How can we design a sustainability curriculum?

Most design programs recognize the importance of sustainable design, and many offer one or two courses that address specific social and environmental issues or sustainable design in general. A few design programs offer a full range of curriculum in sustainable design, allowing students to earn certificates and degrees – these are specialized and rare. Most design programs have single projects within a semester-long course that start to address sustainability issues in design.

This one-off approach has clear limitations. Sustainability needs to be integrated as a critical lens in design, not to be considered as an extra-curricular concern, or as an elective. In fact, sustainable design should be synonymous with good design. As the tenets of sustainability become more blended with standard design education, there is great value in modeling a core sustainability curriculum to provide the essential foundation and context for this work.

The core sustainability curriculum is best designed by fully integrating sustainability into thinking, doing, and applying:

  • How to think: systems/design/critical thinking
  • How to do: skills (methods, materials, research)
  • How to apply: experiential learning

The purpose of design education is to graduate skillful designers with a fundamental understanding of sustainability principles, in theory and in application, capable of working in multidisciplinary teams, and aware of the context and systems, which design addresses. This may be accomplished by evolving a curriculum, which focuses on design and sustainability in the context of systems literacy, skills, and experiential learning.


Sustainability Trio

From thinking to craft

In an effort to fully integrate sustainability into the DNA of a design program, consider restructuring course sequencing to accommodate coursework in thinking, doing, and applying each term. These must be taught in a cross-disciplinary and collaborative way:

(Thinking) Design-relevant thinking: theory, history, math, science, literature
(Doing) Trans-disciplinary: studio, applied projects
(Applying) Skills: discipline-specific craft-based activities

I’ll show you my footprint, if you show me yours

Engage on-campus projects as “Learning Laboratories”

Measuring a design department’s carbon footprint or working out a campus building’s Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can convert a seemingly dry activity into a local and relevant design project. This project provides students with the opportunity to apply discipline-specific design thinking and to internalize sustainability on a personal level.

Trans-disciplinary thinking is systems thinking

Encourage cross-campus and cross-discipline collaborations between biologists, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, engineers, and designers. These well-rounded relationships naturally support a strong systems thinking component in the curriculum.

Hand off the torch

Teach students to learn and to lead

As educators, we are responsible for inspiring autodidacticism, encouraging our students to learn and think independently. Curriculum should structure projects outside the classroom so that students can learn to lead, co-generate, and collaborate.


Choose a new theme each term or year to explore

Take a multi-semester or term approach to sustainable design using themes for each new term or year. Themes could include food systems, renewable energy, reclamation, health care, and transportation. Each semester or term would require coursework in thinking, doing, and applying relevant to the selected theme.


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