts in PDF format in all my classes. By leading by example, educators can reinforce one of the fundamental principles of sustainable design: use less stuff.
Some educators may believe that requiring students to design sustainably comes with a loss of quality of work and that sustainable design can only result in grungy projects printed on brown kraft paper. However, requiring environmentally sustainable design in the classroom is not a limitation on creativity but rather it is a way to challenge students’ innovation. Beautiful environmentally friendly work is being done – just take a look for yourself in the Re-nourish case studies section!