Systems Thinking is “the way”

Illustration was commissioned for this article. It was created by Veronica Pham.

Design does not exist or function in a vacuum. It also does not exist without Mother Earth. Gaia gifts everything we need for us to live and thrive. What we have unfortunately done with her philanthropy created the divides, crises, and opportunities we still have. Nature provides for all of us and, equally as important, is a model for inspiration and creation for the “common good”. Nature works as a cycle where waste is food and excess is eliminated. …


The Beginning
In January 2019, I emailed a few design faculty I knew in North America. From Toronto to California, I hoped to recruit a few folks to join me in introducing climate science into our classrooms that semester. I had the idea a week or two before the term started. Everyone I emailed said “Sounds good. Maybe next time, I have my class already planned.” I was too late in asking them, but I forged ahead with it anyway that term on my own.

I may have been a few weeks too late, but design and design education are…


A Toolkit for Making Positive Impact

Illustration for Re-nourish by Veronica Steffen

The planet and humanity needs designers to change the way they make things. This was the astutely accurate thesis from the 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart.

Their book changed my life. I had for some time wondered what negative impacts all the printed ephemera I designed had on our natural environment. I worried about deforestation, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). It wasn’t until after reading their book that I was fully aware of the negative environmental and social impacts…


After The Climate Strike, how can designers keep the momentum moving and growing?

Photo by Markus Spiske

Beyond your professional design life, there is a lot you can do in your public and personal life to improve the world. If you live in a democracy, vote. Vote specifically to uplift your value system in combination with improving the greater good for the rest of us. (If you’re not registered to vote in the US, vote.org is the place to go before you read anymore of the article!)

Vote with your pocketbook as well. What you decide to purchase (or not to purchase) has an impact. Support groups and companies that align with your values and together help…


At the end of our 2016 book “Design to Renourish: Sustainable Graphic Design In Practice,” we wrote that our systems thinking for designers process was in its infancy and and more exploration from the discipline was needed. A year after the book was published, this statement is still as true as it was then. But, after a course I taught in fall 2017 at the University of Illinois, I believe that we have more evidence that the theory and process in the book is sound.

In fall 2017, Priscilla Boff Ferronato (a PhD candidate in Informatics and Design) and myself…


What is systems thinking?

Imagine a food chain. That’s a system!

For a moment, try to remember back to your first semester in college. (It wasn’t that long ago, was it?) Think about the foundational art and design courses you took that term and the vocabulary your instructor covered in the first few weeks to help you better understand the worlds of art and design. Most likely you were introduced to the German word Gestalt meaning that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” or a “unified whole.” Understanding the concept of Gestalt is a good starting point to explore how to think in…


This is my second cathartic installment charting my personal and emotional journey as a designer and educator coming to grips with the possible death of many of Earth’s ecological systems.

Since my last post I have been constantly searching for uplifting news about positive steps folks have taken to combat the rise of greenhouse gases either through design or everyday activism. Whatever good news I unearthed, it was tempered by the frustrating fact that greenhouse gas emissions (in the US) rose by 3.4% in 2018 and CO2 rose 3.5 parts per million globally, despite our overall drawdown of coal in…


This is my first cathartic installment charting my personal and emotional journey as a designer and educator coming to grips with the possible death of many of Earth’s ecological systems.

Where to begin? I have grieved the loss of our ecosystems and potential for a better future for years. It’s been a traumatic journey. The climate news isn’t happy. It’s sad and horrible to think how stupid we’ve all been gorging on what our Mother Earth has given us, all the while releasing an egregious amount of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. I’ve mourned my child’s and my own future…

Eric Benson

Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Co-founder of Re-nourish and Fresh Press Agri-Fiber Paper Lab.

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