How does design education address sustainability?

Leaders in design education are teaching a new generation to think like sustainability innovators rather than designers.

When it comes to the climate crisis, there is no right answer. As our Design, Climate, Action series highlights, designers are constantly adapting their work, often in response to new challenges or breakthroughs. But how do you teach a new generation of designers about sustainability in an ever-changing environment?

“We’re comfortable being uncomfortable,” says Rebecca Wright, dean of academic programs at Central Saint Martins (CSM). Through its art and design courses, the college has rethought its approach to the environment.

In some cases, it is a question of creating new classes. In 2019, CSM launched the Biodesign MA, which seeks to integrate biological principles into the design process. Later that year he launched the Regenerative Design MA – a partnership with luxury fashion company LVMH.

D&AD New Blood Fest

For existing courses, the focus has been on adjusting “learning outcomes,” says Wright. Developing what constitutes project success opens students’ minds to what is valuable. Success, she thinks, can be calibrated by values ​​(such as social or climate issues) rather than simply aesthetics. An important frame of reference is that of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Links with industry partners also help students understand how their education can be applied in the real world. This relationship also works both ways, Wright points out. In her role as President of D&AD (the first academic to assume this role), Wright is also keen to foster the connection between a new generation of designers and the industry on the New Blood and Shift programs.

This approach is not without its difficulties. “The challenge for institutions like universities is that once you start prioritizing these things, you’re rightly exposing yourself to criticism and evaluation from your own students,” Wright says. This list can be endless: how necessary is it to go to conferences? Is the printer ink environmentally friendly? The pandemic has provided some silver linings in this regard – virtual work has reduced the need for international travel, for example – although there will be more challenges.

For Wright, the key is understanding where change can occur both immediately and over the long term. “If we had the answers, we would know what we were doing,” adds Wright. “But we don’t have the answers to how we’re going through this. We acquire new knowledge all the time.


Teaching “Sustainable Development Literacy”

At Kingston University, a project for the Sustainable Design MA highlights an experimental approach to climate issues. Play on Sustainable Innovation includes a set of cards and products that ask questions about toy design, not just manufacturing, but also when to address environmental issues with children. As its mission statement states: “The paradox of toys is that they threaten the future of children who play innocently with these toys.

The project represents a more holistic – and literally more playful – approach to climate issues, according to course leader Dr Paul Micklethwaite. Micklethwaite took over the MA course ten years ago and redesigned it from a post-disciplinary perspective. Today, the course welcomes around twenty students from a wide variety of backgrounds, from architecture to graphic design and product design, all of whom wish to “redirect this creative practice towards sustainability objectives”. Often they have been in the industry for a while.

Although designers are generally aware of climate issues, a crucial lesson is “sustainability awareness,” says Micklethwaite. “Not just learning the facts and figures of memorizing the UN SDGs, but actually being able to apply the knowledge and awareness of sustainability through design practice.”


“The perfect lasting result does not really exist”

Playing on sustainable innovation, by Chantal Drenthe

It’s a broad concept, he admits, and it’s often impacted by course composition. A student from Latin America will have a very different understanding of sustainability than an Indian student, he points out. Through lively class discussions, Micklethwaite encourages students to aspire to an enduring ideal – while acknowledging that no design can embody all the right approaches. As he sums it up, “the perfect lasting result does not really exist”.

Teaching has also shifted to courses that have no durability in the title. Micklethwaite used to teach a 12-week module on undergraduate courses around sustainable issues – what he calls a ‘bolt-on’ approach. But this has now been incorporated into undergraduate design courses where the work aims to address sustainability head-on.

In a course on furniture, for example, there is a brief called a footprint, where students have to think about the impacts of their design decisions. It is a partnership with the architecture firm Foster + Partners. This forces students to think about “being a designer of materials, culture, and physical objects,” says Micklethwaite.


Promote “creative and playful exploration”

MA/Msc. Innovation Design Engineering. Courtesy of the Royal College of Art

All this is not new, of course. At the Royal College of Art (RCA), the Innovation Design Engineering MA/MSc has been running for 40 years – a partnership with Imperial College London. A more recent offshoot is the Global Innovation Design MA. Professor Gareth Loudon leads both courses, which aim to create a positive impact for people and the planet. Sustainability is at the forefront, he explains, and students typically fall into a few categories. Those who want to start their own business, those who want to join a design consultancy or a design-led business, and those who want to stay in research or further their education.

A process of “creative and playful exploration” is crucial for these two-year courses, says Loudon. Along with teaching day-to-day issues like time management and teamwork in a studio environment, students learn to become “comfortable with uncertainty.” It’s often more difficult for those with an engineering background, says Loudon. Tricky sustainability issues “are not as clear and well-presented as an engineering student might want,” he adds.

Sustainability education has come a long way over the past decade, often in a more philosophical direction. Loudon compares it to his days of teaching product design, where durability would involve consideration at the materials and assembly stage. It didn’t cover broader principles such as the circular economy or business models – which are equally important, according to Loudon. Like Micklethwaite, Loudon emphasizes a post-disciplinary approach. “First and foremost, we create innovators,” he says. “We don’t create engineers or designers per se.”


“In fact, we want to make things positive”

Courtesy of Grounded Carbon

A frustration for Loudon is the gap between innovation on the courses and what is happening in the industry. While terms like circular economy are commonplace, not much has changed in the business world. One of the courses’ biggest impacts, he says, has been start-ups disrupting traditional businesses. “It’s hard to change an established organization,” says Loudon, referring to the notion of disruptive innovation coined by academic Clayton Christensen. “It’s the upstarts that upset the incumbent.”

But no matter how good an idea, it needs to be supported in a practical way. This requires training students in business and strategy, as well as taking advantage of Imperial College’s technical prowess. Loudon began to see the benefits of the courses: a valuable network between alumni and students. The dialogue informs students about new approaches, technology and provides business information. Practically, this also means the creation of a new network of jobs.

Despite the challenges, Loudon has a positive outlook. Many student projects have been shortlisted for the Terra Carta Design Lab, a climate initiative by Prince Charles and Jony Ive. One of them is Grounded Carbon, a platform that aims to streamline the process of ground-based carbon offsetting. This solution embodies a holistic approach, taking into account both carbon offsetting models and agricultural behavior. It also represents a more forward-thinking approach to climate issues. “In the past, sustainability was about making things less bad,” says Loudon. “We really want to make things positive.”


You can read more in our Design, Climate, Action series here.

Banner image courtesy of the Royal College of Art.

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