Systems thinking

Designers who use systems thinking look at a problem as part of an entire system of connected concerns. Author and environmental advocate John Muir explains systems thinking as “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” In other words they use nature as a model of inspiration to create. Eliminate waste and create to renourish our world.

Systems Thinking Process

The design process most of us learned in school typically asks us to solve a visual problem with a tangible set of outcomes. This means we are asked to design a poster, book, or a website. Let’s say your client asks you to “Design a poster about climate change.” In the traditional approach you’d grab a pencil and paper and start sketching a bunch of posters!

But instead of merely taking orders, designers who use a sustainable systems thinking approach think creatively about how to solve problems. They begin by asking: “Is a poster even the best solution? If so, who will see it, where will it be? If not, what other options would be more effective?” In answering these questions it may become clear to you that printing hundreds of posters creates more problems than it solves. Even though the client thinks they want a poster, you can help them find better solutions by mapping out other possibilities and presenting the negative and positive impacts of those options.

The best solution to the project may involve an alternative awareness campaign that includes a mobile application or public service announcement, a method to change public policies, or even creating a non-profit. In whatever solution you choose, remember that ‘good design’ values people, the environment, and improves lives. If printed outcomes are necessary in your solution(s), design from the end. Start with the press sheet and work backward. Choose a regional agri-fiber or a post-consumer wood-pulp paper, use the provided vendor press sheet sizes in the Project Calculator to determine final print size, and finally find a socially and environmentally responsible print vendor. The most difficult part of a print solution is effectively creating artifacts that are put back into a waste stream for reuse or recycle. However it is imperative in a truly sustainable model.

Design to Renourish


We go into much greater detail on how to use systems thinking in our new book “Design to Renourish: Sustainable Graphic Design in Practice.” The book offers solutions to the real life challenges of working with the client to create sustainable work. Through ten case studies that feature interviews with international design teams who embrace a sustainable systems methodology, the reader will gain valuable insights on how to design to renourish.

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Print & Packaging Design

More and more, print designers are taking small steps along a new, more sustainable path. We’re discovering that small changes become large when multiplied by thousands of other designers making similar decisions.

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UI/UX Design

Creating for the web or mobile device can provide many opportunities to connect, educate, and mobilize. However, it is important to remember that even though paper is not involved, UI/UX work does still have significant environmental and social impacts.

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