Greening the Curriculum

One of the challenges in covering sustainable design is its inherent complexity. To get beyond the superficial forces mere journalists like us wade into the deep and uncharted waters of product engineering and (god forbid) chemistry. So, where do you begin? How do you organize such a vast and sprawling subject matter? Fortunately, when we set out to do a green products issue, we found a great industrial design road map: the Okala Course Guide—created by Philip White, Louise St. Pierre and Steve Belletire—done in conjunction with the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA). White spent a number of years at Philips Design in the Netherlands and now teaches industrial design at Arizona State University. While working on the October 2007 issue, we spoke to White about the evolution of the course guide, the eco-education of designers, and the brutal economic realities of the marketplace:

How did the course guide evolve?
As the chair of the IDSA’s eco-design section, I decided in 2002 that it would be good to collect the best information around and make it available for free to all of the industrial design instructors throughout the organization. We got some initial funding from Whirlpool and Eastman Chemical, and I reached out to Louise St. Pierre and Steve Belletire, who had done a lot of writing and thinking on the subject.

The guide takes a sprawling, complex issue, and distills it down in an understandable way. Where did you begin?
One of the good things of having multiple parties involved is that they have different perspectives. We had a very healthy debate about what to include, what perspective to put on all of it. I thought it was appropriate for us to have a strong opinion, stated tactfully and reasonably. Many academics don’t believe this. They’re neutral, saying, “Well, there’s this theory and that theory, and the reader can decide what they believe.” That was not our perspective. We felt it was our job to sort through this and decide what we thought was most important.

How did you prepare the curriculum?
We beta-tested it at four different schools. We had instructors use the materials over the period of a semester, and we acted as observers, getting feedback from teachers and students. The resounding message was to keep the modules short and sweet. It makes it easier for educators to integrate it into their own curriculum. The process that we followed was not terribly complicated, but the subject matter is extremely rich and complex. What we observed early on was that people were drawn to strategies: The solution to the problem is recycling. Or it’s renewables. Or it’s all about Cradle to Cradle. These strategies are extremely attractive because they’re easily digestible. But the reality is, the world is more complex than that. Anybody who’s ever taught this knows that you can’t apply these simple solutions broadly in every situation. So what we tried to achieve is a balance between the strategies and the more technical analysis of it.

Ultimately, what do you want to accomplish with this course guide?
To educate designers, number one, about the ecological crisis. And number two, provide them with tools so they can at least have an understanding of how they could go about designing products and systems that either solve the problem or significantly reduce the scale of it. You can call it ecological literacy.

I see another role: you’re seeding the next generation that will change the way industry works.
Sure. But our position is: we don’t have illusions (as many people do) that designers run the world. They certainly have a lot of power, and they’re sitting at the table when many important decisions are made, so why not use whatever leverage we have? Why not educate them so they’re more informed? Oddly enough, one of the great things about designers is that they’re a more identified and controlled group than, say, engineers. In the engineering societies, for instance, they don’t really have a subdivision that specializes in product development. Engineers of course do specialize in product development, but they’re not given the same kind of attention. There is not as much organization around them as there is for product designers. So, in many ways, the product designers are easy, low-hanging fruit. We know where they are, and how to educate them.

How is sustainability changing industrial design?
There are many forces on industry that are changing the nature of product development, design and consumption. Number one of course is globalization. And ironically one of the few upsides of globalization is it favors larger companies and, simultaneously, puts greater pressure on them to be more environmentally and socially responsible. It’s one of the paradoxes of globalization. Virtually all of the major corporations have clear sustainability initiatives and programs. Of course you can argue how sincere these are.

They range from very sincere to out and out green washing.
But if Wal-Mart, for instance, eliminated lead, that would be revolutionary. Walmart policies (such as their new green packaging policy) have a bigger impact than government regulation, especially when our own federal government is relatively slow during this period.

It’s been industry and state governments taking the lead. They’ve filled the void left by the federal government.
Yes, but industry is still trying to determine if they can make a buck, if they can be profitable, making greener products. And the dilemma for them is, if they change their development process, products and services, they can certainly reduce their environmental impacts, but can they still make money? That’s the central question.

How do you, as an educator, inform that debate?
There’s a growing international market for more environmentally-friendly products. That parallels a steady increase over the past few decades in ecological awareness. Businesses now ask, “Well, fine, people say they’re aware, people say all kinds of things, but what do they do, when it comes to what they buy and don’t buy?” It’s a complex discussion. And what I tell my students is you can’t assume that a greener product is going to be more profitable. You have to do your homework. You have to prove it.

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