Systems Thinking for the Graphic Designer 101:

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 the designer created. I was confused and frustrated. I quit my job, went to graduate school, started the non-profit Re-nourish, and even gave a TEDx talk about it.

That was from 2004–2006. In 2017, my partner and I decided we had more to offer to the design community and wrote the book Design to Renourish: Sustainable Graphic Design in Practice. There we proposed a revolutionary systems thinking design process for the graphic designer. (You can read an excerpt here).

It is a four step process that utilizes existing human centered design (HCD) and design thinking methods, but is starkly different as it asks you to look at all the potential triple bottom line connections and potential negative and positive outcomes of a problem. Most importantly we must add the Earth as a primary stakeholder on every project. The planet needs to be the primary voice in the design process as She is our home and provider. The original instructions from mother nature are our design parameters.

Illustration for Re-nourish by Veronica Steffen

The systems design process is four interlaced steps:

  1. Determine project goals
  2. Map out the design problem
  3. Brainstorm design outcomes
  4. Evaluate each possible project outcome

The goals of system thinking:

  • Eliminate waste
  • Renourish our planet (reparations for nature)
  • Renourish our souls with a beautiful object or service
  • Create reciprocity (a gift that creates an ongoing relationship)
  • Create with, not for — inclusivity
  • Have a purpose, not just profit (improve quality of life)
  • Advocacy for marginalized voices (reparations for others)

Since 2017 we have tested this process (you can read a case study here) and found areas for improvement and resources to make it more effective and easy- to-use. After two years, we are excited to announce an expansion of our systems thinking process in the form of an all-in-one systems thinking for the graphic designer toolkit (beta). This toolkit is good for your design studio or design classroom.

Systems Thinking for the Graphic Designer 101: A Toolkit for Making Positive Impact (beta)

As this is a beta version of our toolkit, we are providing it as a “name a fair price” for the PDF. Our goal is to continually improve this toolkit through our own research and feedback from you. You can reach out to us at Re-nourish with feedback on its ease-of-use and ideas to improve the process.

MFA Graphic Design in Responsible Innovation at University of Illinois

Learn more about how my research into systems thinking is integrated into the new MFA Design Degree in Responsible Innovation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The degree offers these specialized tracks of study: sustainable and regenerative design, urban sociology and critical race design, visual and cultural studies, or student-proposed applied research in responsible innovation, social impact, and engagement.

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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