Q: find a sustainable design job? [part 1]

This category contains my answers to a series of questions that often come up when I’m talking to groups about sustainable design and the ideas in my book, The Designers Atlas of Sustainability.

Q: I’ve recently graduated in design (architecture, industrial design, textile design, etc.) and I’m really interested in working in sustainability, but I don’t see any design jobs that really include it. Where can I find a job in sustainable design?

A: [This is part 1 of a 2-part answer.] Unfortunately at the entry level in the private sector, there simply aren’t that many jobs that obviously and directly involve sustainable design. Even at a senior level, the number of qualified, talented and experienced people who would like to have sustainable design jobs outstrips the number of those jobs. But we need to qualify this idea by saying that there aren’t many jobs that involve sustainable design to start with. You have several options for creating sustainable design jobs and I’ll get to those in a moment.

First recall the main reason why there are relatively few jobs that offer you opportunities to pursue holistic sustainable design; although sustainability aligns with many people’s personal values, a number of important sustainability objectives, such as breathable air, a stable climate or happy families, simply lie outside the private sector. It is difficult to make money from them and so, until they are legislated or until a company addresses “social” responsibility, it is hard to justify pursuing these aspects of sustainability in a for-profit organization (see more about this in “activism and the economy” as well as in The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability). Having said that, however, there are also some aspects of sustainability that do save money (such as energy efficiency), attract customers or otherwise improve the bottom line.

So where to find that sustainable design job? Here are three options: First, you could opt for a conventional design job, and then adopt a strategic approach to sustainability. Second, you could opt for a job that concentrates on sustainability issues rather than the practice of design. This approach requires you to adopt a strategic approach to practicing design. Third, you could find a design-related job in the public sector or in a consultancy that specializes in public and nonprofit client work. In part one of this answer, I’ll address the first option. In part two (forthcoming) of the answer I’ll address options two and three.

Let’s take a closer look at what I mean by “a strategic attitude.” The term “strategy” suggests having a plan for where you want to go and how you will get there. If you are in a conventional design job, then your strategy is a plan for how to work sustainability into your projects to an every increasing degree. The strategy must identify specific ways to introduce sustainability.

Lets consider a couple of examples. You’re in an organization where your boss (or leaders of the company, for argument’s sake we’ll say your boss) dismiss sustainability as a fad or worse, as hopelessly difficult, ugly and compromised design. Or perhaps your boss assumes sustainable design is too complicated and he/she doesn’t have the expertise in that area and doesn’t have the time to get the expertise. Depending on the specifics of the company, here are some possible elements of your strategy

Your competitors, your industry – what are they up to sustainability-wise?
Is there a way to get your boss interested in sustainability because competitors or your industry-at-large are involved. Are there competitors or parts of the industry that your boss particularly admires, and if so do those parts of the industry have anything to do with sustainability? You want to find examples that are already pleasing to your boss for some reason, and then be able to use that appeal as a way of introducing sustainability. For example suppose you’re in an architectural practice specializing in high end residential projects. You study your boss’s opinions about recent work (say in the architectural magazines) and recent award winners, then you try to find some sustainable design examples that fit the pattern (for ideas about finding example see Q: best sustainable design examples).

If your boss is of the “its-too-complicated” school, then find out how your competitors/industry is managing it. Are they using certain tools (such as rating systems or software analysis packages) or are they working with certain types of consultants? Are they getting help from “champions” (such as progressive clients, government agencies or nonprofit groups) and so on. Have any groups associated with your industry developed kits, tools or resource packs on sustainability issues that you can get? Consider how your boss could benefit from these tools/consultants/champions/kits to tackle sustainability in your company.

Compliance – what regulations are coming down the pike?
What types of sustainably-oriented practices, materials and behaviors in your industry do governments recommend and honor with awards, and how long will it be until those behaviors etc. will be required by regulation? How have activists criticized your industry, perhaps even lobbying government to regulate your industry more tightly? Are there areas where the groups that represent your industry, or your clients industry (eg homebuilder’s association, electronics manufacturers, etc.) are lobbying? All of these are indicators of future regulatory changes in your industry that smart companies will address strategically before they are forced to adopt a government-dictated solution. Consider how your boss could strategically deal with the upcoming regulatory environment by being more progressive in sustainability terms.

Activism – what does the company and its employees care about?
What are the company’s values? What about the values of your company’s clients?
Find out how the company’s values and the individual employee’s values link to sustainability. For example, does the company have a “social responsibility” statement? ), what does the company fund through philanthropy? What do the people who work there care about? For example, have they personally experienced cancer (possible link to toxins in the environment) outdoor sports (links to the natural environment) overseas unrest (links to fair trade or economic justice)? Are any activist groups trying to get your industry to change and would they help you be proactive, rather than attacking your company’s poor performance? Look at this same range of issues for your clients and see if you can find the specific links back to sustainability–signs that your client is interested in sustainability and thus might be open to sustainable design.

Once you find the possible “ways in” to sustainable design keep in mind that you can apply them to specific projects as well as to an overall approach to practice. Bu you have to be ready to introduce the “ways in” them when opportunities arise. Consider where these opportunities might arise given the routines of your workplace. Would it be better to plant the idea casually first, then force the issue when a client opportunity arises? Or would it make sense to bring it up only if an application is to hand? You have to gage your approach to your own workplace.

If you think a client might be sympathetic to sustainable design – find an opportunity to make the case to your colleagues so you can pitch to the client. If you find some sustainable design examples that you think will appeal to your boss’ sensibility, introduce them during an office lull or leave photocopies with a short note. Practice with a friend or sympathetic colleague some phrases you could use to introduce one of your “ways in.” Then begin introducing them. If one doesn’t work, move on knowing that at least you have put down one paving stone while also demonstrating your willingness to exceed your job description in looking for benefits for your company/boss.

As more paving stones are put down, eventually a “way in” will emerge, or the expertise you have developed in the process will earn you a different job. After all, the process I’ve described helps you build a network, and it is through networks that most jobs are found.

Pursuing this kind of smart strategy makes you more than just an entry level designer – it makes you an agent of change. Have you tried these or other approaches? How did it work for you?

2 Responses to Q: find a sustainable design job? [part 1]

  1. Nice Blog. I like the layout you used. Did you make that yourself?

    – Randy Nichols.

  2. Ann says:

    thanks for the comment. The layout is by a Norwegian gal named Kristin. It is a wordpress template is called Basic2col.

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