Sustainable Design Education for the Communication Design Disciplines



Sustainable Design Education for the Communication Design Disciplines



Emily Wright


AbstractEducation must respond to the needs of the future. In recent years, universities are increasingly seeing the need for sustainability to be an integral part of the design education curriculum. In the design disciplines concerned with materials and production, products and built environments, this has been an imperative for some time as the material impact of the life cycle of the product or artifact is significant. However, this notion is a newer proposition for the communication oriented design areas, such as graphic design and multimedia design. This paper presents the development of a graduate course around the area of sustainability and communication design as well as a reflection of the teaching and learning outcomes.

Keywordssustainable design, design education, communication design and reflective teacher research







Education must respond to the needs of the future. There is an encouraging move towards adapting the curriculum of our educational institutions to meet these needs. Ecodesign, Green Design and/or Sustainable design programs are increasingly being developed in universities around the world in a number of disciplines, including my institution, Swinburne University.


While Sustainable Design or Ecodesign has been a part of the material-based design disciplines teaching curriculum for some time, it is a newer proposition for the communication focused design disciplines, such as graphic and multimedia design. This was a new subject developed for the Master of Design program at Swinburne University aimed at graphic and multimedia design students.


Given that this was a new course, reflecting on the teaching practice can aid the refinement of the course and its delivery in future. This approach, termed Reflective Teacher Research, is often used in accordance with curriculum change (Lovat & Smith, 1991).  The introduction of the course necessitated a different approach. The following will discuss the implications of these changes and an account of my reflection as a teacher within this process.


The first section of this paper presents the relevant background literature across the material-based and communications-based design disciplines. The second section details the course development and delivery. Finally the third section presents the learning and teaching outcomes supported by examples of student work.




The Background Literature

Ecodesign also known as environmental design or green design considers the impact a design artifact has on the environment. While this notion of environmental impact can be applied across the design disciplines, Ecodesign has been associated with the material oriented design disciplines, such as product, industrial, interior design, with Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methods and Product-System-Services theory (PSS) being representative of this approach.


Papanek is generally credited with the call to action in the area of Ecodesign

as it relates to industrial design, with his seminal books, Design for the Real World (1972) and The Green Imperative (1995). Other design thinkers have concurred, Fuller (1981), Manzini (2002) and Margolin (2002) calling for a more socially responsible approach to design. In recent years, the term Sustainable Design is more commonly used as it encompasses the socio-cultural and economic impacts of a design artifact in addition to the environmental.


At Swinburne, we've embraced the term Sustainable Design as it is a broad term that can be applied across a number of disciplines and has currency in architecture, urban design and planning, engineering as well as the design disciplines (graphic, industrial, product, interior, fashion and most recently interaction design). As most design functions within a market context, the concept of the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) is also helpful in considering a design’s impact from an integrative management perspective.


Graphic Design

While graphic design has not historically applied Ecodesign principles, it has grappled with the societal impact of the communication design artifact. Frascara's User-centred graphic design (1997) amongst others, proposes communication design should be suited to the needs of the audience. He raised the issue of the designer's responsibility in recognising the impact of the design solution be it good or in many cases bad. This human centered approach to communications is being played out in Information Design, see for example, the work of David Sless and the Communication Research Institute, which focuses on medical information. There has been a focus on government-sponsored communications as well, for example the AIGA’s Design for Democracy project (2007).


Amongst the design practitioners, this movement has also gained popularity with the work of Tibor Kalman's Colors, Kalle Lasn's Adbusters and the revival of the First Things First Manifesto. Publications such as Rick Poyner's Obey the Giant and Steven Heller's Citizen Designer have also had an impact. The agency of the designer, or ability to affect change in society has been a popular position put forward, and this has led to Masters programs being developed around Advocacy Design.


Design organizations have also taken up the call. Just this year we've seen the AIGA Centre for Sustainable Design get up and running, as well as the Designer's Accord (2008) and Cumulus's own the Kyoto Design Declaration. Practical resources with case studies for communication design practice are growing with initiatives such as Design Can Change (SmashLab, Canada), Massive Change (Mau, Canada) and DOTT07 (Thackara, UK).



