Connecting Values: Teaching Sustainability to Graphic Designers
August 24, 2010 | Eric Benson  |  Share

This past spring, I taught a junior-level graphic design methodology studio course in which I was excited to focus the bulk of the term on educating the students about sustainable design processes and theories. Back in January of 2010, when I was planning the class, I struggled mightily to balance the amount of readings, films, research and discussion with actual making. Lessons learned from past classes taught me that reading books and articles on the topic helped form a better foundation to understand the topic, but the more the students read, the more confused they became and the more time was taken away from the studio component of the course. The texts are imperative, however what specifically is being digested and discussed in class is even more important. I felt it best to avoid the more poignant and scientific pieces of literature, as too much information too quickly would simply just overwhelm and possibly distress the design student so much, that the project itself seemed pointless. This article explores mine and other educator’s experiences teaching sustainability and the proposed model (and necessary tools) I believe will work best.

Since 2006 I’ve been experimenting with teaching the concept of “sustainability” to graphic design students. I came out of graduate school with a lot of assumptions on how to introduce the topic felt the students would respond positively to the prompts and projects. In many cases, I was completely wrong on both accounts. I believed that the 21st Century graphic design student must understand a little about sustainability, as it’s all over the internet, on the cover of magazines and embedded in television advertising. I was also sure that the Millenial designer yearned to learn how to be a more responsible professional and viewed sustainable practice as vital for our society, planet and their future careers. After just one semester, I found that students have heard about sustainability (but don’t know much about it), are passionate about their personal social causes, and as long as they had a good portfolio and a stable but exciting job after graduation, learning about sustainability wasn’t necessarily essential. Having a great book and employer would allow their work to be seen/heard and consequently make some sort of difference – whether it be pleasing the client or bringing awareness to an important issue. These ideals were the core goals that motivate the current generation of graphic designers to excel in/ out of class. This is really no different than generations past, so, I hypothesized (during the planning of my class) that to introduce and implant sustainable practices into the design student process involved intertwining the principles inseparable from their personal values and future goals.

Typically I’ve introduced sustainability as an added parameter to a project with support from readings and film. I framed it as a necessary ingredient to create a better 21st century graphic designer and it has failed more than it was successful. My first semester as a Professor (fall 2006) I assigned the book “Cradle to Cradle” by McDonough & Braungart to help in the creation of a sustainable packaging project for a fictional tea company. I further asked the students to research and present a selection of more environmentally friendly materials and create a user scenario mood board defining the consumer base for fine teas. It was a fairly similar design task that I undertook as a professional: research, present, concept, present, finesses and present again. Furthermore, it added a new and important parameter to the student’s portfolio equation: sustainability. The evaluations of the project were mixed however. Some understood the concept better, while seemingly the majority of the class found it to be too political. It seemed upon reflection that one of the main reasons why sustainability seemed political (outside of Al Gore) was that it wasn’t necessarily included in the students’ values, but instead mine. And to impose my way of thinking upon them was seen as propaganda. This was not the outcome I wanted of course. I was seeking adoption of the principles and theories. I was hoping for the similar awakening I had to the importance of balancing our lifestyles with the planet, but instead my impact was fairly limited. So, to teach this topic more effectively, it seemed logical to assume that if the students were to embrace sustainability as a value, then it must become connected to their existing ideals and career aspirations. This hypothesis was the starting point for developing my most recent design methodology course.

To begin, in order to integrate sustainability into the design student’s process, I hypothesized that if they saw how it connected to them, the easier it would be to add these methodologies into their daily practice. In the first three weeks of the class, I asked the class to reflect upon their existing process of creation that should include the top ten aspects they enjoy about being a designer and additionally five of their core personal/professional values. These lists became the prompt to create a piece (format of their choosing) to display that they are and what they want to become. Consistently their writings voiced concerns about wanting to make meaningful work and the desire to be heard and seen because of their talents. Some had aspirations to work in the editorial, advertising or fashion design industries, while others wanted to make posters that fought social injustice. After the critique of this first project, which consisted of many different design vehicles ranging from the sappy self-portrait poster to a box of tools aimed to guide the designer to happiness, I referred back to their list of values and ten things they love about design. I asked them to think about how many of the ten items I could take away before being a designer wasn’t so desirable. What if print bleeds were not allowed in the editorial industry? What if all magazines were digital? How much could be altered before it makes someone rethink his or her goals? Would these issues then change one’s mind about following their aspirations? I related these hypothetical questions to current events, industry data on paper versus digital and scientific concerns about climate change and natural resource limitations etc. However, no one is an expert on all these topics, myself included. However realizing that fact, prompted me to invite in campus experts in various environmental and social science disciplines to have a discussion with the designers. This two-hour period was became a lively discussion that focused on brainstorming solutions to my assignments and beyond. The dots seemed to be more easily connected by the students after connecting their values with those of the sustainable experts and seemed to further energize the class to tackle the second and third assignments that asked them to create greener packaging and a better conference experience with related print/ digital materials.

