This past spring 2014 semester I joined forces with two other design educators from vastly different teaching institutions than my own to test the most effective way to teach sustainable design to the millennial generation. Yvette Perullo (Newbury College), Brooke Scherer (University of Tampa), and myself (University of Illinois) took an older sustainable packaging project I had done previously and rethought the assignment structure and exercises entirely. Our goal for this collaboration was to see how students from various parts of the country with different socio-economic, political, and educational backgrounds would absorb and hopefully feel inspired by a project about design, business, social justice, and the environment. We wanted to know how much they knew about sustainability prior to starting and after the project, what tools and resources would be best to help the educational process, and if packaging was the right starting point for this discussion. We used a post project survey to answer these questions and to assess the overall process.
Each of us had different meeting times, class lengths, and amount of students for this project, however to keep things as uniform as possible we used the same write-up, lecture files, and readings for each group. We tasked the students to: “(c)reate a right-sized package and a new brand message for over-packaged headphones of your choosing. The only material you will use for this project will be recycled paperboard. In creating your package and brand message you will need to focus on:
- minimizing materials.
- minimizing ink coverage to maximize recyclability.
- protecting the product.
- designing for effective store display and shipping.
- communicating the brand and showcasing the product.”
To aid in their understanding, we mapped the lifecycle of paperboard from forest to consumer to landfill and asked the students to think about the resources and waste involved in this current process. What is a more effective and sustainable supply chain? How could the graphic designer help facilitate this change? We also assigned them to read a few chapters from “Sustainable Packaging” by Scott Boylston, “Cradle to Cradle” by McDonough and Braungart, “The Wicked World of Packaging” by Yvette Perullo, and “History of Concerns” by Jorge Frascara. These readings served as a background for discussion, further comprehension of the lectures, and specifically Boylston’s book provided packaging examples, exercises, and techniques. We had the students, before designing, create prototypes through folding, scoring, cutting, and creating a few different styles of boxes and tabs. Surprisingly, this was a very foreign activity for all of our students; the third dimension was unfamiliar territory. In total, the students had difficulty with craft, scoring, and understanding the transformation of a folded two-dimensional pattern into a 3d box. However, without this beginning exercise, we’re sure the final results would have been a lot less successful, as the craft, in the end, was significantly better for some students.
All projects have varying levels of successes and failures. All of our students improved in their knowledge of sustainability from beginning to end of the project. On average the 30 students who completed the survey felt that their existing knowledge on the topic prior to the project was around 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, while afterwards they ranked their expertise at 3.75. This is an increase of 87.5%. Even more impressive, their gain in packaging design knowledge was 100%. In the survey, the students were also asked to recommend ways to improve the project so they would better understand the concept of sustainability. They suggested:
- More time than 6 weeks to complete
- A warm-up project about sustainability prior to the assignment
- A field trip to a studio/company that practices this methodology
- A film about the topic
- More information on materials in general and why they are or are not viewed as sustainable options
These suggestions were very useful and will definitely impact future iterations of this project.
In addition to this feedback, we learned that all the students felt sustainability was an important discussion within their education. 56% of the students felt the topic needed to be an elective class for all design majors, and 38% suggested it be a required studio. We agree with the remarks of one student who commented that sustainability should be a “foundational element” within their design education. We advocate for sustainable methodology to be introduced at a foundational level, and we believe that designing sustainably will become part of the typical design process, rather than an after-thought or a niche design practice.
We, as a civilization of connected people, cultures, and professions, cannot continue to create, over consume, and pollute without irrevocable dystopian outcomes to our health and ways of life. Sustainability as a foundational component to curriculum is akin to simply adding a new parameter to a design project. Just as the American Disabilities Act created new challenges for UI/UX designers, creating with people, profit, and planet top of mind will also present unique struggles. However, such new challenges should be embraced as we all work towards a common goal of improved health and equality.
We hope to continue to tweak this assignment and collaborate with other educators to share and expand a sustainable design education. Next March the three of us are moderating a panel at the 2015 FATE (Foundations in Art: Theory and Education) Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. If you are an educator interested in adding to this body of knowledge, please feel free to apply to our panel entitled: “Consciously Creative: Where Sustainability Meets Design Education” (page 20).
“Pop” Earbuds by Charlotte Petertil (University Illinois)
“Accellorize” Ear buds by Chelsea Choi (University of Illinois)
“Soundscape” headphones by Paul Braga (University of Tampa)