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Aspiring to Improve the World by Crafting a Career in Sustainable Design, Part 1

Image credit: Stefanie Koehler

A New Way of Thinking

We all know the plight of the typical industrial designer: make (more) stuff; repeat. But with the nexus of vast technical abilities and support systems to deliver ideas, where does responsibility and "design sensitivity" come into play? How will we be able to design with an understanding that every design decision is connected in some way to everything else (either directly or indirectly) and will inevitably have a social and environmental impact (intended or not)? Is it even our responsibility as designers to think about the impact of our designs? Do we need to worry about what happens up or downstream of our products, or is that someone else's job?

Where I Was

In 2009, armed with a traditional industrial design degree, I entered the workforce and immediately began to struggle with the paradox of wanting to use my newly honed design skills yet feeling like I needed to make crap to get paid. At the time, I did not grasp my role as a young designer, but I did know that continuing to design harmful, and sometimes pointless, products was not going to fulfill me. I decided I did not want to participate in a cycle that turns everything into a consumable or everyone into a consumer.

Following my undergrad, I initially tried to get my foot in the door, only to question why I was trying to get in the door in the first place. I ended up not taking the prescribed path of working for a conventional design firm, taking on freelance projects instead, ranging from corporate product design and branding to gritty consulting for startups and training dogs on the side. I wondered if could I turn my (perceived) inability to get a "real job" into an opportunity to engage in a career path that makes me happy? Luckily, I found that the answer was "yes," and that sustainability-focused design has filled this void for me, both personally and professionally.

Where I Went

As one of the first graduates of the online Master of Arts in Sustainable Design (MASD) from Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), I learned that it is not always easy to understand the impact of front-end product design choices until confronted with the back end of a product's life.

In and after leaving the MA program, I experienced growth personally and professionally once I started actively incorporating sustainability into my work, growth that was catalyzed by the knowledge, skills and understanding of how to use design to address the needs around us. Now I feel relentlessly optimistic about a designer's ability to solve humanity's most pressing global challenges. Although I knew I wanted to rethink the way I made things, the amount of high-quality, freely available information is impressive but overwhelming. With access to thousands of online resources for this quickly emerging field, how could I be confident that this information is what a designer really needed?

During my two years in the MASD program, I had carefully curated experiences that helped me to discover a new way of thinking and designing — from essential frameworks in systems thinking and impact measurement to adaptive leadership (core courses) — while providing opportunities to dive deeply into specific areas of interest (electives, field practicum, thesis research). The 100 percent online platform enabled me to pursue a credible degree while moving around North America (from Michigan to Nebraska to Minnesota to Canada to Oregon), as I worked on projects that have proven useful in landing new clients and educating others.

Increasing awareness, learning to practice new ways of thinking, and embedding these into my daily habits has enabled me to bring a sustainability focus into my design solutions.

How My Thinking Evolved

My thinking has radically changed now that I have integrated a sustainability focus into my work and life. I've gone from...

  • Linear to circular and whole-systems thinking
  • Burden to a tool for innovation
  • Efficiency to effectiveness
  • Changing materials to changing all aspects of the business
  • Consuming less to consuming wisely
  • Confused to equipped in identifying needs
  • Incremental to radical change
  • Hopelessness to pragmatic and relentless optimism
  • Clever design to smart design
  • An eco-groovy trend to a life-enriching career direction

I went on to use design competitions to continue to evolve my thinking and to put sustainability theories into practice. More about this is my next article ...

This is part one of a three-part Core77 miniseries about a young industrial designer's experiences bringing a sustainability focus to her work. Part one first appeared on the Core77 blog on March 3, 2014.


Stefanie is a sustainable design strategist at Biomimicry for Creative Innovation in Portland, OR. Her specialties include systems thinking and sustainable product and service development, synthesizing complex information into understandable visual communication of concepts, and quickly learning while… [Read more about Stefanie Koehler]


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