Sustainable Design Education Rethought: The Case for Eco-modernism

By Eric Benson and Peter Fine.

Published by The Design Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This article will detail the methodological and pedagogical components of an emerging design movement the authors call Eco-Modernism. This method of design thinking combines the most successful aspects of the Outlaw Designers (Jay Baldwin, Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand) from the 1960s and 70s with the reform-based hopeful pragmatism of the Modernists. Eco-Modernism demands a more detailed understanding of the discipline’s history and encourages designed objects and systems created with the logical inspiration of nature’s cycle built into its goals. Eco-Modernism urges designers to unplug from their world of pixels and reconnect with the nuances of our natural environment so designers can better understand the materials we use, processes we employ and appreciate the importance of our natural resources. Instead of the a linear approach to a design process, based on Fordism and Taylorism, Eco-Modernism embraces nature’s model of “waste equals food” (William McDonough and Michael Braungart) and Cradle-to-Cradle coined by Walter R. Stahel in the 1970’s (during the Outlaw Design Movement) where design and manufacturing aim to “close the loop”. The resulting material and immaterial creations hope to better unite technology, humanity and nature The pedagogical component of this movement places more classroom emphasis on an increased appreciation of the design process and its history, which is central to how future design problems are understood and how sustainable solutions are executed. This Article will further explore the necessity for a return to a reform-minded vision of design’s role in society and a deeper investigation of the designer as a mediator between production and consumption. Important components of this vision include: a more holistic and deeply collaborative pedagogy that emphasizes creativity and innovation as the basis for inspired solutions that are centered within commerce, and a redefined craft that explores new materials and processes to confront issues of sustainability.

Keywords: Ethics, Sustainable Design, Outlaw Designer, Modernism, Design Education, Pragmatism, Pedagogy, Methodology, Eco-modernism

Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, Volume 4, Issue 6, pp.163-176. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 634.234KB).

Eric Benson

Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, Graphic Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL, USA

Eric Benson is an award-winning designer, educator at the University of Illinois, published author, activist and international speaker on sustainable design theory and practice. He received his BFA in graphic and industrial design from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1998 and his MFA from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006 (with a concentration in design and social responsibility). His work professionally has been focused on creating enriching digital experiences on the web and environmentally friendly print and packaging material. Benson has provided digital and print work for such clients as: Credit Suisse First Boston, MADD, Texas Instruments, Toyota, the Vanguard Group, and Whole Foods Market. His research is available at, which is the industry’s first truly independent online toolkit for sustainable graphic design. By providing reliable, accessible sustainability tools untethered to commercial interests, Re-nourish empowers graphic designers to implement sustainable decision making in their day-to-day work, helping sustainable graphic design become what design is, not merely what it “could be.”

Peter Fine

Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, Graphic Design, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA

Peter Fine is an assistant professor of Graphic Design at New Mexico State University. In his teaching and work as a designer, artist and writer he explores the role of the designer past, present and future, seeking ways to integrate design history, theory and criticism with practice. He is currently exploring ways to make environmental concerns a vital component of the graphic design curriculum at NMSU, having previously focused on issues of race and gender. He received a BA in Visual Communication at California State University, Chico and an MFA in Visual Communication from the University of Arizona. Peter was previously an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Florida Atlantic University.


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