How can we continue to move design education forward?

The next generation of designers will require a deeper personal, social, and cultural connection to their work. Design education will need to structure opportunities for students to develop deep, first-hand experience, engage empathetically, and cultivate broad understanding.

In order to integrate sustainability into our current educational programs, we need to empower students to initiate, direct, and become stakeholders in real-world design challenges. Design education is shifting from traditional pedagogical structures, where a professor prepared assignments for students to illuminate and reinforce aspects of the course curriculum. Historically, students would solve these faculty-generated “design problems” in a manner that fulfilled a series of prescribed and predetermined learning outcomes. While this approach may still have value in some areas of the curriculum, faculty are looking for more ways to engage students deeply in the underlying content and to connect them to the broader context of design decisions.

As we meet curriculum needs, we must also embrace networks for knowledge-sharing, open-access, and collaborative processes. The future of design education requires that students learn within multi-disciplinary and experiential frameworks, act collaboratively, and think broadly, deeply, and critically. Sustainability is a natural characteristic of this systems approach.


Design thinking rather than design

Reject the “what?” and ask “why?”

Design is an active process, not a conclusion. Design can provide innovative and enabling alternatives, not just the creation of artifacts. Create a learning environment where thinking-through is celebrated over looking-at. Tackle questions regarding how we should ultimately live, rather than how we can merely alter our present way of living. Highlight the relationship of the designer to the ideal behavioral outcomes of products, rather than the products themselves. Stress the value of synthesizing new ideas on the fly, and support safety in experimentation. Encourage strategic thinking in design, where the designer’s responsibility goes beyond form and function, to value and viability.

Change Agents

Transform companies, industries, economies through leadership training

Individual products or services, no matter how sustainably designed, will still make only limited impact in efforts to stop global climate change. We must transform entire companies, industries, and economies. Contrary to the typical design program output of a portfolio of aesthetic excellence, the greatest measure of success in a sustainable design program is the number of change agents produced – the number of people who go on to not just understand sustainability but to act on it, incorporating it into everything they design. Change agents do not just act individually, but enliven others and create a cascade that ripples out from small numbers of graduates to large numbers of projects, companies, and industries.

Design in context

Create design challenges in context.

Not only should students engage with the people involved in real-world design challenges, but they should recast themselves as stakeholders too, not outside agents. Learning within context provides opportunities for asking questions, thinking with a systems perspective, and embracing other disciplines as part of the design experience. It promotes the idea of muscular design, possessing the power to affect all aspects of our planet and our society.

Reverse-engineer traditional hierarchies

Partner and mentor with nontraditional arrangements

Working together, students and educators can evolve passive instruction models into active discovery processes of learning. Multiple voices can contribute feedback, surfacing gaps and opportunities, and ultimately resulting in a shared language to reinforce the depth and texture of sustainable thinking. Switch mentoring roles, engage real-world perspectives, and encourage students to seek out new relationships to authorship, authority, and assessment. When students have dynamic and relevant roles, they embrace responsibility, self-initiation, and a bottom-up culture.

Teach soft-skills

The world of design is changing

Students must become self-learners, self-starters, facilitators, and motivators for sustainable change. Provide opportunities for students to practice and embrace these roles through facilitation of collaborative projects, creation of a studio-culture, exposure to student-initiated projects on other campuses, and support of projects outside the standard curriculum.

Tell stories

Students can create meaning and find work meaningful

Facilitate moments that enable students to form narratives and storytelling experiences. Narratives provide a pause whereby students can contemplate meaning, form their opinions, and then express themselves in a manner that connects to the listener. Additionally, students should practice expressing themselves in non-visual language. As design becomes more artifact-agnostic, persuasive speaking and appropriate language will become increasingly important.


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