How to Teach Systems Thinking to Designers: An Illinois Case Study

Eric Benson
5 min readJul 30, 2019

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 each taught a section of a Human Centered Design (HCD) course directed toward Graphic Designers. We planned the entire course using the process defined in “Design to Renourish.” Each of the two challenges (as we called the assignments) tasked each team of students to follow our systems thinking design process: determine project goals, map out the design problem, brainstorm design outcomes, and evaluate each possible project outcome to solve a social or environmental issue that affects humanity.

The course structure and materials were exactly the same in both sections so we could get a larger sampling of student feedback and outcomes to see how effective or ineffective the systems thinking process was. We organized the 15-week semester into three equal chunks. The first 5 weeks offered different viewpoints on design through readings/discussion, introduced systems thinking and sustainable design, and did workshops with various tools and methods used by designers that focus on HCD. The remaining 10 weeks were broken into two 5-week challenges that asked the students to use what they learned in first 5 weeks to find and propose solutions to social and environmental challenges.

You can view the syllabus here.

What we learned from the students

Our visual proposal for connecting our book’s systems thinking process with human centered design.

Overall, the students felt designing this way was really important. They were confused along the way — as it was very new to them, however most said that “confusion was good.” Discomfort forced them not fall into the trap of creating the same outcomes that…



Eric Benson

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