Resources: Sustainable Systems Thinking

What is 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." It is obviously true that everything is connected. Designers often underestimate the power they have to make a positive impact. Your choice of paper brand could prevent disastrous carbon emissions, keep jobs in the community, and even save the cute furry animals. Itís important in all systems thinking to research and plan ahead, but how do you actually do that as a designer?

Systems Thinking Strategy

Re-nourish suggests using this new four-step design process to incorporate sustainable systems thinking in your studio.

  1. Define project goals. What should the end result achieve?
  2. Brainstorm alternatives. How can you use your design expertise to guide your client to the best possible solution, even if itís different what they think they want?
  3. Map out possible scenarios. What are the direct and indirect effects? What are the risks and benefits associated with each solution?
  4. Evaluate project outcomes. Which option meets the clientís needs while having the greatest positive impacts?

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. Letís say your client asks you to "Design a poster about climate change." In the traditional approach youíd grab a pencil and paper and start sketching a bunch of posters!

But instead of merely taking orders, designers who employ a sustainable systems thinking approach think creatively about how to solve problems. They begin by asking: ďIs 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?Ē

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 an iPad 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 from our Paper Finder, 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.


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Re-nourish Sustainable Standards

Re-nourish's criteria for defining a sustainable projects, studios, and vendors.

Greener Paper

What does it mean for paper to be sustainable?

Greener Printing

How can you limit printing waste? How should you select a greener printer?

Greener Ink

What makes a better more environmentally responsible ink choice?

Greener Materials

What constitutes a sustainable material? Where can you find them?