This is be no means an exhaustive list but shows a general move towards questioning the designer’s role design in society. Issues of social responsibility and ethical practice have been debated in recent years and this debate has naturally extended to include the environmental impact of one's design work.


Multimedia Design

Multimedia Design has had its own approach to responsibility to the user and that is centered around issues of accessibility. The WWWC (World Wide Web Consortium) developed accessibility standards that many government sponsored communication initiatives abide by today. Multimedia Design involves communication as well as interaction. This is the newest battleground for sustainable design. Sustainable Interaction Design (SID) as proposed by Eli Blevis (2006) explores how technology products, systems and services can be more sustainable from their conception. SID promotes upgradable technology product design in an effort to avoid e-waste. Services to recycle technology products, such as mobile phones, computers, etc, are unfortunately only a recent development in most countries. The mode of disposal to date involves the developing nations being paid to house mountains of toxic e-waste from the developed nations. This is understandably a large concern and must be addressed by this area of design.


The literature presented suggests there has been good work across not only the material-based design disciplines but also the communications-based design disciplines. Both are of relevance and were used in the course development, as is detailed in the next section.



Course Development and Structure

Course Development

In 2007, the Centre for Design at RMIT University in cooperation with a number of Australian universities developed a national Eco Design Curriculum for Industrial Design departments. This project was supported by the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage’s Environmental Education Grant Program. This resource is quite extensive and positions the topic of sustainable design within a historical, ethical and practical context. This curriculum amongst other materials was used as a basis for the development of the Sustainable Design subject. However there were limitations to its application as its sole focus was industrial design and its methods. In this case, the program needed to be catered to the context of the communications design disciplines. The following discusses the implications of these changes.


Relevant best practice

While some examples of industrial design best practice were shown in the lectures, examples that applied to communications needed to be presented as well. This made it easier for the students to understand how sustainable design is relevant to their own design practice. Examples across both graphic and multimedia design were shown to underscore sustainable design in action.


The life cycle and environmental impact

The life cycle of the communications design artifact was discussed, particularly around materials, production and environmental impact. For graphic design, we focused on the use of sustainable materials and production methods. Using sustainable papers, inks, printing and packaging methods. The use of water and transport of materials was also discussed. For multimedia design, we added issues of energy usage and e-waste for multimedia design artifacts became a focus.


Societal impact of communication

While the life cycle of any design artifact is of great importance, we also focused on the societal impact of the communications design projects. This is relevant in two ways. The first questions the role of the designer in giving form to mass media messages and the impact on society. The second is the designer’s role in the representation of these message that often depict not only ideas, but people, organizations, cultures. How accurate is this representation? The designer of the future needs to have  an awareness of these issues and understand that design practice takes place within a global context.


Course Structure

The structure of the postgraduate coursework program allows for more depth and scope of the course delivery as it was run across three units allowing for two lecture series as well as tutorial and studio time. In the undergraduate program, the topic was often explored within one studio. The purpose of devoting three units to the Sustainable Design subject, allowed for a focus on design research, analysis and studio respectively. This in itself is a new course structure being delivered in other subjects across the postgraduate program in subjects such as User Centred Design (UCD) and Service Design. This was suggested as an answer to further integrate critical thinking and design research within the program, allowing for an indepth exploration of topical movements within design, such as Sustainable Design, UCD and Service Design. These subjects seek to embed recent design research into the teaching and learning, better preparing design students with the necessary expertise for design practice in future.


Being a postgraduate level course, design research and analysis drove the students design concepts that they visualised in studio. The students used the research to define the problem space, identify a design opportunity and then suggest solutions across of variety of media. This process, encompassing inquiry, discovery, iterative design development and reflection was captured in an explicit way detailed in a design journal.  Students drew upon a number of design process models to structure their Design Journals. Some used Burnette's iDesign thinking model as a way to structure their process while others found Garrett's (2003) User Experience method appropriate as they were working with interactive media. Burnette's iDesign thinking model is particularly useful as it emphasises reflection as an integral part of not only the learning, but also the iterative design development process.


