From Air Force Pilot to Sustainable Entrepreneur

Student Spotlight

Tim Coffin

Tim Coffin, formerly a Military Pilot for Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), is a recent graduate of MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design Program.  Tim lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.


What attracted you to MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design program?

I was at a time in my life where I was seeking further education; I was looking for something meaningful, a program that would not only challenge me, but one that would help guide my actions following completion. I was looking for a program that could give me the knowledge to help realize my dreams to either work for or lead an organization that strives to make a positive impact. Upon finding this program, and after a lot of research, I decided to take a free online Biomimicry course, taught by Cindy Gilbert (the MASD program director at the time). This course and material taught within, really opened my eyes to using nature as a source of information and guidance. This form of positive and inspiring education solidified my desire to sign up for the Master of Arts in Sustainable Design program.


Has anything you’ve learned in the program changed your way of thinking?

The quick answer: the program has changed the way I view every problem and the way I assess every possible solution! My whole outlook on life has changed in varying ways as a result of the teachings in this program. For starters, I now strive to take a systems thinking approach to design, regardless of design type. Taking this holistic approach and looking at the design from different perspectives, has not only allowed me to see how other systems are affected, but often identifies leverage points that were not previously thought of. As someone with entrepreneurial ambitions, these leverage points, or points of intervention often lead to potential business/product ideas to explore further.


Has anything you’ve learned in the program changed what you’d like to do with your career?

Absolutely! I have always strived to work in an environment that would be exciting and fun; that desire has not changed. However, now, even more than ever before – I want to work in a place or to create a business that is guided and structured around helping others and/or the planet. Whether that is to help others realize their sustainability potential, decrease the gap between rich and poor, or to create a business/product that enriches one’s life using sustainable methods, while educating and bringing awareness to sustainability. This new direction has been as a result of various aspects learned from the program.


What has surprised you about the program?

The people: their level of invested interest, constant interaction & feedback, and collaboration. At no time during this program did it feel like a typical university class, where it was professor vs. the students, or vice versa. The format of conveying lesson plans, the material, the feedback, and interaction always felt like teamwork and true collaboration. All classmates, as well as instructors, constantly challenged one another to dig deeper and think bigger with each passing assignment or project, ultimately pushing for more innovative and radical designs.

“We are all capable of making an impact when it comes to sustainability; this program has taught me many ways to achieve this!” ~ Tim Coffin



Is there a class project or assignment that you are really proud of?

Aside from my thesis project (the Capstone Project for the MASD program), I would have to say that it was my final project in the Packaging Sustainability course. Perhaps not a graphical masterpiece, but the process of learning about packaging (an everyday burden), and how it can be improved was exciting. Also, since this was one of my very first courses in the program, I found that it was challenging to not only get into an education/learning mindset, especially being away from an educational environment for so long, but to find a balance between school, career and family. Persevering through this challenge to create a 50+ page Packaging Proposal was very satisfying. Since taking this course, I never look at packaging the same way again.

Proposed new sustainable packaging design for peanut butter. Tim Coffin,  project for Packaging Sustainability Fall 2016


What is the most exciting or inspiring thing you’ve learned in the program so far?

It is hard to narrow this down to just one, but one that continues to stand out for me is the importance and reinforcement of collaboration. All of us taking the program enter with different strengths, thoughts, visions, and perspectives; this was quite evident in our group project completed for Biomimetic Design. Our team consisted of an aspiring entrepreneur, a fashion designer, a materials lab manager, a software application specialist, and a textile engineer; five completely different backgrounds but all coming together to create a sustainable shoreline housing structure that could adapt to changing environmental conditions. Very exciting!

“Collaboration is the way to a sustainable future and will more effectively help us solve the world’s many problems.” ~ Tim Coffin

What are you currently doing or working on?

Since successfully completing my Thesis project, I am now developing an action plan for a second career/business, where I can put all my learnings from the MASD program to use. This is a bit of an unknown for me, but to help, I am using Scott Belsky’s book: Making Ideas Happen – Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality, to help provide some clear direction. At the same time, I am also working with a client (one that my thesis was based on) to fine-tune designs and discuss next steps for their sustainable outdoor fitness trail. I am very hopeful that this experience will also help to shape future work.

One element of the fitness trail system that Tim Coffin designed as part of his thesis project: Fitness: using a systems thinking approach to make it more sustainable, educational and a means to reconnect with nature

What sustainability or sustainable design projects are you looking forward to working on?

As a follow-on to my thesis work, I look forward to working with the client (who my thesis project was based on) to bring the designs and sustainability agenda – through education and awareness – to life. Also, I look forward to using this opportunity to help engage others and to continue creating spaces and programs to get people outdoors, promote the importance of fitness, and to re-connect and/or re-strengthen people’s connection with nature. Living in Canada, especially in a place like Winnipeg (where it is winter for at least 6 months of the year), one has to be creative to entice people outdoors. I look forward to collaborating with others locally and abroad, who share this same vision.


How have you applied what you learned in the program?

As I mentioned earlier, this program has been a real eye-opener for me. Each course within the program has tweaked or changed my mindset in one way or another. Not only has it helped to shape my vision for a second career, but has helped to change my (and my family’s) every day decisions to live more sustainably. I look forward to sharing this knowledge with others and continue to push the marker towards a more sustainable future.

What have you learned in the program that you wish everyone would learn?

To borrow a quote from the book [Re] Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, authored by Denise DeLuca:

“Conventional wisdom says you’d better think like a man, because it’s a man’s world. Natural wisdom tells us we’d better think like nature because it’s her world.” ~ Lindsay James

We tend to forget and ignore the very essence of our existence. Nature provides us with all the necessary wisdom (and lessons in systems thinking, effectiveness, resilience, & synergy) to help pave a sustainable future. When attempting to solve a problem or design challenge, one of the first places we should be looking (and perhaps the only place) is to our natural surroundings!


If you had a magic wand and could completely solve one sustainability problem, what would it be?

Reverse the trend and predicament of becoming an ‘indoor’ society. I would love to create more functional outdoor spaces within built-up areas; maximize implementation of biophilic design and programs intended to improve health and activity levels. In a time where much of our natural landscape is being destroyed or overtaken, we must find ways to re-engage people’s love for the outdoors; people are more apt to fight for what they believe in and love!

Results of focus groups conducted byTim Coffin as part of his thesis project: Fitness: using a systems thinking approach to make it more sustainable, educational and a means to reconnect with nature

What recommendations do you have for people considering a career in sustainable design?

“Don’t delay – take action; and if you’re in a position to further your education, MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design program is for you!” ~ Tim Coffin

Technology has improved our lives in many ways and has made it more efficient, but there are still many improvements (especially ones that are sustainably driven) that need to be made. Using the frameworks and lessons learned from the MASD program will help this become a reality. We are all designers, collaborators, and change makers for a better world of tomorrow.

Thank you, Tim!

If you want to changed the way you view every problem and the way you assess every possible solution, don’t delay — take action!  Explore MCAD’s fully online MA in Sustainable Design program.

Tim Coffin

Tim is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada. He started his professional career as a military pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force. His overwhelming desire to pursue entrepreneurial ambitions and interest in sustainability, led him to MCAD’s Sustainable Design Program, and ultimately a change in careers. Tim is currently the Executive Director of Trails Manitoba, a not-for-profit and charitable organization leading the charge for the development and enhancement of non-motorized recreational trails in the province. Tim resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.