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

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 2 of a 2-part answer.] In this second part of the answer I look at options for a job that concentrates on sustainability issues rather than the practice of design (and then evolving it into a design job) or the option of finding a design-related job in the public sector or in a consultancy that specializes in public and nonprofit client work.

Let’s look at the job that concentrates on sustainability or sustainable development. Let’s assume that through your design studies you pursued sustainability and even did a couple of specific sustainable design briefs; even better, let’s assume you used some of your history and theory classes to do additional research and further expand your knowledge of sustainability. You have substantive knowledge of the concepts underpinning sustainability and you have some visual evidence of your own original [design] thinking on the subject.

With a portfolio as well as a resume in hand, you will present a unique profile to prospective sustainable development employer, such as a nonprofit environmental or community organization. Although your design work will be intriguing to this prospective employer, it is unlikely to be part of the actual job. Although it looks great, your prospective employer probably won’t know what to do with it…You must of course present yourself as the candidate best suited to do the job, so you’ll probably need to position your design work as just an “added bonus” to your other credentials. Assuming you are equal to other candidates, this added bonus could put you over the top.

The Plan
Congratulations, you’re hired (for example, as a program coordinator for sustainable transport, an outreach manager for sustainable urban agriculture or a project assistant in sustainable energy). So, your challenge in this scenario is to have a strategy — a plan — for how to work design into your projects to an every increasing degree. The strategy must identify specific ways to introduce design. To bring more design into your job, you first have to find out where the entry points are. For example:

  • How do your job’s issues tie in to your areas of design (eg interiors, arch, product, graphic) -if your area is interiors and you’re working on urban agriculture, the link might be residential kitchens, restaurants, farmers markets and supermarkets. How do the designs of these places help or hinder sustainable urban agriculture?
  • How do the members of your organization (if it is a membership organization) connect to design – are any designers members? Do they connect the membership to their role as designers?
  • Are there designers or design issues in the broader constituency of the group? What about funding organizations or partners – do any of them suggest tie ins for design
  • What about the group’s opponents? Have the opponents used or picked up on any design issues related to the campaigns/projects? Do the opponents have weaknesses that a design approach could exploit?

Once you’ve found some links, then your task is to look at these links and find ways that design could further your organization’s goals in a solid way. Although your program or project may have some specific and largely “policy” or “awareness raising” goals, typically the policies and awareness are to achieve some sort of change. Going back to the urban agriculture example, the project might support local farmers getting better representation in supermarkets or create more local farmer’s markets, or create more school and home kitchen gardens. If you can demonstrate how design-related initiatives also accomplish these goals–perhaps accomplish them in an even more appealing way, then your ideas are likely to be considered, if not adopted the first few times around. Your ideas will of course be strengthed by case studies of similar or related design initiatives that accomplished parallel results (possibly not for sustainability, but perhaps for food sales, gardens, or supermarkets).

Where do you go to find jobs in “sustainability”? Most cities and regions are now producing at least one “green/sustainable directory” that lists the range of environmental and social groups, companies and government agencies that work on sustainability issues. Sometimes you can find specific internship programs, for example here in London we have the London Sustainability Exchange which has recently announced an internship matching program.

What about a government job?
Another approach for designers to consider is to seek out a design practice that specializes in public sector work, since public sector work often has higher benchmarks for sustainability, and if it doesn’t, the case is easier to make in the public sector. It is also possible to find sustainable design jobs in the public sector. In architecture, for example, more and more public agencies are adopting sustainable building policies, setting up sustainable construction programs to guide their citizens and becoming involved in a range of related initiatives (eg LEED, energy star etc.). Architects, landscape architects and related professions often work on these efforts as employees of cities, counties or states.

Industrial designers will find that city, county and state waste management groups are increasingly interested in product design. In fact these groups should be called “solid resources management” instead of “solid waste management” because that is what they will ultimately have to be. These groups are worried about reducing product-related hazardous chemicals, increasing recyclability, promoting the “take back” of products by manufacturers, and reducing the overall flow of products into landfill. An industrial designer who shares these concerns could find interesting challenges in solid resource/waste management. You can imagine similar scenarios in graphic design, interiors, landscape and so on.

Over to you
It’s probably safe to say that design is a relatively untapped resource in the context of environmental campaign groups and public agencies. However, it is also probably safe to say that designers are typically not educated in how to deliver their services in these contexts – so that is where you will have to apply yourself. What is the best strategy for bringing design more fully into these folds? I’ve given you a few ideas, but as you find out more, please let me know.

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