How can we update existing design programs?

Curriculum is the structure and framework for an educational program. Traditionally, design programs utilize a curriculum that includes core (foundational) courses and more specialized or design/medium-specific courses. Over time, many programs adjust course curriculum in response to industry needs, new technology, or new design paradigms. Sometimes this means creating a new course or even a sister program, but sometimes change occurs slowly and in small increments through established curriculum.

Long-standing or founding department members often feel frustration when negotiating changes in curriculum. Many feel that teaching techniques and subject material have worked well over the years, and question why change might be needed. In terms of integrating sustainability into curricula, some faculty may believe that integrating economic and social responsibility will “water down” design curriculum. There is even greater fear that personal understanding or expertise in sustainability issues is weak. Addressing issues around environmental, social, cultural, and economic sustainability continues to be considered an “optional” consideration.

Sustainability and core design education (history, theory, practice) are not mutually exclusive. In fact, integrating sustainability in design curriculum should be a natural expansion because design thinking and sustainability thinking share the same perspectives:

  • Experienced based models
  • Systems thinking
  • Students as initiators
  • Open source perspectives
  • Collaborative methods
  • Measurable outcomes
  • Incentive-based goals
  • Interdisciplinary perspectives


Respect your department’s culture

Work within department tradition to restructure and to rethink

Respect the work that preceded you. Sensitivity to the past will provide a deeper understanding of your department’s history, and give insight into its current biases. Keep your intentions transparent and your conversations open so that you may empathize with concerns from others, and gain the most support possible.

Save the world, kill your program

Build for evolution, not perfection

Look ahead to see how you can best integrate sustainability into your program, knowing that design thinking has changed and will change again. Be mindful with processes so that those teaching in the future can avail of a flexible and emergent structure to build new approaches to future design and sustainability challenges.

Interdisciplinary and multi-generational

Build a diverse framework

When faculty feels they lack knowledge or expertise in areas outside of traditional design, an interdisciplinary or multi-generational arrangement can enable learning and comfort in teaching and sharing new territories with students. Additionally, encouraging many stakeholders to participate democratically can uncover innovative ideas that may not surface when teaching in a discipline-specific tunnel.

1 degree of change

It’s not really that different than what you already have

Changes needed to fully integrate sustainability into the DNA of a course or program are often just 1 degree from the existing curriculum. For instance, the sustainability version of “real-world experience” model may just be as simple as creating new partnerships with non-profits, social/environmental justice groups, and community service groups.

Strength in numbers

Tap into the student change agents

When making changes to legacy curriculum and in building new programs, collaborate and co-generate with students. Students possess power and influence in academic institutions. Empower them! Invite students to planning meetings, engage them in research, and ask for their help in executing curricular changes.

Think big, think small

Insist on scalable models

Design curriculum so that faculty may teach anything between a sustainable design exercise to a full blown sustainability focused course. Not only does this support academic freedom, but also it enables faculty to choose their level of comfort and to become stronger stakeholders.


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