Get a Life, Get a Career


About midway through the double-zero decade I decided that I needed to enhance my skills and move in a direction that would give me a possible edge over other designers and creative directors. What I got was a life AND career changing experience.

The MCAD Sustainable Design Program isn’t just for people who want to save the planet, it’s for people who want to save their careers. Every company, every client is looking for ways to increase efficiency, reduce waste, and to boost marketing opportunities – all of which are inherent to sustainable design principles and methodologies.

Thinking that sustainable design would be in line with current trends as well as my personal values, I began to explore options. Unfortunately there were few programs available, and those were either specialized in architectural or interior design, or programs outside of the United States. Then a friend told me about a new on-line Sustainable Design Program at MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art and Design). Full disclosure: I was highly skeptical of on-line education.  Certainly it would be easy to procrastinate (a problem most creative people battle). And surely, without having to meet instructors and classmates face-to-face, our work would not be held to the highest standard, or it would be easier to slack off and slide by. I also thought it would just be about choosing paper and inks. Wrong. Wrong….and uh, really wrong. In addition to this, because of the on-line format, I shared classes with professional designers and artists (of all mediums) as well as business leaders and environmentalists from all over the world – each bringing a unique perspective.

From the very first class (Elements of Sustainability: A Foundation), the program was everything I didn’t think it could be. It was robust, fast-paced, challenging, and broad. Not only were environmental, social, and design issues taught and discussed; more importantly we had to look deep into our own value systems and ethics, and how to live and work true to them. Trust me, this is easier said than done – especially for designers who love the latest fashions, gadgets, and “stuff” in general. We are masters at motivating through clever headlines and imagery (polar bear on an iceberg anyone?), but how willing are we to walk our talk? To paraphrase Wendy Jedlicka (one of the awesome MCAD Sustainable Design Program instructors), “be careful when pointing a finger as there are still three fingers pointing back at you.”


Knowledge is Bliss

While all classes are fascinating, relevant and enlightening, there were a few that had a profound and/or unexpected impact on me as a person and a designer. The first being Systems Thinking taught by Curt McNamara (a 15-week course offered at MCAD this fall). Without a doubt, this classes changed the way I live and work. I can no longer make a decision without thinking about systems and interconnectivity and how my choices affect social and natural patterns far beyond my immediate realm for years, even decades before and after. I now understand that I own my decisions and all their consequences – cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-cradle. Ahhh, but it was so much easier not to worry about such things and go straight for the “cool” factor! It’s true that ignorance is bliss…but in the case of sustainability, ignorance could lead to our blissful demise.

Another serendipitous class was International Strategies for Product Policy taught by Garth Hickle which, per course description, “examines the history and rationale for emerging public policy frameworks promoting design for the environment, product stewardship, environmentally preferable purchasing and other strategies embracing product policy.” It was a left brain workout for sure, but I gained a new appreciation for the challenges of policy makers, manufacturers and activists, and design’s role within that system. Other impressive classes were Permaculture and Design (a 5-week course offered at MCAD this summer taught by Dan Halsey), Ethics-based Marketing, Design for Community (a 15-week course offered at MCAD this fall taught by Krista Leraas), Innovation Tools and Techniques and Life Cycles taught by Arlene Birt based in Belgium. It’s not fair, really, to name just these few, as every class in the program is provocative and powerful, and some are more relevant to one’s particular objectives than others. I recommend them all – even those I haven’t yet taken (I plan to continue taking classes even though I’ve graduated!)

I entered MCAD’s Sustainable Design Program simply hoping to enhance my professional capabilities, but came out of the program with an entirely new way of thinking. I can no longer design without considering the impact of my decisions to the entire system.

The key point I wish to make is that MCAD’s Sustainable Design Program will make you see your role as a designer differently. It teaches us that sustainability is as much a design problem as it is an opportunity. Everything is designed – therefore design and creativity are pivotal to change. Design is power, and with that power comes responsibility. We, as designers, have the awesome responsibility to redesign our world to be equitable and enduring. This will not come from greenwashing, or pretty pictures and shocking messages. This will come from a better understanding of the true issues and a deeper connection to natural patterns, and a holistic and systemic approach to design. It will come from the values we possess and the examples we set. And it starts with knowledge.

Images are courtesy of Rita Penrod (examples of her student work while in MCAD’s Sustainable Design Program).