Teaching Systems Thinking Helps Create More Sustainable Designers

by Eric Benson on Tuesday, December 20, 2011 in Features

As I’ve written before about teaching sustainability in manageable chunks, I took the opportunity this fall 2011 semester to continue to perfect this pedagogy. I allow the students to only focus on one component of the larger sustainability issue (in this case amount of material) and avoid extra complexities initially. This, I find, allows the students to more quickly grasp key principles of designing more responsibly. As the semester unfolds, extra variables are added to the projects (ink, LCA, vendors, etc.) that increase the student vocabulary and methodologies associated with sustainable design.

In this rendition of my greener packaging project I again designated the material (paperboard only) and kept the focus on rightsizing overpackaged headphones and toys. However, as an experiment I also added the concept of systems thinking through a discussion about shipping and printing processes.

Through the Project Calculator I demonstrated to the students that their packaging templates will fit on a larger press sheet when printed, and therefore should be designed to maximize space and minimize waste. Moreover, all of the individual packages are shipped in a larger container, and should be designed to increase the amount of products able to fit in a standard box. Rounded shapes and oddly sized packages do not stack well in shipping boxes (think Tetris) and that creates problems for retailers as more cost is needed to ship the extra boxes.

This systems thinking approach to design helped the students effectively minimize the paperboard needed and also importantly guided the students through a sustainable design process backwards from the press sheet and shipping container forward. This systems thinking approach was also effective in allowing the students to learn about recycling and the need for less ink coverage to increase recyclability.

Despite my original hypothesis that the smallest chunks of sustainable parameters are best, systems thinking seems to be important from the beginning to reveal the larger issues surrounding packaging and consumption. This is a strategy I plan to use in future projects and post here on Re-nourish.

Below are two successful results that embraced the challenges of the project effectively (including minimizing paperboard and ink and maximizing the press sheet and amount of products stacking a shipping box):
Maria Ludeke (Graphic Design Junior)

Sanny Lin (Graphic Design Junior)

Originally published on Re-Nourish