Connecting Values: Teaching Sustainability to Graphic Designers

Experimenting with his curriculum, Eric Benson discovers how to bring sustainability beyond an imposed project requirement, to a real consideration for his students in graphic design.
Experimenting with his curriculum, Eric Benson discovers how to bring sustainability beyond an imposed project requirement, to a real consideration for his students in graphic design.

21.04.2011 Features

by Eric Benson, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design
University of Illinois (United States)

Experimenting with his curriculum, Eric Benson discovers how to bring sustainability beyond an imposed project requirement, to a real consideration for his students in graphic design.

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, feeling the students would respond positively to the prompts and projects. In many cases, I was completely wrong on both counts. 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 Millennial 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 and out of class. This is really no different than generations past. While planning my class, I hypothesised that to introduce and implant sustainable practices into the design process of students 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 has succeeded. 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, conceptualise, present, finesse and present again. It also added a new and important parameter to the student's portfolio equation: sustainability. The evaluations of the project were, however, mixed. 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 these were my values, not necessarily the students'. To impose my way of thinking upon them was seen as propaganda. This was not the outcome I wanted. I was hoping for a similar awakening I had to the importance of balancing our lifestyles with the planet, but instead their reaction was fairly limited. For the students to embrace sustainability as a value, it must become connected to their existing ideals and career aspirations. This was the starting point for developing my most recent design methodology course.

Reduced packaging concept by Kamil Kecki, Graphic Design student, University of Illinois

To begin, I thought if the design students saw how sustainability connected to them, it would be easier 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 what they are and what they want to become. Consistently their writing 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. Realising 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 became a lively discussion that focused on brainstorming solutions to my assignments and beyond. The students seemed to connect the dots more easily after relating their values with those of the sustainable experts. These exchanges seemed to further energise 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.

Reduced packaging concept by Sylvia Uhl, Graphic Design student, University of Illinois

As 'sustainability' in general is a very broad discussion with vast nuances depending on the discipline and dilemma, I decided again not to 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 minimise' as opposed to bombard them with LCAs, materials and energy etc. This technique was integrated into the class curriculum knowing that the topics left out of the assignment would be introduced and learned in the third and final 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 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.

Reduced packaging concept by JP Ramirez, Graphic Design student, University of Illinois

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 minimise' 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, minimising 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 where the goal was to create an 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 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. Bringing in these two authors/designers, though challenging and mildly expensive, 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 in my evaluations: "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.

Republished with permission from

About the Author

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.

About Headphone Packaging Project

Students were given the challenge of repackaging headphones of their choice, minimising the packaging while maintaining product safety and promoting the brand.

About Re-nourish

Re-nourish is a not-for-profit project dedicated to helping the graphic design industry grow into a truly sustainable field. By providing accessible, credible design tools and information, Re-nourish empowers designers to implement smarter decision making in their day-to-day work. Our mission is nothing short of changing the industry, creating a new definition of good design that provides measurable value to designers, economies, communities, and the planet.

Experimenting with his curriculum, Eric Benson discovers how to bring sustainability beyond an imposed project requirement, to a real consideration for his students in graphic design.
Experimenting with his curriculum, Eric Benson discovers how to bring sustainability beyond an imposed project requirement, to a real consideration for his students in graphic design.