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Sustainability as an Enhancement Theme for the 21st Century Design Graduate


This case study outlines the pedagogic approach to projects based on Sustainability and Design that have been delivered to students within Graphic Design, Illustration and Design Studies (Product Design & Interactive Media Design) at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee, from 2007 to 2009.

The projects have been delivered through briefs set to students which encourage them to examine their role as a designer in the 21st century, at the same time promoting social responsibility and good citizenship as enhancement themes for the design graduate.

The case study provides a profile of teaching and learning activity which demonstrates the successes and failures of teaching Sustainability through design briefs, and questions whether this is the most effective way of creating the awareness of these contemporary issues for students, at the same time asking whether this is what the student wants.  I will also demonstrate how it is possible for theory and practice to work together to support the student’s learning experience and understand the relevance of theory as an important part of their practice, an important objective for all design disciplines.

As a result of initiatives, there was evidence of a growing interest in Sustainability by students from all design disciplines. This led me to establish a Sustainability Forum to provide a platform in which students from all disciplines could meet and debate the subject in an informal environment, outwith the University.

Author information:  Jacqueline Malcolm is Lecturer in the School of Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, University of Dundee

Date: October 2009

Download PDF: Sustainability as an Enhancement Theme for the 21st Century Design Graduate


Sustainability is a word that has become part of our language as a result of cultural and environmental issues that are affecting the future existence of our environment.

So the following questions need to be asked:

• What does sustainability have to do with design?

• Can designers make effective change?

• What do design students want?

• How do we embrace sustainability within the teaching and learning curricula?

• What is the future vision for design?

If we understand that design surrounds us, is everywhere, and as a result, it has contributed to the consumer culture that now exists, we can begin to understand the impact design can have if we rethink design in the face of sustainability.

It is important for teaching and learning activity to enhance the student experience and promote social responsibility and good citizenship through design mindfulness. We need firstly to create an awareness of the contemporary issues that effect design and communicate changes the design graduate can offer the economic environment through his/her design thinking when faced with the challenges of design practice, within the creative industries, that can have adverse affects on our environment.  Through design briefs, workshops and critical debate, we can allow the students to deepen their knowledge of such issues and encourage them to apply sustainable and ethical thinking to their design process.  The students who have been involved in our activity so far are from three design disciplines: Graphic Design, Illustration and Design Studies.

Design Studies is an interdisciplinary programme which consists of Product Designers and Interactive Media Designers in year 1 of a 4 year undergraduate degree programme. The programme is delivered one day a week in Semesters 1 and 2 and consists of a practice-based component and a theory component. Most of the students have come to us directly from school so there is a large transition for them in the first semester. They consist of a mix of mostly British students and a few international students, some of whom are more mature in age. Student numbers vary on this course from between 35 to 55 students, all taught within one studio location.

Graphic Design students however are in their second year.  Half have completed a foundation year and half have completed a further education course in a Graphic Design-related subject. Numbers are approximately 25-32. The modules deliver a fusion of contemporary graphic design skills and values, which introduce them to the discipline and related design issues.

Illustration students are similar to Graphic design students, in that they come from a mix of education backgrounds, and student numbers are also similar. The projects delivered, however, are part of a programme called ‘What is Visual Communication’, and consist of a series of lectures and project briefs which introduce students to contemporary design issues.

The following projects describe the various Sustainability -related activities design students have taken part in over the last three years. I did not set out to take the subject to such depths, but through the initial project, and my own research, it became evident there was a need for the subject to be developed as part of the curricula within design, as an enhancement theme for the design graduate in the 21st century.  This was not a remit I was given, but rather an interest that highlighted the need for design students to enhance their understanding of cultural and global issues in relation to sustainability and ethics, which would ultimately allow them to become socially responsible to the issues affecting design within our environment.

Description of Activity

In March 2007 a project was set to 36 Level 1 Design Studies students. The brief asked the students to research either an environmental or recycling issue and design a campaign for or against the issue. They were asked to agree or disagree with the issue and consider the target market they wanted to communicate with.