Sylvia Uhl Packaging

As “sustainability” in general is a very broad discussion with vast nuances depending on the discipline and dilemma, I decided again to not overwhelm the students with lists of parameters and to only focus on a single idea for each of the last two projects. The hope with this strategy was to slowly ramp up their skill, knowledge and consequent excitement to begin to combine processes to advance their investigation into more sustainable design research. The second project, focused on redesigning over packaged products of their choosing, I chose the mantra“ to minimize” as opposed to bombard them with LCAs, materials and energy etc. This technique was installed into the class curriculum knowing that the topics left out of the assignment would be introduced and learned in the final third project. This strategy allowed for a more focused discussion in relation to the required text “Designing Sustainable Packaging” by Scott Boylston and other related online articles. Students found that by me not introducing too many terms and methods of sustainable development, it was easier to grasp the foundational components if they “mastered” each individually and were eventually combined in a culminating project. Professor Peter Fine from New Mexico State University had similar findings in his Spring 2008 ART 355 class in which he incrementally introduced greener design techniques project by project.

JP Ramirez

Kamil Kecki

This final assignment asked the students to re-imagine the conference experience and what print material and swag was truly needed. The notion of “to minimize” was already subtly embedded in the preferred outcome, however this final assignment tasked the students to investigate post-consumer waste (PCW) papers, vegetable-based inks and the greener printing process. The assigned text was “Green Graphic Design” by Brian Dougherty which was extremely helpful in combination with the Project Calculator at to design any print materials backwards from the press sheet, minimizing wasted material and money, while learning about working as a greener designer. The terminologies connected to recycled papers, certifications, and the printing supply chain were many and sometimes seemingly confusing if this was the first time the student was introduced to the offset print industry. In order to make sure they grasped this, I held in-class workshops whose goal was to create information graphic depicting how the printed page ended up on their desk. I also reinforced the terms and sustainable design techniques with a quiz towards the end of the last project that covered the semester’s readings and lectures. “Quiz” is a dirty word in a graphic design studio, but from colleague’s and my own past experiences teaching sustainability, students remembered a term for only as long as they had to, so this forced them to take a second look over what they’d learned and investigate it further outside of the classroom.

In conjunction to connecting sustainability to student values and goals, incremental learning methods, discussions, films and quizzes, a final important component to the success of my class was to include professional designers also practicing greener design in their studios in the classroom discussion. Living in a small Midwestern community limited my options in terms of practicing greener designers, so I had to turn to the authors of my required texts. Both authors were flown, after significant and painful fundraising, in to discuss their research, teaching and studio work. Having outside designers from the professional world inside the classroom, I believe helped cement the viability of designing sustainably to the students and cemented the fact that it wasn’t just their Professor that was talking about designing greener. The logistics of bringing in these two authors/designers was difficult and mildly expensive, however it was vital to the success of the comprehension and adoption of the topic into the student’s own values and daily practice. At the end of the semester one of the graphic design students wrote to me in my evaluations stating: "I feel at this point in my career I'm well versed in sustainable practices... let's adopt the standard and move on." Others wrote that they had a “better understanding of sustainability” while there was one or two that wrote “too much research!” and “more making, less thinking.” The amount of this category of apathetic comments decreased significantly from years past, which might speak well for this strategy of intertwining sustainable principles with the student’s own goals and values. The one thing that I do know is that no one felt it was political, which means two dozen more design students are thinking about their and our collective future a lot more than they did before.

 Eric is currently an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois. His research explores how design can be sustainable and consequently how to teach it. Eric has a BFA in Industrial/Graphic design from the University of Michigan and an MFA in Design from the University of Texas.