Cross discipline and collaborative

There is a move within design education to deliver subjects across disciplines. The lecture series were run across all four disciplines including communication, multimedia as well as interior and industrial design, with course content covering design research methods as well as sustainable design concepts applied across all media. The studio components however were run across two disciplines, with communication/multimedia and interior/industrial respectively. Collaboration was encouraged and many students worked in groups often teaming up with students in the other discipline area. This strengthened the project outcomes as students brought different skill sets to the process. Delivering this course across all four disciplines is a consideration in future. The next section details the course delivery and examples of the student work.


Teaching and Learning

As many of the students were unfamiliar with the concept of Sustainability let alone Sustainable Design, the first weeks were focused on immersion into the subject matter. This in some cases was a bit overwhelming. However this challenge spurred many students on to deeply engage with the research process, which in turn informed their design process. This encouraged reflection not only on practice but also the larger impact design can have on the world.


The solutions took on many forms, some suggesting future scenarios, such as "Swinburne Green Travel Plan" while others focused on the here and now with practical resources for graphic designers, " RED, Raw Eco Design". The student projects are grouped by themes. The next section presents these themes, environmental impact, economic impact, socio-cultural impact and future scenarios.


Environmental Impacts

A sustainable approach to the use of materials and methods of production is appropriate to all design disciplines, including communication design. Considering the life cycle of materials is relevant to communication design materials, papers, packaging, printing and inks. This was an important point to emphasise as this is often where graphic designers in practice could make an immediate impact by specifying recycled papers, non toxic inks and working with sustainable printers. In Australia, where water shortages are a concern, the amount of water used within the commercial printing process is also a consideration.


The “Green Graphix” project focused on this aspect of educating graphic design practitioners about green-friendly papers, inks and production methods. Featured in Figure 1, is the website which is an information resource for sustainable production.



Figure 1, Green Graphix Website, Students: En-chia, Chiao and Benvinda dos Santos


Figure 2 features a promotional movie clip for the initiative, highlighting the problems with toxic inks and how they can pollute our waterways.

Figure 2, Green Graphix Movie Clip, Students: En-chia, Chiao and Benvinda dos Santos


The next step was to put “Green Graphix” into practice by making their promotional materials sustainable. Avoiding paper and printing, the campaign takes an ambient media approach, using push pins on a bulletin board to deliver the sustainable message. This approach resonated with the intended audience, design students, and could be easily reproduced in design school studio spaces.



Figure 3, Green Graphix Promotion, Students: En-chia, Chiao and Benvinda dos Santos






Economic impact

The “RED, Raw Eco Design” project also created an online practical resource for graphic designers, see Figure 4. This project focused on creating easy to use tools designers could put into practice, as well as emphasising the client’s role in sustainability. This was an important point that came out of the “RED” team’s research. Through interviews with graphic designers, they found the biggest barrier to using sustainable production methods on projects was getting the client’s approval. Unfortunately at this point in time, specifying sustainable methods can be more expensive and this was a difficult point to sell to clients. The team created resources to help educate clients about sustainability and how it could be save costs in the long run.



Figure 4, Red website, Students: Rebecca Taylor, Gavin Mandrelle, Lysha Moniz



Figure 5, Red Eco Checklist, Students: Rebecca Taylor, Gavin Mandrelle, Lysha Moniz





Socio-cultural Impact

Some students chose to explore the socio-cultural aspect of sustainable design, by investigating the context of culture within design. This topic was most appropriate in the context of a Melbourne, a multicultural city and our Master's group, comprised of students from different countries and cultural backgrounds. Students came from various countries, predominantly from the Asia Pacific, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietman, China as well as India and Brazil. Students from Australia also came from diverse backgrounds, with my own American nationality adding another to the mix.


The multicultural nature of the classroom inspired interesting research into the barriers and benefits of designers from different cultures working together. The “xcdesign” project proposes an online design community that promotes cross-cultural design.

Figure 6, xcdesign, Students: Mei Hua, Lei  and Yen Teng, Choo




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