The aims of this project were to create an awareness of cultural issues in relation to sustainability through visual literacy and design thinking, applying aesthetic values to a campaign of posters which would highlight their chosen issue to a defined target audience.  The students worked in teams on this project and an exhibition was created to display the results.

As a result of this initiative a new Sustainability project was set for the same programme in March 2008. This time 55 students participated in a brief which examined the language of sustainability and design. The students were asked to:

Research the terms ‘Carbon Footprint’ and ‘Sustainability’. Make sure you are clear about their meaning.           

Part 1
Observe your Carbon Footprint over 24 hours. Visualise your footprint using the materials you feel best interprets and communicates this effectively. What is the impact of your carbon footprint? How does that compare to those in your team and once all put together what does the carbon footprint of the team begin to look like?
Part 2
Create a piece of communication which makes a statement about sustainability that you feel passionately about. Where will this message appear and who is your specified audience?  Your solution can be typographic or image-led or a combination or both. Ask yourselves, ‘What do we want to say?’ and ‘Who do we want to say it to’. Then ask ‘What is the best medium to communicate your message?’.
Part 3
Using a storyboarding technique visualise your design process for parts 1 & 2

The aims of this project were to allow the students to research the language of sustainability through a team activity and deepen their understanding of design through the articulation of the subject matter as items of visual communication. This also allowed the students to develop their design process and apply design mindfulness to their practice.  A variation of this brief was delivered to Level 2 Illustration students (28) however they did not work in teams but as individuals and the brief was amended accordingly.  The same project was then given to Level 2 Graphic Design students (25) as an Easter project. They were asked to present the results in a critique and had no tutor feedback throughout the project process.

Design Studies 2008/09

Due to previous projects and a recognition that environmental and cultural issues are important issues for the designer, the Module Descriptors for the Design Studies programme for 2008/09 were amended to incorporate these issues:

Module: DZ11001 Visual Expression 1a – Semester 1

Aims of Module:

• To develop an understanding of the design process

• To develop the ability to identify and articulate design issues and design values

• To promote in students an appreciation of the relevance of visual literacy in the design process and to develop an enthusiasm for visual expression

• To stimulate visual thinking and develop techniques through drawing, sketching and visualizing

• To identify and articulate cultural issues

Module: DZ12001 Visual Expression 1b – Semester 2

Aims of Module:

• To deepen the understanding of the design process

• To develop the drawing ability of students to allow them to express their ideas more effectively

• To explore the roles of typography and storyboarding in design

• To develop the ability to create artefacts that communicate predefined aesthetic values

• To develop an understanding of the importance of drawing as a medium for the expression of ideas

• To develop an understanding of sustainability in relation to design

These values now underpin all projects delivered to the Design Studies students and are team projects, due to the value of interdisciplinary activity. The modules consist of two components, theory and practice, which are very much integrated into the project brief.

To enhance the students’ learning experience I established links with Dundee City Council to deliver a brief in November 2008, which gave a local focus to a project.  Dundee was the first Fair Trade City in Scotland and is also a Solar Sun City due to its location. It was therefore essential that the students researched environmental issues from a local perspective.

Design Studies Level 1 students (36) were required to design an artefact which would communicate the identity of Dundee and its relationship with water, past and present, to a) the visitor, and b) the local community. The artefact was to be situated at the Waterfront in Dundee, an area currently under redevelopment. Dundee City Council gave a presentation to the students on the proposed Waterfront development and then participated in student presentations giving constructive feedback to the groups. The resulting artefacts took into consideration sustainability in their design and execution.

Although this project was not labelled a sustainability project, the students were required to consider environmental issues in relation to their design solution, the location and the materials to be used.  The project aims were to promote a sense of social responsibility through research and design; an appreciation of the value of team work; the understanding of the designer as a good citizen who could contribute to their local environment; the articulation of cultural issues to a defined audience as part of the design process.

