My own education came about in the post modern era, focused on design as self-expression. We were encouraged to find clients who had similar outlooks to ourselves in order to find fulfillment as designers by creating communication design which spoke, in reality, to ourselves only. We were specialists in communicating to other people like ourselves, and we felt that our clients were probably looking for our point of view, not only our skills at design.
Later, as reality hit, and we found out that we didn’t always have choices when it came to our clients, we learned to incorporate the views of our clients into design. It became a 2-part conversation - the voices of clients were expressed through the aesthetic decisions of designers, and audiences received those messages. It was a sender - message - receiver paradigm, with emphasis on the sender and the message. We hoped our audience would be hooked because our delivery was so compelling.
As design developed and audiences became more sophisticated, receivers demanded messages that spoke to them, not at them. The paradigm became more balanced, with the audience having an equal impact on the structure of the communication. Now, the conversation was an actual conversation: senders and receivers interacted and influenced messages, and passive observers no longer existed. Designers operated as a conduit for the active conversation happening between senders and receivers. New media platforms allowed for a constant feedback loop, giving audiences more power, and helping our clients to better target their markets and find the best users for their products and services.
The common thread between all of these communication paradigms is the human to business interaction. In the end of it all, business entities and their consumers needed to be connected to each other so that an exchange of goods and services could be made that was mutually beneficial. In a simplified sense, the system was seen as being closed, at least from the designer’s perspective. The secondary impacts of these communication transactions were not considered during education and training. Indeed, I believe design pedagogy has shown a remarkable ability to compartmentalize the consequences of the design profession and to shield young designers from having to consider the negative impacts of business activity that is a direct result of their work. While other design disciplines have moved toward a more responsible practice (think LEED in architecture or Cradle to Grave product design standards), graphic design has largely been left out of the equation, to the detriment of our chosen field.
I would propose that we shift the structure of our communication yet again to include a fourth party. This party has always been there, but we have been capable of ignoring its presence until now. This entity is our own planet and its resource scarcity problems - the universal paradigmatic system in which all communication design operates and in which its impacts reverberate. Failure to do so would be to fail to equip students with the correct tools to perform the tasks of designers in the future world. Designers have a duty to understand the challenges and nature of the businesses they work for, to intimately comprehend the values and drivers of their audiences, and, I believe, the impacts that their design decisions have on this earth-system. A global perspective, while overwhelming sometimes to truly understand, makes designers more valuable to clients and more responsible as citizens.
Designed objects and messages never exist within a vacuum. In all instances, if we are doing our jobs well, the decisions we make as designers have impacts on human behavior, thought and activities. That is the entire point: to trigger a desired thought or behavior in a viewer. And because we are powerful humans, our behaviors, thoughts, and activities have impacts on the system in which we live. We must become conscious of these impacts and begin to consider them at the very start of our design processes. The fourth member of our communication paradigm can’t be considered at the end of a project, by simply choosing an FSC certified paper or using a recycled substrate. Indeed, the only responsible way to design within this paradigm is to operate from a sustainability perspective from the very beginning, the same way we consider the client and the audience.
Design pedagogy currently treats sustainability as something of an afterthought. This must change if we are to survive as a profession and as a species. It is not hyperbole to state that responsible practices in all design fields is crucial to the success of our society as the damage we have already done to our planetary resource becomes more and more apparent. Sustainability must be integrated into curriculum from the earliest design foundation courses. It has been said before, but we teach just as much through what we leave out of our pedagogy as by what we choose to include. Our omissions speak volumes to our students. When we de-emphasize sustainability or treat it as a “nice-to-have” aspect of design that should only be considered when a client asks for it, we teach our students that it’s not important.