More and more, consumers, producers, and inventors are pushing for sustainability. It is a topic that concerns professionals in every field, most especially designers. The Designers Accord is a nonprofit organization started in 2007 by Valerie Casey to encourage leaders, educators, and design firms to integrate sustainability into design.
According to their website, the Designers Accord defines sustainability as, “the union of environmental impact and social impact.” Why is sustainability a design problem? “In many ways, designers are the most appropriate and innovative people for sustainability,” says Designers Accord’s Coordinator of Design Education, Robyn Waxman. “Design has the power to make things meaningful or fun, to include people, to create wonder, and to make education interesting. The skills designers have—problem solving, creating meaning, changing meaning—can be used to engage others in issues of sustainability. These are powerful skills that have potential to make massive change.”
Waxman is an educator at Sacramento City College and runs her own non-profit organization called FARM. One of the Designers Accord’s three main goals is to, “Evolve design education and support professional development.” When asked why education was so important toward the organization’s goals, Waxman states, “Education, or just the free exchange of information, is [what it takes] to make the greatest impact on the future of design… Being able to impact the next generation of designers is where it’s at!”
Since it’s beginnings in 2007, the Designers Accord has started several education initiatives, including townhall meetings, a series of videos called Sustainability in 7, showcasing seven points from seventeen different designers discussing issues surrounding sustainability, and a competition amongst high school students to redesign their school called School: by Design, in which the winning school receives a $10,000 grant to implement their idea.
The biggest education initiative started by the Designers Accord was a Summit in October of 2009 in which 100 educators and professionals convened to talk about sustainability in design education. The product of this summit was an online toolkit that delves into the big questions addressed at the summit, the mindsets used by designers, and classroom resources such as discussion topics, exercises, and projects.
“A goal of the Summit was the toolkit,” says Waxman. “When the Summit was first conceived, we wanted this ‘how to’ guide for educators.” Participants came to the summit and engaged in what Waxman calls a “highly choreographed event,” where each person took part in small brainstorming sessions on eight different topics. The participants were then given eight different “lenses” through which they would look at their topic. Finally, at the end of the summit, all of the combined groups had produced over 100 pages of notes. Those notes were the beginning of the toolkit, which can be viewed online. According to Waxman, “The toolkit provides a platform for the exchange of strategies and projects that integrates sustainability into design or sustainability as one facit of good design.”
Not only is the toolkit a place to exchange ideas about the summit, but it also allows educators to post new ideas and comment on each other’s submissions in order to better improve the collaborative process, which, according to Waxman, is one of the main problems in design and education right now. “There’s still a lot of secrets. There are ways of doing things that aren’t shared. There are ideas of doing things that we need to share instead of for the sake of competition or for money.” Waxman hopes this toolkit will hope to do away with some of that secrecy.
So how does the work of the Designers Accord apply to teachers of k-12 students? Waxman says, “The toolkit could definitely apply to younger people, to high school, even middle school. What we’re really teaching in the toolkit is a value system, and those value systems are formed early on… If we can get kids to think about this set of values and carry it with them, we can make some serious change. I say, the younger, the better.”
Waxman also believes that the Design Toolkit teaches beneficial skills to students, including,
- using experience-based models: “things that students can connect with personally,”
- employing system-based thinking: “How every action fits into a larger story or goal,”
- seeing students as initiators,
- being open-source and collaborative,
- achieving competition-based goals,
- considering interdisciplinary perspectives,
- and thinking of design as a verb rather than an object.
Design has many important lessons to teach students, including how to be sustainable, however, there are still problems in schools. “I think a big problem is the general lack of value placed on education, specifically education in the arts…. We can use design as a means [in order to explain] why design is important. We as designers aren’t doing this and we need to be.” She says that once designers begin to use their craft to save design education and ensure the livelihood of their trade, students can blossom, and begin to “think bigger than their one experience in the classroom.” Thus, we should ensure not only sustainability in design, but also sustainability in design education programs in schools.