In semester 2 the module DZ12001 promoted ‘Upcycling’, as named by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle, through the following design brief:

Upcycled Characters

A technical nutrient is a material or product that is designed to go back into the technical cycle, into the industrial metabolism from which it came. The average television we analysed, for example, was made of 4,360 chemicals. Some of them are toxic, but others are valuable nutrients for industry that are wasted when the television ends up in a landfill. Isolating them from biological nutrients allows them to be upcycled rather than recycled - to retain their high quality in a closed-loop industrial cycle. Thus a sturdy plastic computer case - or as some other high quality product, like a car part or a medical device - instead of being downcycled into soundproof barriers and flowerpots.  

W. McDonough & M. Braungart.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things.

North Point Press, 2002


We now live in a world where recycling is part of our everyday life. Some individuals do it better than others and some local governments are much more adept at it than others. Due to our consumerist society we are not good at having items repaired, rather our tendency is to throw the kettle or toaster out and buy a new one.  This habit of renewing items has influenced the designer and how we make our products. Can the kettle therefore be taken apart and can the separate items which make up the product be reused in some way?  Has it been designed with this in mind?

In Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart talk about the remaking of products and how we can design technical products to be recycled or ‘upcycled’. They call it ‘industrial food’.

McDonough’s ideas open up a new philosophy for the designer and help us to focus on the relevant issues we face in today’s marketplace.


Character development is an important part of any narrative and sets the scene for any visualisation of a story. Using the materials you have collected or taken apart, you are required to create innovative characters which will allow you to develop a narrative stimulated by your characters. The quality of your characters should be very high - taking an upcycled approach to them. At least 3 characters should be produced.

Consider how your characters might interact with each other, what their environment might be, what they might eat, mannerisms etc. You will use these characters to develop ideas for stories. In other words your story making will be character led and these stories will help you to develop your imaginative skills. As you work make up a story about your creature.

As your imagery develops, you will simultaneously develop stories around the images. Sometimes the story making will be leading the process, at other times the character development will be leading the process. You should discuss this with the team you are working with. The story should capture the essence of your creature’s character and justify its appearance. If your creature has a long neck try to think about why that is the case. Is it because it must reach leaves on the trees to eat? If your creature has large eyes, is this because it lives in a dark cave where it sups on the flesh of the near dead?

Day 1 of this project consisted of a workshop delivered by Duncan Oswald, an environmental consultant, who demonstrated how today’s objects were not designed to be taken apart and reused. The students all brought something to the workshop, which was then dismantled as far as possible and used to make their characters. Duncan Oswald was provided by Envirowise, a government organisation, who funded his contribution.


This project aimed to:

• develop an understanding of sustainability and recycling or ‘upcycling’
• develop an ability to visualise using ‘industrial nutrients’
• develop an understanding of sustainability issues as part of the design process

The same design students were then given a more specified design brief that examined the culture of consumerism and food in supermarkets.


Supermarket Layout

You are required to research supermarket layouts both in store and online. Make observations about the products that are brought to the fore and the products kept in the background. Are there any instances of the own-brand products being emphasised rather than the existing leading brands? Consider the philosophy of the marketing objective.

Look at different supermarkets. Do they all have a similar layout? Record your findings. Do you find a similar scenario online or is it more random? How do they navigate you through the system? Is it effective/ineffective and why?

Do you agree with the way items have been arranged and promoted or do you think there is a more effective way of doing this? Do you consider what you observe to be ethical?

Consider now sustainability as a principle/ethic which could have an effect on how supermarket layouts are designed and the consumer controlled. How would you redesign it? What would be the priorities for your philosophy? Consider the Slow Food focus, ie locally grown produce, and farmers markets. Could an integration of these foods affect the layout of your supermarket? Where would you position items you feel should be promoted? What are the products you feel should be given more focus?

This project aimed to encourage the student to:

• Develop an understanding of the culture of consumerism and marketing

• Develop an understanding of sustainability in relation to food and supermarkets

• Develop an understanding of the role of ethics and the designer
• Develop an ability to communicate ethical and sustainable values as part of the design process

A key component of this project was that lectures by visiting lecturers were integrated with the studio element. Steve Brogan, a Phd student, presented a lecture on ‘Food Systems’ and Chris Schnaars, a Masters student, presented a lecture ‘Design Ethnography and Supermarkets’.  The theory aspect was also inventive through a ‘Reader’, consisting of chapter extracts from books relating to the subject matter. Students were then asked to write an essay that related to their ‘Reader’ and the design process of their project.

