How can we measure success?

Metrics to measure sustainability range from lifecycle analysis and gross national happiness, to carbon footprints and lifecycle costing. There are over 400 eco-labels in circulation that range from the architectural and product mainstays of LEED and Cradle-to-Cradle, to food certifications like Dolphin-safe and Certified Biodynamic. It would be fruitless to presume that there was a universally relevant metric for design programs to institute. And if there were, it would be near to impossible to select and administer.

Instead we are championing the integration of tight feedback loops for self-reflection and evaluation as a critical part of design. We advocate that measurement is integrated into the process, not used as an external evaluator.

This is a current and lively topic because traditional design education programs do not typically measure sustainability as part of student project evaluation. When it is considered, the impact of the resulting materials and/or made-objects is the focus of measurement. Additionally, surface-thinking measurement such as “amount of paper used” is often the depth of the evaluation, and often times attention is not given to why we need this artifact in the first place, or what the short- and long-term environmental, economic, cultural, and social impacts of the project are.

In an effort to fully integrate sustainability into design education, measuring both the final outcome (product, service, artifact) and the design process is integral. Since the decisions made early in the design process have a greater impact than those made later, design educators must integrate tools of analysis into what they teach. Students should utilize metrics as a valuable feedback tool throughout the process, rather than solely a number to target at the end of a project.



Keeping it real

Because sustainability measurements only have meaning when comparing particular products, services, artifacts against comparable others at a certain time, benchmarking is crucial for gauging success or failure, and for establishing priorities for problem-solving.

Holistic, rather than incremental thinking

Investigate upstream and downstream. If a project uses materials that have a lower negative impact than most, but the transportation costs to import the materials have a high CO2 impact, then the higher priority would be to reduce the CO2 footprint. Similarly, students should not assume that a material sourced from a greater geographical distance is necessarily negative. This is an area of investigation, not a hard and fast set of rules.

After shock

Measurements that push “beyond today” thinking

Aim not just to minimize negative impact, but instead to create positive outcomes. Less bad is not enough. By measuring a project’s ability to create positive ripples throughout the rest of the system, students can find inspiration for nuanced and innovative design.

Measuring is creative

Measuring can offer design opportunities

Measuring quantitative and qualitative data can lead to design explorations in data visualizations, interactive, and real-time measuring displays, and 3-dimensional objects that transform complex data into understandable narratives. Strive to present measurements with appropriate interfaces, design, or storytelling, in an appropriate context and at an appropriate time.

Interdisciplinary Forays

Ask not what your discipline can do for you…

Require students to take classes that expose them to other disciplines, the outside community, perhaps even companies and/or other educational institutions that represent different expertise. The goal is not for the student to master the other discipline’s material (as a practitioner of that discipline would). Instead, evaluate these interdisciplinary forays by observing how the student applies that discipline’s knowledge to their own design work in their core classes, and shares that information and insight within their community.


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