Sustainable Design?

Sustainable Design

Earlier this fall, Anne Quito interviewed Denise DeLuca for her article What is sustainable design and how can consumers identify it? The longer responses provided by DeLuca are shared below.


AQ: What’s the biggest misunderstanding about the term “sustainable design”?

I’m surprised at how often people ask me, “What’s sustainable design?” when I tell them what I do. I think most people (outside of the profession) don’t really know what “design” means or is, or what a “designer” is or does.

Most people have heard the word “sustainable”, of course, but are vague about what that term really means, too. So there is a basic lack of understanding about both of the terms — design and sustainable — which means there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding about the term “sustainable design”. 

Given that, the biggest misunderstanding seems to be what we mean by “sustainable”. People often apply that term to things that are less bad versions of something unsustainable — which is not correct, and not anywhere near good enough. In our program, students work with a wide range of sustainability frameworks, including The Natural Step, Hannover Principles, Living Principles, Life’s Principles (from Biomimicry), Natural Capitalism, Cradle to Cradle, Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Thinking, etc. Each of these attempts to define or describe what is and is not sustainable. 

I also think most people don’t understand the importance of design in achieving sustainability.  You may be aware that it’s estimated that over 80% of a product’s impact is determined at the design stage; however, many designers aren’t even aware of this, let alone most consumers.


AQ: Is there one universally-accepted definition of “sustainable design”?

If you do a google search on “sustainable design”, almost all of what you find is related to the built environment. For this reason, there might be a misunderstanding that sustainable design is limited to the built environment.

There is not one universally-accepted definition of “sustainable design” that I’m aware of.  I believe there is general agreement that the definition of “sustainable development” is: Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This is from the Brundtland Commission’s “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future.”

I think a reasonable working definition of “sustainable design” might be: The practice of envisioning and creating products, services, and systems that have a net neutral or positive impact on the environment and society, from their initial phase through to their end of life. 

I’m sure if you ask other people, you’ll get other definitions!


AQ: I’d love to learn more about how your program covers the range of design specializations? What type of students are best suited for your program? 

As I mentioned in addressing the first question, if you do a google search on sustainable design, almost all of what you find is related to the built environment. That is also true when looking for graduate programs in sustainable design — and most of them are Master of Science programs. 

MCAD’s (fully online) Master of Arts in Sustainable Design program was created for people who want to apply the principles and practices of sustainability to their designs, as well as for people who want to apply the principles and practices of design to make the world more sustainable.  Although we do welcome engineers and architects in the program, we are one of the few programs that focus on sustainable design beyond the built environment. 

We can do this by offering coursework that covers topics that are universally important to sustainability, regardless of discipline. These include Systems Thinking, Fundamentals of Sustainable Design, Creative Leadership, Making the Business Case for Sustainability, Visual Communications for Sustainability, Biomimicry, etc. These principles and practices can — and should – be applied across all disciplines. 

Our program was created for college-educated working professionals who are passionate about sustainability, but don’t want to quit their jobs and/or move to a new place to go to graduate school. The program is rigorous and demanding; however, students can fit their course work around their own weekly work and life schedules. Successful students are those that are open minded, ready to engage and collaborate, able to think both broadly and deeply, and can manage their time well.  


AQ: Do you think the term “sustainable design” encompasses the field’s goal? I’ve heard some argue that “regenerative design” might be a more suitable term, for instance. 

This is something that people in our field love to argue about!

The simple answer is no. I’m guessing that most people who have been working in the sustainable design field for a long time don’t think that the term adequately encompasses or represents the field’s greater goals. The term “regenerative design” does a better job of capturing the field’s goals from an environmental perspective; however, it may not really capture the human or social perspectives. 

I believe one core problem is that most of us involved in the field are part of the western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) world. Design in the WEIRD world happens within a paradigm based on the three pillars of capitalism –private ownership, free market competition, and drive for profits. It’s what we cynically refer to as “the real world”. Capitalism does not include humanity or human values, let alone the intrinsic value of nature. For this reason, I would argue that sustainability, and thus sustainable design, is impossible in the context of pure capitalism, and thus almost impossible in the WEIRD world. As Rebecca Henderson points out, to save the climate, we have to reimage capitalism.

Having said that, I also believe that sustainable designers have the knowledge, skills, understanding, and passion to help us redesign our paradigm, culture, and economy to be re-aligned with nature — which is the field’s real goal. That is what we push students in our program to do. 

Denise DeLuca / Director

Denise DeLuca is the Director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program. She was co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler. She also teaches with the Amani Institute.

Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, Project Manager for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions.  In addition, Denise is a Biomimicry Fellow and a member of the Advisory Council of The Biomimicry InstituteBoard Member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), on the editorial board of the Journal of Bionic Engineering, and an Expert with Katerva. Denise is based in Oregon.

contact:  [email protected]