Graphic Design & Illustration 2008/09

For session 2008/09 projects were delivered to Level 2 Graphic Design (28 students) & Illustration (35 students).  Graphic Design students were asked to design the marketing material for a conference promoting Sustainability to the professional designer. The aim of this project was to promote sustainability as an important part of the designers’ role within society. It also established the subject firmly within the discipline as a topic important to the future of graphic design activity. This led to a variety of debates as to whether project briefs were a viable way to promote sustainability to the design student.

Graphic Designers were then presented with a brief that promoted the environment through the conservation of selected endangered animals. An in-depth research methodology was required for this project, which promoted a strict typographic approach, through the production of a broadsheet in which they were required to communicate the results of their research in part 1 of the project.

Part 2 required the students to create a 3-dimensional piece of typography that promoted an environmental aspect of their animal.  This project was not presented as a sustainability project; however, due to the nature of the subject matter it was seen by the students to be a brief focussing on global issues.  


At the end of this project the Graphic Design students were given a lecture on Biomimicry by David Sanchez, a visiting postgraduate student from Mexico. The students were put into groups of three and presented with a brief which asked them to create an artefact using Biomimicry as the influence for their design.  The resulting outcomes varied from typefaces to solar panel tulips, an example of cross-disciplinary design, ie, the graphic designer becomes a product designer. It is interesting that given the freedom, designers do not always remain within their discipline.

Illustration students were briefed on a project which asked them to research the T-shirt as an item of communication.  They were then asked to create their own message, based on an ethical / sustainability issue and communicate it on their own T-shirt.

Sustainability Forum

What became evident through these projects was a desire by students to deepen their understanding of Sustainability, however many students on other programmes did not have access to the subject through projects, but were interested to learn more in relation to their own discipline.  A ‘Sustainability Forum’ was therefore established to provide a platform in which students could network and discuss the issues of interest and relevance. The first Forum took place in May 2008 with 13 students attending from Textile Design, Graphic Design, Jewellery & Silversmithing and Product Design. It was a simple evening focussing on the discussion of the topic and how it might affect the role of the designer, and supported the need for a venture of this nature.

The second Forum took place on 30th October 2008, in Dundee Contemporary Arts, where fair trade wine and cheese was on offer. 16 students were in attendance from Graphic Design, Product Design, Jewellery & Silversmithing, Textiles, Interior Design, Illustration and Life Sciences. After a short presentation, a very healthy debate took place and due to the mix of students, various subjects were discussed and debated at length.  The really exciting aspect of the Forum was the involvement of a life sciences student. He brought another dimension to the group which broadened the subject base debated. This highlighted the fact that the forum now needed a wider focus.

Our last Forum took place in March 2009 and was student-led.  It took the form of a mini conference and consisted of seven small presentations by students on what sustainability meant to them. The presentations were: Graphic Design student Struan (level 2) commented on Apple, relating to his laptop; Product Design student Grant (level 1) presented ‘Going beyond the physical’; Product Design student Stephanie (level 3) presented ‘The lifecycle of a product’; Masters student Chris commented on ‘Food Cycles’; Product Design team Unbox (level 3) commented on ‘The Language of Sustainability’; and lastly Product Design student Paddy (level 3) presented his view of Biomimicry.

The evening saw 29 students in attendance from all disciplines within the art faculty including Fine Art and 5 members of staff.


For the purpose of this case study I have concentrated on the Design Studies programme as it has gone through an evolution that has seen sustainability, as an enhancement theme, become thoroughly embedded as part of the curriculum.

The Graphic Design programme has embraced the subject matter; however, it has yet to become an integrated part of the module descriptors.  Illustration has been the most difficult to establish as the students did not engage with the subject matter in the same way. A few individuals were excited by the subject but did not see the benefits of more in depth knowledge as part of their design process. It was seen more as a social enhancement rather than a design enhancement.  The important thing to note is that where interdisciplinarity can be achieved, a more thorough design process is evident.

A survey was given to Design Studies students (36) and Graphic Design students (28) which asked for feedback on their experience of Sustainability as part of their learning experience.  25 responses were received from Design Studies and 19 responses were received from Graphic Design students.

Most of the feedback was very positive:

Design Studies:

‘I liked the fact that we were the first students to attempt the Supermarket project. A lot of freedom with this brief, a lot to be considered. Really made me think about a totally new way of shopping.’

‘The lectures have greatly increased my understanding of sustainability and I think all new designs should be as sustainable as possible, it’s our responsibility.’

‘I really enjoyed researching the supermarket industry in depth and was really motivated by the lecture series as I found them very inspirational.’

‘I had no idea about sustainability before, just recycling.’

‘In particular it is making students think practically, not just feeding them theory. Also, what is important about the projects is that we had to find complex solutions.’

‘As designers, we are part of the solution and have to be careful about what we design.’

 Under suggestions:

‘It’s all good and well knowing about these problems and how to fix them, but they need to be put into creative practice actively and physically, not theoretically, or students will never fully appreciate the relevance & magnitude of this problem.’

Graphic design:

‘I now look at briefs through the eyes of sustainability.’

‘There was lots of depth to look into. The first one was quite broad (conference) so you could do general research but it is nice that the others were a bit more specific.’

‘I would like to see sustainability thought of in every brief.’

‘I had never even heard of sustainability before and now my project has been blogged online a couple of times.’

'Relating graphic design to sustainability is a challenge.’

‘I feel I now have a deeper understanding of sustainability and related issues.’

‘I realised most of my designs are NOT sustainable and that’s how the industry is working. How do we change it?’

The survey asked whether design briefs were considered to be the most effective way to integrate sustainability into their learning experience and 99% said ‘yes’. Many asked for more workshops and Graphic Design students asked for more group projects.

The survey has highlighted the following important points:

• It has demonstrated the need for sustainability to be an integral part of the design process.

• Interdisciplinary projects should be promoted.

• Live projects can enhance the learning experience particularly where they have a local focus.

• Design education can be the facilitator for change.

• The learning experience is far greater if the project is more specific.

An interesting point to note is that project briefs became more specific due to my deeper understanding of the issues of sustainability in relation to design practice, which has resulted in a far more in-depth project activity for the student.


This case study is a record of my teaching and learning journey, through the promotion of Sustainability. As educators we must remember that we are also learning and we cannot become complacent in our endeavour to promote a vision for the future practice of design. Change will happen and we must help facilitate the transition through ethical and sustainable thinking.

Our design graduates will be the entrepreneurs and visionaries of the future and it is imperative that they understand they can make the changes that are necessary for the sustainability of our existence as a species through design. Real change will not happen through the actions of a few famous individuals, but by the many graduates who go out into our society and make the decisions that are needed to make effective change.  Let us work together to promote a new design philosophy that embraces a new society, in which we are all good citizens, who believe we are socially responsible for the future of our planet through new design thinking and practice.

Further information:

McDonough, W & Braungart, M., Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things, North Point Press (2002)

Harvey, E.,  Change the World for a Fiver.  London: Short Books Ltd (2004)

Walker, S.,  Sustainable by Design: Explorations in Theory and Practice, Earthscan, London (2006)

Steffan, A., World Changing – A user’s guide for the 21st century. Abrams, New York, (2006)

Birkeland, J.,  Design for Sustainability. Earthscan Publications Ltd, London (2002)           

Manzini, E., Design, ethics and sustainability. Politecnico di Milano (2006)

Manzini, E., Enabling solutions. Politecnico di Milano (2005)

Cranmer J. & Zappaterra Y., Conscientious Objectives: Designing for an Ethical Message, Roto Vision (2003)

Chapman, J & Gant, N., Designers, Visionaries and other stories. Earthscan, London (2007)


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